Whether or not Slick Watts is the most popular athlete ever to perform in the state of Washington is no longer in question. Forget Hugh McElhenny, Elgin Baylor and Lenny Wilkens. The question now is: Why do Washingtonians regard a totally bald six-foot, 24-year-old black backcourtman as the most popular person ever to live in the state?
What about Judy Collins? Bing Crosby? That celebrated pick and roll artist Jimi Hendrix? The next President of the United States, Henry (Scoop) Jackson? Watts, who plays for the Seattle Super-Sonics, isn't even close to being a superstar. He's a very good player and getting better, and he leads the young Sonics with boundless optimism and energy. He also leads the universe in color on court and off.
Watts emerged 2� years ago from a tiny college undrafted by the professionals, played his way onto the Sonics and as each new segment of America caught his act—an odd-looking sort of basketball player, gnomish with quicksilver moves, a shiny scalp and a gold or green headband—people laughed and were captivated, as those in Seattle had been.
And even though Watts leads the NBA in steals and assists, people still guffaw at his playing style, which is more Mack Sennett than Oscar Robertson: darting, swiping, juking, grinning—always grinning; making improbable passes and somehow getting falling-down, bent-over baseball-throw shots into the basket when they're needed most.
"Slick's a good player, a great one for us," says Coach Bill Russell, who, like everyone else in Seattle, has adjective problems when it comes to describing Watts. "I said when he came that the one thing that could help us more than his improvement as a player would be for his enthusiasm to become contagious. And it has. The chemistry on this team is excellent, like the old Celtics'. And Slick is the guy that does most to keep it that way."
Bob Walsh, the Sonics' assistant general manager, says he has never met a person with the PR power and magnetism of Slick Watts. "You can talk about athletes getting too much money, but here's one guy who's worth every cent he gets," he says. "Watts has been everywhere, knows almost everyone and has them in his pockets. They love him here. If Washington were ready for a bald black governor from Mississippi, Slick would be the guy. Only he's too genuine."
Last year Slick made more than 300 appearances around Seattle. He visited the Salvation Army and B'nai B'rith. At high schools he spent hours playing one-on-one with any kid that got in line. He lit up wards at children's hospitals, and at elementary schools he bent down so little children could rub his shiny head. His answers to their questions delighted the kids and teachers alike. Why does he wear the headband? "To keep the hair out of my eyes." Why is his head bald? "I shave it and oil it so I can slip through the other team's defense easier." In the evenings he handled the parents at Rotary Club and PTA meetings with equal facility. He never refuses a requested appearance unless his schedule prohibits it, and never refuses an autograph except just before a game. He used to sign his way from the parking lot to the dressing room, but it threw off his shooting. So he has taken to signing a few hundred index cards beforehand, which he hands out on the way in. After a game Slick will sign until the last fan is gone.
"I am rewarded by my community for doing something that makes people happy," says Watts. "Giving pleasure is the greatest thing a person can do in his life. I tell them thank you for treating me the way you'd treat a superstar. But you know something? I saw my first pro basketball player when I got on the court to play against him. I want the kids to know that I'm just like them, that I'm no superman just because I play ball. I am a part of this community, and it is a beautiful place. God picked it out just for me, said, 'Slick, I got this little heaven for, you. I call it Seattle.' If they ever trade me, I retire."
The remarkable thing about Watts is that he is not in basketball for the money. For most of his appearances he only gets token payments from the Sonics. His familiar banded head invites folks to Sonic games from billboards all over town, and newspaper and TV people consider him instant copy. (One TV news-woman says, "Whenever things are slow we just find out what Slick's doing and take a camera crew.") If he wanted to, he could endorse everything from toothpaste to haberdashery. But his lawyer and adviser, Bob Mussehl, is wary about products that might cheapen Slick's image, even though the endorsements could easily triple his income.
Dave Watkins, the team's PR director, often surrenders a phone and a desk at the Sonics' office to accommodate Watts," who nearly reduces the place to a shambles when the team is in town. He ties up phones and orders secretaries around and, like everyone else, they succumb helplessly. "I wish I could really get mad at him. Just once," says Watkins. "I try."