For Michael Watson, playing pro basketball was like being in an entirely different world from the one he grew up in, shooting hoops at Kansas City's Central High School.
"Everything is done at the highest level of excellence — from the GMs down to the players to the managers and the coaches and the staff — everything is done 100 percent and at the top of what you can get," he says. "That's what you dream about doing."
It's a dream that, at least from the sidelines, can seem out of reach for most student athletes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Watson went to college. That the university recently retired his jersey — No. 22 — was just one sign that Watson is exceptional. He is the third UMKC athlete, and the first black one, to have their number retired.
"I was really shocked because I know UMKC just doesn't do this," Watson says.
In his four seasons with the Roos, Watson scored 2,488 points (a school record) and sank 391 three-pointers (also a school record).
"I grew up literally .9 miles from campus ... passing UMKC and going to some games," he says. "I feel like this entire city got their jersey retired, so it means a lot."
Even as a hot recruit out of high school, that connection to Kansas City existed.
Watson says he had 40 different options for colleges, but he chose UMKC because "we would play all the top schools any how, so why not stay home, allow my family to watch me play, and try to build something and leave a legacy here at home?"
After four seasons with the Roos, Watson played professionally for the Boston Celtics and for teams in Poland, Turkey, Italy France and Puerto Rico, where his family is originally from.
"I enjoyed every trip, every opportunity to play in a new arena and play against some great players" — including LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — "and they were young and in their prime," he says.
But at a certain point, the luster wore off.
"I've always had a calling to do the things of God," Watson says. "When I was playing, I felt like I was kind of drifting away from that a little bit."
So he took a break, came back home and refocused.
Watson admits he walked away from a lot of money. And getting back to "civilian life," as he calls it, took some time.
"You're used to playing in different countries every week, you're used to traveling, living out of hotels, so your world absolutely slows down."
Given all the different hats he wears these days, Watson's idea of slowing down is somewhat idiosyncratic.
He's spent time directing athletic programs for the Boys and Girls Club ("I grew up a Boys and Girls Club kid," Watson notes), was outreach director for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, and spent two years as athletic director for the Kansas City Public Schools.
He also sits on various boards throughout the metro, including the Followship of Christian Athletes, which helped him host the first multi-sports camp at his alma mater, Central High School.
"It was funny," he says. "Now I was helping kids who, I went to school with their parents."
Watson also does color commentary for local and regional high school and college basketball broadcasts, is executive director of the Raytown Emergency Assistance Program, and founded Mentality, a nonprofit aimed at exposing kids to organized basketball and volleyball.
"The discipline that came with being an athlete is something I still use today in my own life," he says, "and so that's what we teach our kids."
As Watson continues to focus his energy on giving Kansas City kids a hand up, it's clear that his love for the game still runs deep.
"I play with my eight-graders a little bit — I call it baptism by fire — I get out there and play and just totally destroy them," he smiles. "It keeps 'em humble."
Michael Watson spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the full conversation here.
KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.