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Friday, November 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
When I was 10, Slick Watts was the coolest human being on the face of the Earth.
It was 1975. On my television screen in Ohio there appeared a wild, whirling dervish of a basketball player who couldn't stop grinning, no matter what happened on the court. Seattle, where Slick played for the SuperSonics, was 2,000 miles away. I couldn't have cared less about his team. I idolized him.
It wasn't his play, or the story of how he came out of Rolling Fork, Miss., to make it to the pros.
It wasn't even his name that made him so cool.
It was the headband.
At the time, I also wore one of those white terrycloth headbands. It was the '70s, OK? It kept those feathered bangs out of my eyes.
The sight of Slick knocked me off my 10-year-old moorings. He was as bald as the basketball. His head shone as bright as the arena lights. He wore his headband like a taunt. It didn't seem to be there for any purpose other than to make him the coolest human being ever.
He was so cool I became self-conscious about my own headband. Before long I replaced it with a baseball cap.
"You wore a headband?"
We're standing in the gym of Brighton Elementary School in Seattle's Rainier Valley.
Watts is a full-time physical-education teacher here. Each day he cajoles roughly 150 kids into running laps, jumping rope and playing exercise games.
It's one of the poorest schools in the state nine of 10 kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
"They said nobody wanted the job because the neighborhood was so bad," he says.
It's not that bad anymore, but it's not the typical place you find NBA legends. You know something is different when you walk into gym class and the teacher is wearing a diamond-studded ring that says "Slick."
I came here because the celebrity of Slick intrigues me. The truth is he wasn't that great of a player. He played six seasons. In only two could he have been called a star. His best was 1975-76, when he led the league in assists and steals.
It all unraveled two years later. The team started with five wins and 17 losses. Slick demanded to be traded, and he was, to New Orleans. The Slickless Sonics went on the best run in team history, making the finals that year and winning the team's sole title the next.
A few weeks before the Sonics' championship, Slick played in his last pro game. He was only 27.
And yet he remains arguably the best-loved, most-recognizable sports celebrity in Seattle history.
Part of it was people loved how hard he played. He's as gregarious as a politician. And there's his image, which amazingly persists 25 years after his sports career ended.
The ESPN sports network recently nominated the "coolest athletes of all time." Slick finished 13th, behind superstars such as Julius Erving and Joe Namath. He was cited as "inventor of the NBA headband."
It turns out Slick is more than image.
Three years ago, he nearly died. He contracted sarcoidosis, an inflammation of the lungs. Complications caused him to waste away to 126 pounds. He was hospitalized for 22 days.
"I was two seconds from the Holy Land," he says.
He began to recover, and thought he would retire from the public-school grind. Then he started awaking at 4 a.m.
"I wanted every peep of daylight I could get," he says. "I felt so appreciative of being alive. I suddenly had so much energy, I knew I had to come back here and share it with these kids."
These days Slick is back to his playing weight, 175 pounds. During Brighton classes he tries to do the tough-love bit, scolding, declaring that he's in charge. But he's so endearing a personality so downright cute that it's hard to take seriously. Mostly the kids laugh at him and he laughs back.
He doesn't play basketball anymore but teaches free clinics for economically disadvantaged kids. He still appears at charity events for the Sonics.
"I just love kids and love this city," he says. "I want to give to it until there isn't any left of me to give."
There are countless equally selfless people who don't happen to be sports icons. You could say they deserve to be profiled in the newspaper, too.
But ask yourself: If you were a former NBA star who didn't need the money and who had just had a near-death experience, what would you do with the rest of your life?
It turns out my hunch was right when I was 10. Slick Watts is a cool human being.
Except it doesn't have anything to do with the headband.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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