By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett’s guards have been testing themselves against Sean Singletary this month in pickup games at John Paul Jones Arena, where a banner lists the seven UVa men’s basketball players whose numbers have been retired, a group that includes Singletary (No. 44).
Bennett’s big men have yet to wage low-post battles with another former UVa great, but that day may be approaching. Travis Watson, a four-year starter at center during Pete Gillen’s tenure as the Cavaliers’ coach, is in town training with Singletary and other alumni of the program, including Mamadi Diane.
“We love it,” Bennett said of having former players around. “We want that. That to me promotes the right kind of stuff, and then whenever those kids can play with our young guys in pickup, it’s great. Travis, he’s so physical” — Bennett smiled — “and he said he’d be happy to beat on some of our young guys.”
At 6-8, the left-handed Watson was shorter than most centers he faced during his college career, but his long arms, sure hands and deft footwork made him one of the ACC’s premier players. He was named to the all-conference second team three times, and his name can be found throughout the record book at UVa.
“I’m pretty much up there,” Watson acknowledged recently at JPJ.
His prowess on the boards was legendary. In career rebounds at UVa, Watson (1,115) is second only to Ralph Sampson (1,511), who at 7-4 towered over the college game.
However, Watson pointed out with a smile, “if we actually look at that rebounding situation … I love Ralph to death, but I snuck my name up there.”
Indeed, UVa’s record-holder for career offensive rebounds is Watson, with 381. “I’m cool with that,” he said. “I got No. 1 in one spot.”
In career blocked shots, Watson (130) is third, behind Sampson (462) and Chris Alexander (148). In career points, Watson ranks 14th at UVa, with 1,546, ahead of such luminaries as Richard Morgan, Othell Wilson, Barry Parkhill, Norman Nolan and Mike Scott.
“I played hard,” Watson said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
An anthropology major at UVa, Watson graduated on time with his class in 2003. He didn’t stick with any of the half-dozen or so NBA teams he auditioned for that fall, so he headed overseas rather than play in a minor league in the United States.
“You do the math,” he said. “Pay American taxes or get tax credit? I went with the tax credit and kept more money.”
He played for two years in Greece and then for three in Italy. One season in Israel, where former UVa teammate Roger Mason Jr. had starred a couple of years earlier, followed for Watson. Then two years in Lithuania, where he helped his team, BC Zalgiris Kauna, win league titles in 2010 and ’11.
“I’ve seen it all,” said Watson, who speaks some Italian, some Greek and some Hebrew. “The Euroleague takes you from country to country, with the best competition.”
If he had it to do over, Watson said, he would have returned from Europe after his second season there and tried again to earn a spot in the NBA.
“Do I believe I could have made it? Yes, I could have,” he said. “But I’d just finished two amazing years in Athens, Greece,” and he was content.
He’s still pleased with how his pro career has unfolded. “I was paid very well,” he said, “and I always was considered one of the top players in the country, wherever I was at.”
Watson, 31, sat out the 2011-12 season to focus on some family issues, but he’s not ready to retire from the game. He’d like to play three or more four seasons.
“I’ve done really well for myself and have been able to have financial stability, so I wouldn’t be doing it for financial purposes,” he said. “It’s just for the passion.
“Every team I’ve been on, I’ve had a great time. The countries are unbelievable, the cities. And it makes you appreciate home more anyway.” Watson, a graduate of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, spent much of his childhood in Texas, where he owns a home. But he enjoys returning to Charlottesville, where his 6-year-old niece lives, and he’s renting a place in town this summer.
When Watson played for the Wahoos, their home was University Hall. Asked his opinion of John Paul Jones Arena, he laughed.
“Oh, man,” he said. “This was what I was supposed to be in my sophomore year, actually. That’s what they said when I signed that letter of intent. But it’s all good. This is amazing, the complex and everything. I sort of wish we could have had something like this during our development time, but I liked U-Hall.”
He attended his first game at JPJ in 2011-12, sitting in the front row with Nolan during an ACC game. Watson met Bennett and his coaching staff in 2009, not long after Bennett left Washington State for UVa.
“He was cool,” Watson said. “I’m not a Ralph Sampson or anything, but he was very welcoming.”
He hasn’t talked to Gillen in years, but Watson stays in touch with many of his former teammates, including Mason, Chris Williams, Majestic Mapp, Elton Brown and Devin Smith.
During Watson’s four years in the program, Virginia went 72-49 and beat North Carolina six times. The ‘Hoos knocked off Duke twice, both times at U-Hall. In Watson’s only appearance in the NCAA tournament, in 2000-01, Gonzaga upset UVa 86-85 in Memphis, Tenn.
“When I look back, I think it was more us than Gonzaga in that game,” Watson said.
He’s grown as a player since leaving UVa, Watson said. “I’m definitely a more intuitive thinker on the court. Like I said, I’ve made all my teams better. Have I always been an asset to each team I’ve been on? Yes. More than people wanted to give me credit.”
As a Cavalier, Watson usually wore a scowl on the court. That, he realizes, may have given fans a misleading impression of him. He was popular with his teammates and around Grounds, Watson said, and he “knew everybody, but nobody really knew that because of my frown and my scowl.
He’s smiling now.
“I’m happy and I’m still single,” Watson said, and he’s back at his alma mater. And if the ‘Hoos happen to be playing pickup when he’s around JPJ some afternoon, he’ll be more than willing to tutor Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey and Bennett’s other post players.
“I definitely will bang with ’em if they let me play,” Watson said.