By Marc Pruitt
One week after being named the Most Outstanding Player in Winston-Salem Prep’s NCHSAA 1-A state championship win against Pamlico County, senior K.J. Watson’s feel still hasn’t touched the ground.
“It’s still sinking in,” said Watson, who finished the title game with nine points and eight rebounds. “We have been so close since I started with the program as a ninth grader. Winning this meant everything to us and everything to me. Winning that award, now my name is in the history books. It definitely puts a stamp on my career here at Prep. I never would have thought that could happen to me after being on the bench the last three years.”
The struggle was real for Watson in his first three seasons with the Phoenix program. But in the end, it was all worth it. The highs. The lows. The 6 a.m. practices throughout his senior season. The daily grind of practices for four years. Impatiently waiting in the wings for his chance to shine on the varsity team after a banner freshman year when the JV team he starred on went undefeated.
“After my freshman year, my dad (Keith) told me ‘this has to be hardest working summer of your life, son,’” Watson said. “Then I got cut from the Team Winston AAU team, but that convinced me to keep working. I have always played with a chip on my shoulder. That will serve me well at the next level.”
Watson was able to make the varsity team as a sophomore, but after an early season game against Mount Tabor, Coach Andre Gould had a conversation with him that was “honest, but disappointing.”
“He told me I’d be better served down on the JV team for another season,” Watson said. “He told me that I would benefit down there by playing more and that he we bring me back up late in the season for the playoffs. And I was young and wanted the red carpet laid out for me. I expected everything to be handed to me I didn’t understand it then, but I knew that Coach Gould had a plan and a vision for me that I couldn’t see yet. I had every reason to transfer those first couple of years if I wanted to. But my dad had a conversation with me one day and said ‘you can’t always run from your problems. Sometimes, you have to stay the course and figure things out on your own.”
Prep lost in the state title games during Watson’s freshman and sophomore years.
As a junior, Watson made the varsity team but wasn’t a starter.
“I came off the bench and didn’t think I was getting the minutes I deserved,” Watson said. “Coach told me I was going to play more of a role but that I was going to have to earn my minutes.”
Prep lost to Lincoln Charter on its home floor in the Western Regional semifinals, a loss that stung the Phoenix until Prep avenged in in this season Regional Championship at UNC Greensboro.
This season, Watson became a starter for the first time. The message he received from Gould was a little different than in years before.
“This year he told me—he told all the seniors—that we were going to lead and he was giving us our wings,” Watson said. “This was the first time I got the chance to start for my high school team. And that’s why I think I got so emotional at the state championship game after we won.”
Watson was sobbing on his hands and knees at mid-court after the victory celebration. Soon after, he went to find his parents, Keith and Jamestris, and shared an emotional hug with both of them.
“They’ve both been a part of my journey and felt the pain and frustration I felt,” Watson said. “My dad was always in the gym with me. I think he has gotten every rebound for me when we go work out at the gym. Both of them have been such a huge part of my life and I’m happy that I got to share it with them.”
Gould was emotional when the subject of Watson came up in the press conference following the state championship win.
“He didn’t come in our program with the hoopla that Daivien (Williamson) and Justice (Goodloe) did,” Gould said. “Watson came up, just earned his minutes. He could have left like some others have done over the years, but he just decided he wanted to earn everything. And when you earn things, that’s why he’s a state champion.”
Watson also earned first team all-conference honors in the Northwest 1-A this season and will be making his college decision in the near future. He has an offer from Pfeiffer and interest from several other Division II schools.
“I’m going to miss playing here, miss playing with these guys,” Watson said. “We are a family, no doubt. “But I’m getting ready for the next chapter in my life. Everything that has a start has an end. And even though this is the end of my career at Prep, we were fortunate to end it in the perfect way. I couldn’t be prouder than that.”