In Seattle, there has always been Slick Watts. He was voted to the Sonics’ 40th anniversary team alongside players with longer tenures and gaudier resumes. He embodies what the Sonics mean to Seattle, even as he gets ready for his Social Security meeting later this month.
Slick Watts has a dilemma. He owns two Mercedes convertibles — the black one he’s currently driving and the silver one at the auto shop. Despite his best efforts to be everywhere and interact with everyone, all the time, he is really just one man and therefore is not capable of driving two cars at once.
How will he get both home that day?
A solution forms in his famously bald head, and he grins as he drives across the West Seattle Bridge under the speed limit.
“Matter of fact,” he says, glancing my way, “you’ve got a job at 12:30 today. You’ve got to drive my other Mercedes.”
Gently, I tell him, no, that’s probably not a good idea because secretly I’m thinking, holy (expletive) I’m going to crash Slick Watts’ Mercedes. He frowns.
“What? You got your license? Then what’s the problem?”
It’s 8:36 in the morning. We’ve met just once before, for lunch the previous week. We’ve been together for 30 minutes.
“Hell,” he says, “I’ve got insurance.”
In a city with no pro basketball team, there has always been Slick Watts. He was voted to the organization’s 40th anniversary team alongside players with longer tenures and gaudier resumes. Blue Scholars, a local hip-hop group, named a song after him. “For a song about how much the Sonics meant to the city’s identity,” MC Geologic explained, “I thought he embodied that the most of all the former players.”
Watts is famously accessible. In our day together, the owner of the auto shop introduced himself and told Watts he spoke to his high school in the ’80s. Part of that is Watts’ nature and southern upbringing, but much of it relates to his childhood. After a football injury left his hair growing in patches as a boy, Watts’ peers nicknamed him “map head,” which he hated. He was, to use his own word, a freak.
“I study development, trauma, how things affect people because that’s what we do,” says his son, Donald. “I definitely think it has a lasting impact on the heart he shows for people and that need he has to be connected with people. He definitely had a time in his life when he went to sleep every night and felt like, ‘Why me?’ He overcame that, but there’s still an echo to those traumas.”
Watts played basketball, in part, for acceptance, and he’s friendly with fans, in part, because he knows what it’s like to be the outsider. A reporter from Sport magazine shadowed Watts at the climax of his relatively brief career with the Sonics and wrote: “He’s the most popular athlete in the history of the state. He’s the most famous unknown who ever lived.”
That was a long time ago.
Today, if you can believe it, Slick Watts is 65 and almost 40 years removed from his final season with the Sonics. His social security meeting is scheduled for this month, and Donald turned 40 in April.
As of two months ago, Watts unofficially retired after spending almost 20 years as the PE teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Rainier Valley. For someone who craves attention and human interaction, he’s going through a strange and scary transition.
“Sometimes I be thinking I’m 35,” Watts says, “until I walk up stairs.”
It’s just past 8 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, and Watts has encountered his first opponent of the day: the stairs at the office he and his son share near CenturyLink Field. Watts had just picked me up in his black Mercedes with his dog, Amber, lounging on towels in the back seat.
“She’s the queen,” he says. “I wouldn’t sell her for a billion trillion dollars.”
At the base of the stairs, Watts steadies himself against the railing and he slowly climbs to the second-floor headquarters of Watts Basketball, the company run by Donald, a former UW basketball player.
“I hate coming to my office because of these damn stairs,” Watts says. “They kick my butt. Only thing I hate about being 65 is these knees remember all the hard work.”
His ankle, on the other hand, remembers the previous day. As he often does, Watts stopped by the gym to watch campers, but he disapproved of the defense being played, so Watts, who once led the NBA in steals, started to lower himself into a defensive crouch.
“He was like, ‘You’ve got to get up in ’em, protect your face, get your butt down,’” Donald says. “He wasn’t moving. He was just in it. And then he was like, ‘Oh, (crap).’ ”
The night before he picked me up, Watts awoke at 2 a.m. and treated his swollen ankle like he was preparing for a game. In his jacket pocket, he carried a bottle of biofreeze. He didn’t want me to think he was 85, limping everywhere we went.
“That’s when life hits you in the face,” he says, heading down the stairs after signing pictures at the office, “when you can tell a difference going up and down.”
In some ways, Watts both acts and looks younger than 65. He maintains his shiny head with baby oil and cream. He sings along to Bruno Mars, Blake Shelton and Justin Bieber (He once asked Donald: “I like Justin Bieber. Why don’t anybody like Justin Bieber? Even white people don’t like Justin Bieber”).
But stairs betray his age, make him feel all of 65. Equally revealing is his phone, which he pulls from his pocket after fumbling around for it: a LG flip phone that cost $22.
“The old flipper,” he says.
He actually has two smartphones — “educated phones,” he calls them — still in the box at home. He just doesn’t want to use them.
Watts combats Father Time with self-deprecating jokes and the sly, disarming grin he’s deployed on thousands of fans who want his picture or time. He’s even crafted a go-to comeback to people who giddily blurt out, “That’s Slick Watts!”
“I used to be,” he informs them.
What’s the saying — in every joke there’s a grain of truth? His dad was 72 when he died, just seven years older than he is now. He thinks about that.
He thinks, too, of Moses Malone, his close friend who died in 2015 at age 60. “It crosses your mind,” he says. “Mortality. Your life.”
In a reflective moment, Watts says the hardest part of being 65 is no longer being himself. His mind feels young, he still thinks he’s the same old Slick, but he’s all bark. He no longer can play competitive tennis, let alone basketball. Donald can tell getting older bothers him.
“I used to be one of the fastest men alive,” Watts says. “Could run all day. I mean, all day. I can’t believe how life can change.”
|Position: Point guard. Height: 6-1. Born: July 22, 1951 in Rolling Fork, Miss.Note: The Sonics traded him in January 1978 to the New Orleans Jazz for a 1981 first-round draft pick (Danny Vranes was later selected).|
|Totals||6 seasons||3 teams||437||8.9||6.1||2.2|
|* Led NBA|
The gate at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School is locked, but Watts stores the key on a janitor-like keychain. An open bag of candy bars is crumpled at his feet. Amber, an American lab, presses her head out the window as he pulls forward.
“I come through here every day,” he says. “Look at her. She’s up because she knows. I let her go in the little wood thing every day. She goes in there and I get my little bag and pick up her poo poo. Let her do her little number.”
Watts still drives to the school most mornings, even though it’s been weeks since he worked. For years, he has dealt with sarcoidosis, an inflammation of the lungs that makes him especially sensitive to chemicals and cleaning supplies. In early March, he smelled chemicals at school, triggering a reaction. He crashed his Mercedes into a tree and ended up in the hospital, then fought off pneumonia.
“He’s a warrior — to a fault sometimes,” Donald says. “He likes to get down and grind his teeth. I didn’t really know how sick he was. A week later, he told me, ‘Boy, I thought I was gonna die.’ I was like, ‘You think you might’ve wanted to tell me that?’”
That finally forced Watts into retirement, but most mornings he lets Amber run around the playground, chasing a tennis ball he hits with a racket.
He returns to his car and grabs a plastic bag, a container and a fork. “My wife calls me the poo poo picker because I use a fork,” he says. “That way you can get it out the grass. I’ve got a thousand forks at home. A thousand. Anywhere I go, if I go to a restaurant, I always keep them.”
Inside the school, Watts’ shoes crunch on the freshly cleaned floor. The scent of cleaning supplies hangs in the air.
“This is the stuff that I really can’t handle,” he says. “This here. Gets my nose running. Kills me. I mean, actually kills me.”
He stops outside the gym. In front of him, on the wall, is a collage of cards from students and pictures: of his wife, of him in his headband, of Donald and his “grandbabies.”
“That’s my little wall,” he says. “That I’ve got to take down. I can’t leave it up here when I’m gone. Too many memories.”
After dropping Amber off with her friends at doggy daycare — price tag: $329 a month; comment: “my momma thinks I’m sick” — Watts detours to the Kirkland neighborhood where he first lived. This proves slightly more problematic than he anticipated.
“(Expletive), I’m getting old,” he says. “I forgot where I used to live.”
He drives slowly, crossing 130th and 129th, peeking each direction to see what’s familiar. He takes a left on 128th, where he used to walk his dogs.
I used to be one of the fastest men alive. Could run all day. I mean, all day. I can’t believe how life can change.” - Slick Watts
“Boy, it done changed,” he says.
He pulls in front of a two-story house with a garage out back, which he built. That’s one of his first houses.
He decides to search for another house, his very first one in Seattle, the house where he lived when Donald was born. But he can’t find it. He pulls over and leans forward in his seat, looking left, looking right, hoping something registers in his memory.
“It worries me sometimes when I forget (stuff),” he says. “Ain’t no way in the world I’m supposed to forget where my other house is.”
Finally, he finds it: at the corner of 69th Place and 119th Ave. That’s the house he took Donald home in. Four days later, Donald celebrated his 40th birthday. “I wonder who lives there now,” he says, sitting in the driveway. “I built that fence myself, matter of fact.”
As he pulls away, he passes a park where he played tennis. He is not nostalgic by nature, but sometimes he sounds that way.
“I can’t believe I’ve been here 43 goddamn years,” he says, mostly to himself.
Late afternoon at the Doghouse, Slick Watts’ favorite bar, right next to a strip club. One of his drinking buddies hands him a pair of black-framed glasses, asks him to put them on, starts cracking up.
“Doesn’t he look just like Samuel Jackson?” his friend says.
Watts is wearing his Sonics letter jacket with “Watts 13” on the left shoulder. He sips a small glass of bourbon and sings. This is retirement, whether he’s ready for it or not.
“When you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while,” he sings with Bruno Mars. “Cause you’re amazing, just the way you are.”
He also belts out “Love Letter” by Bonnie Raitt (Lyrics: “Working on a love letter/listening to a love song”) and the country song Copperhead Road (“Has a good little beat to it,” he says. “Kind of gets into your spirit a little”). He jokes about white people music, but he seems to enjoy and know more white people music than even his white friends.
“When you get older,” he says, “you start listening to the lyrics.”
In a few minutes, Watts has to leave.
His Mercedes is ready at the shop, and he wisely decides he doesn’t need me after all. More than once, he says he will get a good night of sleep because, well, he is 65 and tired and tomorrow his schedule is wide open.