The parallels between the life stories of Watson and the Baltimore Ravens' Michael Oher -- the focal point of the hit movie The Blind Side and the best-selling book of the same name -- are downright striking.
The drug abusing mom, the absent father, the series of foster homes. And then, adoption at an unlikely age, followed by introduction to a sport he would grow to love.
IT WAS ONLY AFTER WATSON had finally found peace and contentment in his life with his adoptive family that he returned to his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., and met his father for the first time.
“We went to this place, and he was supposed to buy me clothes for Christmas,” recalled Watson, a reserve forward-post on the Washington State basketball team. “Instead of buying me clothes, he bought himself all these clothes and stuff.
“I looked at him like he was crazy. I said, ‘I thought you said you were going to buy me Christmas clothes.’ He goes, ‘Oh, yeah. I gotcha before you leave.’
“The day I was leaving, I was walking out the door. He goes, ‘Hold on, son.’ He went back to his room and got a shirt. It was one of his shirts. When he gave it to me, it had cigarette burns on it.”
Watson’s father also abused drugs. That is just one reason why Watson remains so grateful to his adoptive parents, Annette and Ronnie Watson.
The Watsons, a white couple, became the talk of the town -- and not always in a good way -- when they adopted a black teenager and brought him home to little Atoka, Okla.
“When I first lived with them, nobody liked me,” Watson said. “Everyone was asking why she (Annette) adopted a black child ... people would call me names and stuff, the N-word.
“My brother, he was protecting me. I was scared, to tell you the truth.”
MATT WATSON WOUND UP helping his adopted brother on and off the basketball court. James never played organized basketball until his sophomore year of high school, but he wound up leading Oklahoma small-school powerhouse Stringtown High to state championships as a junior and senior.
Watson said racial barriers came crashing down once everyone saw him play basketball.
“They went from racism to loving me,” said Watson, a soft-spoken young man with a broad smile. “I love them, too.”
Watson credits Matt, a senior on Stringtown’s basketball team when James was a sophomore, for teaching him how to play the game. Later, Watson received valuable instruction and other guidance from former Southwestern Oklahoma State standout Irv Roland, now the video coordinator of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets.
Watson said he still draws inspiration from adopted sister Kayla, who played basketball at Southwestern Oklahoma before she was killed in a automobile accident in 2005.
“I love this family so much,” Watson said. “They mean the world to me.
“I was lucky enough to get adopted at the age of 14. Most children, once they hit the teenage years, it’s hard to get adopted.”
THE 6-FOOT-7, 213-POUND Watson redshirted last year as a freshman so he could gain experience, weight and strength. The process was slowed over the off-season when he came down with a viral infection that went undiagnosed for months. At one point, his career was thought to be in jeopardy.
A raw physical talent with tremendous leaping ability, Watson’s contributions and playing time have varied widely this season. He averages 2.2 points, 1.7 rebounds and 6.1 minutes for the Cougars (14-6, 4-4 Pac-10), who visit Washington (13-7, 3-5) on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. FSN televises the game.
Watson loves it when friends and family back home get to watch him on television. He stays in touch with his siblings: Matt, plus his sister and two brothers who were adopted by a family in Muskogee, Okla., and the 5-year-old daughter that Ronnie and Annette Watson have adopted.
“I’m kind of jealous of my sister -- she gets all the attention!” Watson joked.
Watson said he has seen and spoken with his biological mother only once since he was 7. Annette Watson arranged the meeting when James was in high school. James said he’s happy they connected again, but she was still using drugs, and he is no longer certain where she lives.
“I’ll talk to Mom, hopefully,” Watson said.
And his biological father?
“I don’t know about my dad.”