LOS ANGELES — If you’re a real hooper, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy said, you know JuJu Watkins.
Safe to say LeBron James, by most definitions, fits the mold of a real hooper. And he’s known Watkins at least since the days she dominated at Sierra Canyon, the two exchanging a dap after the Chosen-1 Invitational at the Crypt in Watkins’ junior year, Watkins and Bronny James both on a concurrent journey to USC.
“You hear about athletes like this every blue moon, right?” Handy told the Southern California News Group, a trainer who’s worked with Watkins since her ninth-grade year. “They don’t come along very often.”
So after USC men’s hoops lost 84-79 to Long Beach State, a disappointing end to a triumphant Bronny debut, LeBron remained courtside for much of the first half to watch Watkins and the women’s team — dominating UC Riverside in a 85-53 win in a double-header immediately after the win.
“It’s unbelievable — like, I get chills thinking about, what my vision was in coming here,” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “And obviously, I never envisioned, like, all the characters and the things that were at play today. But you envisioned doing something special.”
“Really, to have a large portion of that crowd that has maybe has never seen us play,” Gottlieb continued later, “we are changing a culture here.”
A rapid change too, from a program flying far below the national radar extending into Gottlieb’s first year that now has become a national power with the recruitment of hometown-kid Watkins, the girl from Watts who’s helping to re-establish Los Angeles as an epicenter for women’s basketball. And as she’s done in every game across an undefeated 8-0 start, Watkins put on a show for the crowd of close to 10,000 that remained after the men’s game — dropping an easy 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting in an 85-53 win.
“She is necessary for women’s basketball to have an urban community come and feel like this is their team … it’s so much bigger than me, and it’s bigger than even this particular crowd,” Gottlieb said, voice buzzing with passion postgame.
That crowd trickled out, significantly, by the second half, including James. It wasn’t due to lack of interest. USC simply dominated so thoroughly — amassing a 30-point lead before the first-half buzzer — that there was little need to observe the final outcome. Returning stalwart Rayah Marshall dropped another double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds, adding to a quietly-dominant start as USC’s defensive anchor. UC Riverside guard Jordan Webster had a strong game in her own right, scoring 20 points and hitting five threes.
It’s quite probable USC improves to 10-0 — games against Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State on the horizon — before a massive cross-town showdown with UCLA Dec. 30. And if the winning continues, it’s eminently possible before long that widespread attention continues to shift from the men’s program to the women’s, Watkins a lightning rod for interest that’ll continue to lift a program chasing a deep NCAA tournament run.
“I mean, girl power,” Watkins said postgame. “It’s amazing — women’s basketball is just on a different level right now.”