Their paths crossed so many times on the court that it was impossible not to leave an impression.
They were both floor generals.
D.J. Irving, the kind of guard who lives on the thin line between power and finesse, pulled the strings for the Youth Interlock AAU team in Chester, Pa. Maurice Watson, the kind of guard that uses his ballhandling to turn defenders into dance partners, was the maestro for Team Philly.
“We were always kind of like rivals growing up,” Watson said. “We’d get into the toughest battles.”
But they were the kind of battles that ultimately built a bond.
Irving was a year older. Watson would pick his brain about college plans. Irving would tell him he was weighing his options between BU and Rider.
When Irving ultimately decided to come to Boston, he let Watson know. From there, they stayed in touch. Eventually, Watson would have to make plans of his own.
He had Ivy League options, like Princeton and Yale. He had ACC options, like Virginia. But he knew Irving was at BU.
On the surface, though, there were plusses and minuses about Irving being there. Obviously there was familiarity and mutual respect as ballplayers. But with Irving playing the same position, how would there be enough room for Watson?
When they talked about it, Watson told him, “I don’t know if I’m really going to consider BU, because you go there. I’m not trying to go somewhere and not play, you know?”
Every one of Watson’s official visits were already lined up. Hofstra, Virginia, Long Beach State, and La Salle were all interested, and Watson wanted to give all of them a look.
Boston University was supposed to be his last official visit.
Irving wouldn’t have it.
He told Watson, “Listen, if you come here, there’s no way that you’re not playing. I’m telling Coach Jones that I want you here.”
As it happened, Irving had already talked it over with Terriers coach Joe Jones.
“We went to D.J. and said, ‘Look, we’re thinking about recruiting Maurice, what do you think?’ ” Jones said, looking back. “He said, ‘Oh man, this’ll be great. I think we’ll have the best backcourt in the league.’ And that was a big deal for us.”
That was all the convincing Watson needed.
“That right there — to see that somebody wants you there that bad, playing the same position as you — it just lets you know that it’s not all about themselves,” Watson said. “It’s about the team.”
Watson had a surplus of talent, but had concerns about having to be an understudy. Irving, twice earning America East recognition, was established, but also open to sharing the spotlight.
“Without D.J., I don’t know if Mo comes,” Jones said. “I don’t know if that happens. I would hope he did, but I don’t know if it would’ve. It made it a heck of a lot easier.
“That right there is more important than anything I’m going to say, any offense we’re going to run, any defense. That right there tells you what they’re about. We’re going to do it together, and that’s how we’ve rolled. We’ve done it together.
Their give and take was the first step in building a bridge between Boston University’s band of veterans, who went from reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2011 to missing out the next season and then sitting out last year as BU transitioned to a new league. Its batch of young talent will get its first taste of the postseason when the Terriers (22-9, 15-3) play Lafayette (11-19, 6-12) in the Patriot League quarterfinals on Wednesday.
Going into the tournament as both the host and the top seed, the Terriers are armed with arguably the league’s most dangerous backcourt and also one of the field’s most tightly-knit groups.
“The big thing is, these guys are about winning,” Jones said. “I think it starts with the older guys. The older guys are just high-character people and they’ve always won. So they’re used to winning and they know what it takes to win. So they know how to carry themselves and they know what to do to win when they’re playing.
“They’ve kind of been the example for us that has really propelled us in terms of us taking that step and winning close games. And I think the younger guys have learned from them and have bought into being a team and being a family and understanding that there’s a way that you have to play to give yourself a chance to be successful.”
One of the first things Jones did was ensure that there was enough basketballs for both Watson and Irving.
“What we tried to do was we tried to build the team around basically having two point guards,” Jones said. “That was the thing that we wanted to do right away. We said, ‘We’ve got two guys that can make plays for people. Let’s unleash them.’ ”
Watson led the Terriers in points per game (13.4) and shots (333). Meanwhile, Irving averaged 12.1 points per game on just 292 shots.
The both averaged just over 31 minutes a game, and rather than simply coexist on the floor, they thrive together.
“[Irving] just told me, ‘I don’t care who succeeds, you or me, we’re going to do this together and I want this to be on the shoulders of me and you,’ ” Watson said. “That right there just shows this guy has complete trust in me. It just upped my confidence.”
They’ve both found different ways to lead.
Irving, a senior tricaptain, uses a subtle approach. Often times, Watson’s found himself leaning on Irving for advice.
“He’s not really one to come out of nowhere and talk to you,” Watson said. “He’s not the loudest. But he’ll come whisper something in your ear after a tough play. He’ll send you a nice text. He’ll just talk to you.”
Watson isn’t a captain, but on the court he’s the most vocal.
“[Sophomore guard] John Papale calls him Bill Russell — player-coach,” Jones said. “He’s like an assistant on the staff. He’s always talking. He’s always trying to get the most out of his teammates.”
Being young doesn’t stop him from being assertive, even with veterans.
He goes back and forth with Jones during practice and barks orders at senior forward Dom Morris during games.
When the sophomore Watson thinks about the sight of a 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound bulldog guard grabbing the 6-7, 240-pound Morris by his jersey and screaming for him to pick it up, he admits, “It looks weird. Sometimes it feels weird. But the one thing I tell everybody on my team is that at the end of the day, nobody’s going to have your back more than me.”
But after following Irving to BU, Watson said, he wants to follow in his footsteps as a captain.
During the summers, when the Terriers would work out, Watson would call some of his teammates and invite them to his room. He would have pasta or grilled chicken cooking for them.
They’d start talking about the season, about their workouts, about life.
“We just became closer that way,” he said.
When he looked at the team’s 7-1 record in games decided by 3 points or fewer this season (compared with 0-5 last year), it’s hard for him not to believe that closeness hasn’t had its benefits on the floor.
“That’s just being able to stay together and focus down the stretch through the adversity,” Watson said. “Like, ‘Listen, we’ve been here before. It’s only us out there. Nobody else.’ When you trust your team like that and you put all your ego aside to do what you’ve got to do to win that’s what led to our success.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.