Original Old School: Step Into The Realm
SLAM 63: After dominating the Illadelph playgrounds, Brian “Sad Eye” Watson suddenly decided to call it quits.
When Sad Eye finally got to play for Franklin, he met the man he credits for the dead-eye jumper that filled that 30-point hole in Shaq’s charity game: Ken Hamilton, coach of Franklin’s varsity. Sad was a 6-5, 190-pound sophomore who played center for his JV team, but Hamilton couldn’t have cared less. “Coach was like, ‘You better learn how to shoot, ’cause you ain’t going to grow no more,’” Sad Eye says. “He just knew. I have no fucking idea how he knew, he just did.”
As Sad Eye shined at Franklin, his coach began to notice something at the end of his star’s junior year. His drive for the game was in neutral, and his enthusiasm was on E. At the beginning of Sad’s senior season, with UNLV watching him closely, he quit the team. Looking back, he says the only one who “wasn’t trippin’” about his decision was Coach Franklin. “I just was bored with it,” Sad states after the tournament, now driving to a middle school AAU practice. “When I got tired of it, I didn’t play too much. It wasn’t until I started playing street ball, that’s when I started loving that shit again.”
Sad spent his senior year at Franklin trying to graduate. After school and weekends were spent feasting on opponents in the parks. There was no interest in playing at school, no dreams of the NBA, no hope of a scholarship. He didn’t even want to see a university, let alone play ball for one. “I didn’t plan on going to college, but my grandmother was like, ‘You gettin’ the hell out of here.’ And this was after I graduated,” he says. “She’s telling me, ‘When does school start?’ I was like, What school? That’s when I was playing at Sonny Hill. Then this coach hooked me up like, ‘You’re going to Gloucester.’ It just so happened that we had an a’ight team. A couple of guys I knew from Philly was playin’, so I went.”
Sad did his thing at Gloucester CC in nearby Sewell, NJ, averaging 18 ppg. He shocked folks in his second year by scoring 45 points in the conference championship game, then averaging 25 ppg in the JuCo tournament. But after two impressive years at Gloucester, which could’ve gotten Sad Eye some D1 love, he had his sights on only one place—home. And so he returned to his first love: playground ball. He spent the next decade creating his legacy in Philly, occasionally venturing out to other spots. But it was when Sad Eye visited New York that his name really started ringing bells.
In the summer of ’97, some of Philly’s finest were invited up to Riverbank Park in Harlem to go at it with the NYC elite. Sad Eye was on the Philly squad but had trouble finding the gym, so he didn’t arrive until the beginning of the third quarter. The New York squad threw UNC alum Brian Reese on him. Result: Sad Eye finished with 25, and Philly won. The MVP award went to another player who also dropped 25, but knowing that it took him an entire game to accumulate his total, he gave the trophy to Sad Eye.
“He just makes every shot. When we played New York a while ago, he came at halftime and was killing Brian Reese—real easy, all jumpers,” says Sad Eye’s “young boy,” AO. “He just makes everything look easy. It’s like he got a piece of everybody’s game. He can shoot like so and so or handle like this or pass like him. And he ain’t flashy, the flashy shit just comes out of his game.”
But it seemed like the more Sad Eye’s rep grew, the smaller his interest got. The more he destroyed competition, the less he desired it. To ball on the playgrounds was all he wanted, but at the age of 30, it all started to get “boring!” as he blurts it, pulling up to a small gym in North Philly to watch an old hoops buddy run a 12-and-under AAU practice. “It just wasn’t fun. The competition wasn’t the same. When the younger guys come up, it ain’t the same. Everybody want to dribble and cross and this and that. And you beating them, playing and winning games easy. That’s why I know, ain’t no comp. As a matter fact, me and my man, we always came to the game late so by the time we get to the game, we might be down 10, 15 points. It’s like, it wasn’t fun unless we had to come back and win the game.”
As assured as Sad Eye is in his skills today and yesterday, he comes across less a braggart and more as a player who’s lived most of his life being better than his defenders. He’ll leave the average man baffled at how one could possess such skills, yet never entertain the thought of taking his gifts to another level; in actuality, he felt he was blessed with the skills to be what he’s famed for and nothing more. “Just ’cause I can kill somebody in street ball don’t mean I’m NBA material,” he states. “I knew I was good, but I don’t think I’m really as good as everybody say I was.”
But if the pros and coaches say he’s that good, and his peers rack their brains to find a flaw in his game, what did Sad Eye know that everybody else didn’t? “Oh, that’s easy—my defense. I’ve always played bad defense,” he exposes. “They always say, ‘Slide your feet.’ I had fast enough feet to get in front of [my opponents] to hit the ball before he shot it, but that ain’t good defense. If you playing and the ref thinks that’s a foul, you’re going to foul out the fucking game.”
As Sad Eye watches the kids practice, for the first time all day he displays a passion for the game. He has never seemed so attentive or as verbal as when he’s watching these kids learn what he’s mastered—and what he’s mastered covering up. Today, Sad Eye’s heart is with the children. The energy he used to put into ball has been replaced with something more challenging and rewarding for him, parenting. Sad Eye, who works as a property manager, has his hands full, making sure his 18-year-old baby sister has a studious first year of college; being a father figure to his 11-year-old nephew, Jalil, whose father was killed; and keeping his own son, Bryant Jr., out of trouble. According to Sad Eye, the latter is the most difficult, as he describes his 10-year-old as both “extremely smart” and a “problem child” who has already been skipped a grade, but keeps getting kicked out of school.
Sounds like that ninth grader who played JV for Mansion back in the early ’80s. It also sounds like Sad Eye is finally getting the challenge he’s been searching for. “Parenting ain’t as easy as basketball. Basketball, after the game, that’s it,” he says. “But this shit is all day, all night. And it just gets harder and harder…but I mean, I look forward to it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
So don’t think a player has to die, hit skid row or become a prisoner of their own regret to become a certified playground legend. And definitely don’t think Sad Eye doesn’t respect the game or his God-given talent. He just knows better than to get caught up.
“I love basketball to death,” he says. “If I ain’t play ball my whole life, I don’t know where I’d be at right now. I know my grandmother wouldn’t let me be in the streets, but basketball took me a long way. It helped me a lot. But I take it for what it is—a game.”