Larry Davis and Melvin Watson won’t stop being friends Thursday night when their respective high school basketball teams meet. But for 32 minutes of hoops action you won’t be able to tell.
Davis’ Northwestern Trojans (10-2) travel to South Pointe to face Watson’s Stallions (6-4) in a crunch Region 3 matchup pitting the two former South Carolina Gamecocks against each other as coaches. Davis and Watson met twice last season when South Pointe beat Lewisville in two meetings, but this is their first clash in a region rivalry environment.
“It’s always interesting to play against somebody you know,” said Davis, “because he knows your move and it’s like a game of one-on-one. Now it comes down basically to execution, who’s in better shape, the floor game. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
The two know each other’s moves because their teams run many of the same offensive sets that they used in college while playing for Eddie Fogler in the mid-1990s.
Fogler will be in the stands to watch Thursday night. He’ll see the same competitive drive that spurred Davis and Watson into becoming two of the best men’s basketball players to wear South Carolina’s garnet and black.
“They’re very competitive, not only with each other but with everybody,” Fogler said. “I’m excited to be there Thursday, and I’m excited to see them. I hope it’s a four-overtime tie.”
Fogler is alone in that desire. No question there will be a victor between two teams that embody their coaches’ toughness, tenacity and basketball acumen. Davis’ Northwestern club has quickly bought into his philosophy, born out of two years at the University of North Carolina and three at South Carolina and the knowledge of those schools’ accompanying coaching trees, while Watson’s team is battle-tested after playing in the challenging Chick-fil-A Classic and Dorman Classic tournaments.
Davis and Watson will no doubt want to get their first region win of 2014 in the books, but Thursday night’s contest will be a neat moment for two friends whose basketball journeys have always been somewhat intertwined.
“I think he was one of the most outstanding scorers I’ve ever seen,” Watson said about Davis. “I followed his career even when he was in high school, and it’s kind of ironic how everything just goes full circle. I had a chance to play with the guy that I kind of looked up to in high school, and our relationship has always been good ever since then.”
That the two became coaches isn’t a huge stretch. B.J. McKie, who also starred at South Carolina and played one year with both Davis and Watson, views it almost as repayment for the excellent coaching they received during their playing careers.
“We always talked about it when we were in college, helping kids out and molding kids,” said McKie, who is an assistant coach at Charleston Southern University.
Davis and Watson’s friendship dates to high school and the early 1990s when they met at an all-star game in Charleston. Davis, the older of the two, set all kinds of state scoring records at Denmark-Olar High School, before signing with the University of North Carolina. He left the school after the 1993 season, but with a national championship ring in tow.
Watson arrived at South Carolina after an excellent prep career at Charleston’s Burke High School. He attended Winchenden Prep Academy in Massachusetts for a year before signing with the Gamecocks in 1994.
The pair were on the South Carolina roster for three years together, playing two of those seasons, and led the Gamecocks to heights the program hadn’t reached in over 20 years, including an SEC championship in 1997. Davis scored over 1,000 points in just two seasons and was named All-American in ‘97, while Watson is South Carolina’s leader in career assists and was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.
Now they’re staring each other down from opposing benches.
“I never thought that much about it but they certainly had the background and the feel for the game to be coaches,” Fogler said on Monday afternoon. “Once they were overseas and we continued to stay in touch, I knew that both had an interest in coaching.”
Early in their prep coaching careers the pair have experienced success. Davis led an unheralded Lewisville squad to the Class A state title last season, getting the most out of a Lions team that wasn’t expected to challenge for state honors. Watson guided his South Pointe team into the third round of the Class AAAA state playoffs last season before losing to eventual state champ Irmo.
Fogler has enjoyed watching his two former players blossom as basketball coaches, especially when they tell him stories of their experiences with the profession’s less glamorous aspects.
“They realize it’s a hell of a lot tougher to be a coach now than when they played,” he said. “They both have told me they now have a different perspective on how hard it is to be a coach, and how to keep kids motivated and divvy up playing time and keep them accountable on the court and in the classroom. I think they have more of an appreciation of the profession than they did.”
Like any good coach, Davis and Watson have unique scowls that they unleash on players who goof during games. Denmark-Olar coach Ernest Nimmons never had to say anything to Davis when he messed up, simply staring through him. Fogler was the same.
“I wake up in the middle of the night with a vision of coach Fogler staring me down after a bad shot,” Davis said, adding that several of his players have taken to imitating his scowl.
Watson has a patented “look,” also unwittingly gleaned from Fogler. Watson’s sideline demeanor includes aspects of his high school coach, legendary Burke High School head man Earl Brown, who wasn’t as subtle when his players screwed up.
“Being vocal with officials on the sideline, I probably picked that up from my high school coach,” he said.
Davis and Watson’s varying displays of sideline emotion boil up from within. The two are as competitive now as they were when they were playing. Occasionally, their practices at South Carolina would heat up.
“It came to fights sometimes,” Davis said. “We were really competitive. Nothing serious; it’s just a game, but at the time we were pushing and shoving.”
“Oh, we got after it,” McKie said. “Sometimes we would be arguing and sometimes it would be talking back and forth and it might be brief altercations, but it was all love. We were trying to make each other better. We wanted to win out on the floor each and every time we stepped on the basketball court. But off the court we were real good friends, real good friends.”
That continues to this day for all three and especially Davis and Watson. They want to beat each other as bad as when they were testing each other daily in the old Carolina Coliseum, but that driving desire doesn’t leave the gym.
“Everybody thinks we cut off communication but we talk once or twice a week,” Davis said.
“That’s the beauty of it; even though our two schools are rivals, our relationship is not gonna change,” Watson said.
Rock Hill basketball will benefit from the pair’s basketball nous and knowledge as long as they’re around. Thursday night they’ll match wits in front of the whole town, rivals for four quarters, friendship momentarily cast aside.
“This game is more about this community,” Davis said. “We’ll shake hands, a normal greeting that coaches greet at the beginning of the game, but when the ball is tipped off, I’m sure Melvin will get going and he’ll be wanting to beat me and I’ll be wanting to beat him.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T