Baldwin Unlike former Lawrence High teammate Stephen Vinson, D.J. Watkins wasn't invited by then-Kansas University coach Roy Williams to become a preferred walk-on for the Jayhawks in the fall of 2002. He had to take his chances trying out for the team.
That didn't keep Watkins from pursuing his dream.
He enrolled at KU, joined the brainiac Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, worked himself into top shape and envisioned himself as a player who could help the team by filling the scout-team three-point marksman role. Then he started to wonder if he would be needed when learning Jeff Boschee, who had used up his eligibility the previous year, would be practicing with the team.
Watkins survived the first round of cuts and wasn't sure which way his fate would fall on the day the team was chosen.
"They posted it on the side of Allen Fieldhouse in one of the tunnels," Watkins remembered with a basketball in his lap as he sat at desk in a classroom at Baker University.
His name wasn't on the list.
Alexander Graham Bell did more than invent the telephone. He also spoke among the wisest words ever uttered when he said: "When one door closes, another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us."
The first cut of his life stung, but not for long, Watkins said.
"Danny Manning was actually in there when I went to check the list," Watkins said. "He just told me, 'Keep your head up. Don't worry about it. You've got a ton of things going for you other than basketball.' I think that helped. It's interesting. I wasn't as disappointed as I thought I would be. It was like, OK, what's next?"
Next stop: Baker
What was next was that another door opened, specifically the front door of the Watkins family home in Lawrence, and Baker University basketball coach Rick Weaver walked through it.
A basketball lifer, Weaver is to NAIA Div. II basketball what Al McGuire and Abe Lemons were to big-time college hoops. He's a character who can make his players laugh so hard sometimes they don't even realize how hard they're working.
The more Weaver talked about life as a student-athlete, in that order, at Baker University, the more Watkins could see himself fitting in at the charming campus just down the road from Baldwin's lone stoplight.
In his fourth of year of college, Watkins is a junior athletically and plans to return next year. This year's goal: to be named Academic All-American. His goal upon graduating with a double major: gaining a Rhodes Scholarship or a Watson Fellowship.
"Overall, it's been a blessing," Watkins said. "I'm still hard-core KU fan, a diehard, but it's kind of a blessing in disguise I didn't make the team. Since coming down here the next year, I've enjoyed Baker immensely. Not only having a major role on the basketball team, but having the academic support of a small school. I know KU's good, too, academically, but Baker's just been a blessing for me in terms of smaller classes and more concentration from professors."
And it's not costing him or his family a penny. Half his costs are covered by an academic scholarship, the other half by an athletic one.
Watkins loves to tackle mental challenges and even has challenged himself to answer honestly whether he is truly happy he didn't make the cut at KU.
"I've debated that a lot within myself," he said.
His honest answer: Walking on at KU and earning a scholarship for his senior year was the better fit for Vinson; experiencing life as a student-athlete at Baker better for Watkins.
"Stephen wanted to play for a big school team, wanted to be a part of a really big deal and wanted to have basketball be an integral part of his life," Watkins said. "It always was. I was looking for less commitment maybe, but still have it be an enjoyable aspect, which it has been, especially this year with us winning. That's what was best for him, and this is what's best for me. Getting a liberal arts education for free, being able to travel in Europe, being able to work. I think I lacked a lot of the discipline and hard work ethic that Stephen had in basketball. I always have a lot of interests all over the place. I'm all over the place all the time. I think that makes it a little better for me to be here. The demands at KU are pretty intense for basketball. I like to spice it up."
Watkins spices it up as a concert pianist who plays Rachmaninov and Chopin compositions. He also plays the guitar, the violin, and the mandolin and is thinking of adding a music minor to an academic work load that already includes a minor in art and double major in history and international studies. He also does wood cuts and different types of printing, and in doing so works with "15 different acid baths," he was excited to share. Watkins also runs a lawn-care business out of Lawrence.
His favorite class? American Social and Intellectual Movements, taught by Leonard Ortiz, President of the Lawrence Board of Education. Watkins grows animated when discussing the report he's working on now on "John Brown and the Battle of Blackjack."
On the court
Meanwhile, Watkins is averaging 12 points a game, hitting 85 percent from the free-throw line and 45 percent of his three-point attempts for the 9-4 Wildcats and maintaining a 3.6 grade-point average.
"He's not afraid to shoot it with the game on the line," Weaver said. "He's the same way if he's missed 20 in a row or made 20 in a row."
Weaver calls Baker "the perfect place" for Watkins.
"Every time I turn around, he's added another major," Weaver said. "We had a banquet at the local lodge, and D.J. sits down at the piano and starts playing. You never know with D.J."
Baker will leave for Spain on Dec. 27 and return Jan. 5 and will play three exhibition games while over there. Watkins is leaving Saturday to travel across Europe.
As he said, Watkins is all over the place. Still, he finds time to feed his fix for Jayhawks basketball, catching games on television when he can and even attending some.
"I saw a little of the California game," Watkins said. "I was actually studying for my finals, saw Stephen get some assists, saw him get that layup : pretty nice. I was pretty excited for him, to see all that hard work finally pay off. I know it's been frustrating for him in the past to sit on the bench and watch. He knew that going in. It's worked out great for him."
Watkins predicts Vinson, another accomplished student, will have a successful career as a basketball coach, a profession that Watkins said doesn't appeal to him.
"Even when we were in high school, he would talk about how he wanted to become a coach," Watkins said. "I think I'll probably go on to graduate school, probably law school. Basketball's not as big of a deal to me. It's something I do for fun, and being at Baker allows me to do that. It's not like diehard. We only practice an hour-and-a-half. We don't have workouts and diets and all that. This kind of fits me a lot more. Coach Weaver is awesome. I couldn't see myself playing college under any other coach. His approach fits my spirit, my thoughts about the game."