Whether or not Slick Watts is the most popular athlete ever to perform in the state of Washington is no longer in question. Forget Hugh McElhenny, Elgin Baylor and Lenny Wilkens. The question now is: Why do Washingtonians regard a totally bald six-foot, 24-year-old black backcourtman as the most popular person ever to live in the state?
What about Judy Collins? Bing Crosby? That celebrated pick and roll artist Jimi Hendrix? The next President of the United States, Henry (Scoop) Jackson? Watts, who plays for the Seattle Super-Sonics, isn't even close to being a superstar. He's a very good player and getting better, and he leads the young Sonics with boundless optimism and energy. He also leads the universe in color on court and off.
Watts emerged 2½ years ago from a tiny college undrafted by the professionals, played his way onto the Sonics and as each new segment of America caught his act—an odd-looking sort of basketball player, gnomish with quicksilver moves, a shiny scalp and a gold or green headband—people laughed and were captivated, as those in Seattle had been.
And even though Watts leads the NBA in steals and assists, people still guffaw at his playing style, which is more Mack Sennett than Oscar Robertson: darting, swiping, juking, grinning—always grinning; making improbable passes and somehow getting falling-down, bent-over baseball-throw shots into the basket when they're needed most.
"Slick's a good player, a great one for us," says Coach Bill Russell, who, like everyone else in Seattle, has adjective problems when it comes to describing Watts. "I said when he came that the one thing that could help us more than his improvement as a player would be for his enthusiasm to become contagious. And it has. The chemistry on this team is excellent, like the old Celtics'. And Slick is the guy that does most to keep it that way."
Bob Walsh, the Sonics' assistant general manager, says he has never met a person with the PR power and magnetism of Slick Watts. "You can talk about athletes getting too much money, but here's one guy who's worth every cent he gets," he says. "Watts has been everywhere, knows almost everyone and has them in his pockets. They love him here. If Washington were ready for a bald black governor from Mississippi, Slick would be the guy. Only he's too genuine."
Last year Slick made more than 300 appearances around Seattle. He visited the Salvation Army and B'nai B'rith. At high schools he spent hours playing one-on-one with any kid that got in line. He lit up wards at children's hospitals, and at elementary schools he bent down so little children could rub his shiny head. His answers to their questions delighted the kids and teachers alike. Why does he wear the headband? "To keep the hair out of my eyes." Why is his head bald? "I shave it and oil it so I can slip through the other team's defense easier." In the evenings he handled the parents at Rotary Club and PTA meetings with equal facility. He never refuses a requested appearance unless his schedule prohibits it, and never refuses an autograph except just before a game. He used to sign his way from the parking lot to the dressing room, but it threw off his shooting. So he has taken to signing a few hundred index cards beforehand, which he hands out on the way in. After a game Slick will sign until the last fan is gone.
"I am rewarded by my community for doing something that makes people happy," says Watts. "Giving pleasure is the greatest thing a person can do in his life. I tell them thank you for treating me the way you'd treat a superstar. But you know something? I saw my first pro basketball player when I got on the court to play against him. I want the kids to know that I'm just like them, that I'm no superman just because I play ball. I am a part of this community, and it is a beautiful place. God picked it out just for me, said, 'Slick, I got this little heaven for, you. I call it Seattle.' If they ever trade me, I retire."
The remarkable thing about Watts is that he is not in basketball for the money. For most of his appearances he only gets token payments from the Sonics. His familiar banded head invites folks to Sonic games from billboards all over town, and newspaper and TV people consider him instant copy. (One TV news-woman says, "Whenever things are slow we just find out what Slick's doing and take a camera crew.") If he wanted to, he could endorse everything from toothpaste to haberdashery. But his lawyer and adviser, Bob Mussehl, is wary about products that might cheapen Slick's image, even though the endorsements could easily triple his income.
Dave Watkins, the team's PR director, often surrenders a phone and a desk at the Sonics' office to accommodate Watts," who nearly reduces the place to a shambles when the team is in town. He ties up phones and orders secretaries around and, like everyone else, they succumb helplessly. "I wish I could really get mad at him. Just once," says Watkins. "I try."
"He's mystical," says Walsh. "He's the kind of guy who can make you believe anything he says." When he was filming a United Way television spot, a director asked him how a man his size could play among all those giants. With a straight face, Slick explained, "In anatomy I learned that it takes less time for a message to get from the brain to the feet of a little man than it does with a big man. So when I decide to move, my feet know it way before his do." And for a few seconds the man believed him.
Though a walk-on's chances in the NBA are remote, Watts is not surprised at his success. Back in Mississippi, in his native Rolling Fork (pop. 2,500), he excelled at every sport and was always voted "most popular." When he was little, he says, he used to have his head shaved in a style that was popular among Southern blacks in the early '60s. But a blow to the head in a football game when he was 13 left him with a permanent bald patch, and thereafter he has kept his whole pate shaved. He survived the nicknames Map Head and Shine through high school and one year at Grandview Junior College in Iowa. When he enrolled at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, some inspired sophisticate started to call him Slick.
In his senior year Watts averaged 17.4 points, and had eight steals a game. But despite a tireless selling job by his coach, Bob Hopkins, also a scout for Boston and Baltimore from 1967 through 1972 (and since last year Russell's assistant in Seattle), Watts' name went un-mentioned through all 10 rounds of the NBA and ABA drafts. "I was hurt," he says. "I began to think the pros were not aware of me."
Hopkins convinced Memphis of the ABA to draft Watts in a late supplementary round, but they never invited him to camp. However, Hopkins had one last ace up his sleeve. His cousin was about to become coach and general manager of a team, and Hopkins thought if anyone would give his passing and ball-stealing wizard a chance it would be Bill Russell, who was inheriting the floundering Sonics.
Watts showed up at the Sonics' camp among 35 unheard-ofs in August 1973. "I didn't know a thing about him," says Russell. "Just that Hop sent him and said he could play. I did know that he was about the funniest-looking guy I had ever seen."
Watts made the team, the only rookie to do so, and at the time Russell could only say, "I don't know why I kept him." Six weeks into the season he found out. The Sonics were 9-17 and Watts had averaged about nine seconds of playing time per game. "Every day I told Russ I was ready," says Watts, "and every day he said, 'Sit down, Slick.' " On Dec. 1 Russell sent him in against Atlanta on a whim, and Watts got 21 points and four assists. The next night against the Bullets he scored 24 with 11 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a blocked shot. "I knew then that this guy was inspired," said Russell.
Last season, as Seattle's third guard, Watts was seventh in the NBA in assists, fourth in steals and scored 6.8 points a game. As a starter in the playoffs he averaged 11 points and seven assists a game. In the final game of the conference semifinal, which Seattle lost 105-96 to Golden State, he played 48 minutes, had 24 points, 11 assists and four steals. Russell called it one of the greatest games of basketball ever played. Before this season, Seattle traded Guard Archie Clark to Detroit, and Donald Earl Watts—undrafted, unknown and uncommon—became a starter and a $100,000 player.
Now he is ahead of everybody in the league in steals (170) and assists (417) and is scoring 12.3 points a game. Russell has named him co-captain, and he has taken over the leadership role that Spencer Haywood was expected to shoulder for 4½ years but couldn't. The Sonics are the youngest team in pro basketball (24.2 years) and perhaps the most promising, and Watts' popularity has an enormous amount to do with the fact that a team hovering around the shady side of .500 is drawing an average crowd of 13,300, second best in the NBA.
"It's impossible to calculate Slick's worth to the team," says Walsh. "He puts at least 1,000 a night into the Coliseum, and those are just the people he's met in the last week or kids he's met who demand that their parents take them to the game. Even if he couldn't play, he'd be worth an awful lot to us. If we ever traded him, we'd all have to leave town."
As naive as the Sonics think Watts may be (Walsh once told him that Russell was "incommunicado" and Slick proposed putting in a call to him there), Watts and Mussehl have a pretty good idea of his value, and last June they wrote a 16-page proposal to Russell and Owner Sam Schulman to inform them of it. In the first two years of his three-year contract, Watts earned $23,500 and $40,000. The final year called for $45,000. Watts asked for a new five-year package starting at $120,000 and reaching $176,000. "Hardly unreasonable," said Mussehl. Haywood had been getting $302,000. Tommy Burleson was in his second no-cut year at $325,000. Frank Oleynick, the No. 1 rookie, is getting $100,000. But when Schulman offered $100,000 a year for three years, making Watts one of the few, if not the only, undrafted free-agent in history to pull down six figures, Watts accepted. He even proposed a rider to the contract that would free the Sonics from their obligation if he did not play well. Schulman and Russell told him it wasn't necessary and had to keep from laughing until Watts had left the office.
Although $100,000 is about average for an NBA starter, the magic figure has moved Watts into a realm far removed from his working-class roots in Mississippi. He is building a new home for his parents and his two 5-year-old sons there ("Mistakes from when I was younger, but mistakes that I love more than anything") and has beautifully furnished his $40,000 cedar frame house in Kirkland, a Seattle suburb, where he lives with his wife Deborah.
"His aura will surely expand," says Mussehl. "He has risen to the top of every community he has ever been in, regardless of the size. To do what he's done in Seattle in 2½ years is phenomenal. Given the right circumstances, I believe he could become as well known and accumulate as big a following as Muhammad Ali." Watts talks of writing and acting, and Russell and the community-minded Sonics are thinking of sponsoring a Saturday morning children's TV show on which Slick would be a regular. Not too long ago Watts heard through an intermediary that Woody Allen had spotted him in a New York restaurant and "got good vibes." "I wouldn't mind making a movie with him," says Watts.
Just a couple of months ago Mussehl advised Watts to start his own corporation—to handle his speaking engagements, market a few Slick Watts items, such as T shirts and headbands, and provide a nice tax shelter. "O.K.," said Watts. "I'll call it Slick Watts Limited." Mussehl disagreed. "It's got to be Slick Watts Unlimited," he said.