Even while just sitting on the bench as an assistant coach for the last three seasons, Chezley Watson still felt the goosebumps he played through as a basketball star at East Hall High more than 20 years ago.
That sensation will likely be a bit more pronounced beginning next season.
Watson was introduced Wednesday, March 28, as the new boys basketball coach at Flowery Branch High. A local legend as a player in the mid-1990s, Watson now has a chance to leave his stamp on Hall County in his first high school head coaching gig.
“The fact from that I’m from here makes it even better,” he said. “The fact that I even have a chance to coach in Lanierland, one of greatest tournaments ever in the state of Georgia, I’m really looking forward to it.”
Looking back is pretty rewarding for Watson, too.
Before playing for three years at the University of Virginia and spending his senior season at the University of West Georgia, Watson was one of the best players to ever come through the area. He still holds the career scoring record (2,411 points) at East Hall, a program that produced three state championship teams from 2001-05, shortly after his graduation.
The Vikings reached two state semifinals and as many state quarterfinals with Watson, who played there from 1993-97. He vividly recalls Lanierland from his senior year, during which he said he scored 51 points in a back-and-forth championship game win against West Hall.
Though he’s returning to his roots after mesmerizing Hall County as a player two decades ago, Watson is most excited about working with a new generation of talent.
“To see those kids follow the same dreams I had and to be able to coach them in that sport, it’s a great opportunity to take myself back 20 years ago when I played,” Watson said. “I want to make sure I pour into them like my coaches poured into me.”
That, along with his proven track record as a winner, is what made Watson such an attractive candidate to Flowery Branch athletic director
“I’ve seen how well he works with kids, how he enjoys being in the gym and teaching the fundamentals of basketball,” Lawler said. “He’s a hard worker and has a passion for teaching the game. We felt like he’d be the best person to lead us — I hope — for a long, long time.”
In fact, Watson rarely left the gym after graduating from West Georgia, where he was the team’s leading scorer and all-conference pick in his lone season with the Wolves.
Watson assembled four travel teams for girls from Hall County and the surrounding area, hoping to give local kids an opportunity to play without having to travel to Atlanta or other heavily populated areas. His extensive time spent developing players in the girls game led him to accept an assistant position with the girls team at Jefferson High for the 2015-16 season.
The Lady Dragons won 22 games in each of his three years there, reaching the state quarterfinals twice.
“I just really started gravitating to the girls game,” Watson said. “To me, it has changed so much from 20 years ago. I really got involved in the training and player development side of basketball.”
Now he plans to lean on his skills in that department as he takes over a Flowery Branch squad due for a reset.
After winning their first playoff game in 10 years, the Falcons graduate seven seniors and will lose some of their talent pool as Flowery Branch drops from Class 5A to 4A because of new Hall County school Cherokee Bluff opening for the 2018-19 school year.
Watson said his first order of business in replacing coach David Sokol, who stepped down to take the North Forsyth job two weeks ago, is identifying his players’ strengths and weaknesses. Once that’s done, it’s all about developing training habits and instilling the game’s fundamentals.
“I’ve got to get in the gym with them and train them up,” the 1997 East Hall graduate said. “I have to get them to fall in love with the work ethic and training portions of basketball. I picked that up on the girls side of things.”
But first he must wait out spring break this week, after which he’ll get to meet his players and begin preparation for next season.
Other than that, everything about the job seems perfect.
Watson and his wife Julia bought a home in Flowery Branch about a year ago, which is part of what drew him to the Falcons job. On top of that, his sons Chandler and Chase have already transferred to the school where he’ll try his hand at being a high school head coach.
But most importantly, he’s back in the area where he rose to stardom, ready to see if his second stint in Hall County will be as successful as the first.
“I remember those moments as a player at Lanierland and things like that,” Watson said. “Sitting on the bench as coach, I still get those same goosebumps as when I played 20 years ago. To be able to coach it and spend time with these young kids, it’s just like being a kid all over again and being out there with them and competing with them.
“I honestly still can’t believe I’ll be coaching here. I’m thankful and still knocked off my feet.”