2017 INDUCTEE - YOLANDA WATKINS
By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily
Dream career for Decatur's Yolanda Watkins
Yolanda Watkins stands at center court in a nearly deserted Morris-Smith Gymnasium on a spring afternoon. It's been 25 years since she played on the court for the Decatur Red Raiders and crowds packed the place to watch one of the most talented athletes in school history.
Watkins, who next month will be inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame, was asked about the game she remembers most from her four seasons. "It was my freshman season (1989) and we were playing Johnson and the winner got to go to state," Watkins said. "Two things happened that I will never forget. During the game I threw a no-look pass. I remember the crowd's reaction. They had never seen a girl do that. "The second is that we lost the game. That was crushing. I stayed in the locker room and waited for everybody to leave. When I finally walked out, there was Coach (Mike) Smith. He gave me a hug and said better days are ahead. I'll never forget that."
Smith probably never made a better prediction. Watkins never again finished a high school season with a loss. The Red Raiders won state championships in 1990, '91 and '92. The 6-foot-2 Watkins was the USA High School Player of the Year in 1992. She went on to star at the University of Alabama. "That says a lot about her that a loss is the game she remembers the most," Smith said. "She hated losing more than she enjoyed winning. That's how it usually is with great players, and she was a great one."
There were not many losses during those championship seasons. The Red Raiders went 29-1 in 1989-90; 32-1 in 1990-91; and 30-5 in 1991-92. Three of the seven losses were against schools in Tennessee. One was to a school from South Carolina. The only Alabama schools to beat Decatur during those three seasons were Athens, 56-52, in 1990; Pell City, 59-55, in 1991; and Brewer, 56-45, in 1991.
Watkins also had a pretty good run of success playing AAU basketball. She won a national championship playing for the 16-and-under Alabama Stars in 1990 and another with the Tennessee CJ's 18-and-under team in 1991.
"The first time I saw her was at a basketball clinic at Decatur we had for girls in school and from Oak Park (Middle School)," Smith said. "I was walking around looking at the different girls when I saw this big, tall girl. She had to be close to 6 feet tall. She was working on reverse pivots on her own. Nobody that age does that unless a coach is making you do it.
"I asked her if she was in the eighth grade. She said, 'No, I'm in the seventh.' I thought, 'Holy cow, this girl is going to be something special.'
"When Watkins played, the girls state championships were held at Calhoun Community College. "It seemed like everybody in Decatur was there when we won our championships," Watkins said. "That made it even more special."
The first championship game was a 69-54 victory over Berry. "That first one was probably the most memorable," Watkins said. "We were the underdog, but we were determined to win the game. We would not take no for an answer."
The next year, the Red Raiders edged Carver, 52-45, in the semifinals and beat Wenonah, 73-53, in the championship game. "That year was a carryover from the first championship," Watkins said. "We said if we can win it once, we can win it twice."
The 1992 championship game was a 77-50 blowout of Grissom. "It was a dream end to my career," Watkins said. "I was so exhausted after that last game that when somebody handed me the trophy, I couldn't even hold it up I was so tired."
In her senior season, Watkins averaged 22.9 points and 16.8 rebounds a game. Her career averages were 21.7 points and 15.4 rebounds. "I never had a player with her mentality for the game," Smith said. "She had a great knowledge of the game and the leadership skills to get everybody involved. Nobody had a stronger desire to win or succeed like she did."
Watkins signed with Alabama in the fall before her senior season. The recruiting trail to signing day was a long one."Everybody in the country wanted her," Smith said. "She had 200 or more schools show interest. She got a lot of exposure from playing AAU. I remember being at an AAU tournament in Tennessee and all 10 SEC head coaches were there to watch her."
Smith organized the recruiting process. Each day's mail, and there was a lot of it, went into folders based on her interest in the school. When schools were allowed to call her home, Smith set up a schedule with each school getting a certain day and a certain time.
Eventually, Smith encouraged her to narrow the list of schools down over time until she had her own final four. He then carried her on unofficial visits to the schools. "Coach Smith was so great to do what he did," Watkins said. "Recruiting was hectic. My senior year when coaches started calling my home, it got stressful." Going into signing day, Tennessee appeared to be the favorite. Watkins had three teammates on her Tennessee AAU national championship team who had signed with the Lady Vols. Not even Watkins' mother, Pearl, knew which school would sign the top player in the country. "I just wanted to go to a place where I could help move a program in the right direction," Watkins said. "I wanted to be my own person. Whenever I visited Alabama, it felt like home."
Alabama coach Rick Moody called her "a franchise-type player." Watkins lived up to the billing. She was an SEC All-Freshman selection. Twice she was voted to the All-SEC team. Watkins scored more than 1,000 points in her career. Her school record for blocked shots was not eclipsed until the 2016-17 season.
The high moment came in 1994 when Alabama advanced to the NCAA Final Four. Alabama lost to Louisiana Tech, 69-66, in the semifinals. North Carolina edged Louisiana Tech, 60-59, in the championship game. Watkins thought about a professional basketball career, but knee injuries persuaded her to get into coaching. Today, she works for the Alabama Department of Mental Health as a supervisor of group homes. She is a frequent visitor to the Decatur High Developmental Program, which is located just down the hall from Morris-Smith Gym and a trophy case filled with memories from when Watkins played. Instead of victories on the basketball court, Watkins, now 43, is all about wins for her clients. "There's nothing more enjoyable than seeing a client develop a simple skill that improves their life,"
Watkins said"Those are the greatest victories."