RCW: A Mother's Dream
Watch Eboni Watts play this season inside Allen Fieldhouse!
Starting from a young age, senior guard Eboni Watts didn’t have her mind set on playing basketball. Instead, she focused on another sport: boxing. It was only a hobby, and something more of a distant dream, but the voice of reason throughout her life offered a much safer route to which her family approved of. Her mother’s disapproval of boxing gave Watts the chance to focus her time on a new love. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Watts would see people playing basketball every day as a kid.
“There’s a big basketball culture there,” Watts said. “It’s just a thing people know how to do.”
After starting to play in the 4th and 5th grades, she tried out for the team but lacked one key quality for a basketball player: she couldn’t dribble. But she decided to keep trying to play the sport and eventually learned the game very fast. Thankfully, her family has a strong tradition in basketball.
“Who hasn’t played basketball in my family?” Watts asked sarcastically. “All of my uncles and aunties, along with my cousins, played. I felt like it was something I kept getting better at and I grew to love it.”
She played at Rutland High School in Macon, Georgia, for two seasons where she averaged 13.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest. Fast forward to 2018 — she has the chance to close out an impressive career of persistence and hard work in her senior season donning the Crimson and Blue for the Kansas Jayhawks. Her collegiate basketball career started at Tallahassee Community College (TCC) where she played two seasons in Tallahassee, Florida. She averaged 14.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists as a sophomore. She also was named first-team All-Panhandle Conference for Tallahassee in the 2015-16 season. That experience came with a lot of life lessons and Watts’ first look into the real world.
“Basketball has taught me a lot of things, but it started at TCC where we had sort of
‘life classes,'” Watts said. “I learned to think about others’ experiences and viewpoints as well as learn good communication skills.”
The Kansas women’s basketball assistant coaches watched Watts play while at a JUCO camp for players who had yet to sign National Letters of Intent (NLI) to continue their collegiate basketball careers. The assistants noticed a player with good communication skills and poise on the floor. The first thing the coaches noticed when speaking to Watts was her polite, Southern way of speaking.
“I used to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ all the time and Coach Aqua (Franklin) would always say to me, ‘Would you stop doing that?’ I thought she was funny,” Watts said. “It took me a while to stop doing that. It’s what I was taught and I said it the whole first part of communicating with KU during being recruited. A lot of the coaches would say, ‘I ain’t no ma’am.'”
Coach Aqua, who is in her third year as the associate head coach for the Jayhawks, recalls when Watts came to campus and her respectfulness toward the coaches.
“‘Yes, ma’am’ makes me feel very old. I want to think that I’m very young,” Franklin said. “I know that she’s very respectful and we appreciate it, but don’t call us that.”
Watts’ first year at Kansas in 2016 was an adjustment, not just in style of play, but also from the warm Florida weather. She didn’t know the basketball culture was this big and significant at Kansas, and brushed off all the talk about Kansas being a big basketball school.
“When I started getting to know the coaches, it was easier,” Watts said. “I like people I can have fun with and then know when it’s serious time. That’s an easy way to build trust with me, since he (Kansas head coach Brandon Schneider) hadn’t told me anything that wasn’t true yet.”
Schneider has built a roster with many transfers, which has helped the players develop chemistry by mixing their respective basketball styles. There are seven newcomers on this year’s squad, four of them transfers. Schneider has added many players with JUCO experience, including junior point guard Christalah Lyons, who led her team to a national championship game with Trinity Valley CC. The rest of the players who transferred during the offseason include Brianna Osorio, Austin Richardson and Sara Boric. The advantage of playing at a different school and gaining experience is an important asset, according to Watts.
“That’s what community college did for me. It gave me different experiences and styles of play which I can bring to other places. It does depend on what school you go to, though,” Watts said.
Players with different backgrounds and a vast array of previous schools on the 2017-18 squad have brought this years’ Jayhawks closer than many past teams. This connection has helped add to the team’s motto: Tough and Together. Their inseparable personalities and laughter on and off the court has made the team bond tremendously, especially this year’s senior class. The players that comprise this year’s senior class along with Watts include Chayla Cheadle, Sydney Benoit and Jessica Washington. Other players that came in as freshmen in the 2015-16 year were Kylee Kopatich, Tyler Johnson and Chelsea Lott.
“Everybody is so close,” Watts said. “I think it’s just all the different people and how everyone is goofy. Everyone has their own personality and it just works with each other. I love being around them and how funny they are.”
Franklin agreed with Watts’ view on the team’s bond and described Watts when she said, “She’s always had the smile on her face. You can always tell how she’s feeling: either she’s smiling or she’s not. She was a little quiet at first until she got to know everyone, but I think she blessed everyone with her personality and sense of humor. It’s contagious how good of a teammate she is.”
After only appearing in three games and playing a total of five minutes as a junior at KU, Watts has already expanded her role as a key bench player due to the ACL injury of senior guard Jessica Washington before the season. Through 23 games of the 2017-18 season, she has scored 19 points, including seven points in Big 12 Conference play. She attributes one motto to her mindset this season, one former Kansas men’s basketball center Joel Embiid also says: trust the process. Coach Aqua also praises the attitude of Watts on the sidelines and her passion for being a competitor.
“I think once Eboni is part of something, she really embraces the culture and tradition of whatever she is a part of,” Franklin said. “She is an outstanding teammate and does a great job with our team. She’s very likeable and can make anyone laugh at any time. She is just a very caring person.”
Her positive and down-to-earth attitude stems from the person who got her into basketball in the first place: her mom. While she hasn’t had a chance to see her daughter play for Kansas yet, Watts’ mother will finally see her play on Senior Day at Allen Fieldhouse on Feb. 27. She went to a handful of games while Watts played at TCC, but seeing her daughter play in a Kansas uniform will be extra special. Watts has already played a career-high 16 minutes this year against Delaware State, and scored a career-high five points against St. Johns.
“It will feel like old times with my mom in the stands,” Watts said.
After college, Watts wants to remain a part of the game she loves in some way; whether it is playing overseas or in a coaching position. The daily wisdom and checkups from her mom gave her the determination to keep perusing her dream of using basketball to her advantage.
“I would love to be a coach and be looked up to like Geno (UConn head coach Geno Auriemma) or someone like that. My mom always said, ‘You never want to be a part of something that you don’t love’ so I always wanted to be around basketball. That’s a great way for me to live my dream every single day,” Watts said.
The transition from player to coach is a tough process, but Coach Aqua already recognizes the attributes and characteristics that would make a great future coach in Watts. From already being a natural recruiter and teammate, Coach Aqua notices the day-in and day-out mentality from Watts that boosts the morale of the team.
“The Crimson and Blue runs thick in her blood. So, with that being said, she would be an outstanding coach,” Coach Aqua said. “Eboni knows the game and making it (coaching) a reality is possible because of the characteristics she has of being a great teammate. She is very involved with the recruiting process and truly has school spirit.”