COLUMBIA — Hickman basketball coach David Johnson saw a face he knew well. But for the first time, he wondered if the meeting would be awkward.
The Rock Bridge boys basketball team was walking down the hallway toward the Hickman boys locker room.
at Rock Bridge (13-4)
WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Rock Bridge
Rock Bridge player Manuale Watkins approached, wearing his green, white-striped warm-up jacket and green sweatpants as well as his headphones.
His eyes met Johnson's. Watkins nodded.
It was a gesture of appreciation. Watkins played for Johnson's Columbia Orange travel teams ever since his family moved to Columbia when he was in fourth grade. Along the way, his father, Missouri men's basketball associate head coach Melvin Watkins, and Johnson became friends.
But as a ninth-grader at Jefferson Junior High last year, Manuale Watkins made the Rock Bridge varsity team, and Johnson began his second stint as the Hickman head coach this season. On Dec. 16, coach and pupil met as opponents for the first time.
In the second quarter, Manuale Watkins sparked a 14-0 run during which Rock Bridge retook the lead for good. He ended with 13 points in the 60-50 Rock Bridge win. Johnson watched, excited and proud of Manuale, but also concerned by his players' struggles to stop him.
"It’s certainly bittersweet for me," Johnson said. "Any kid you see (whose development) you’ve been a part of, regardless of whether they’re playing against you or for you, you like to see them go out and perform at a high level at all times.
"At the same time, he's playing against me now. You have to tell yourself, 'It doesn’t mean anything.'"
Melvin Watkins joined the MU basketball staff in 2004 after six years coaching at Texas A&M. His older son, Marcus Watkins, also transferred from College Station to play for MU, but he still needed to find a place for his younger son, Manuale Watkins, to play.
He found one in the Midwest Sports Challenge, an academy Johnson started in 2000. Soon Manuale Watkins was helping the 10-and-under Columbia Orangemen (a travel team associated with the Midwest Sports Challenge, which has since changed its name to the Orange) go undefeated in a Show-Me Games tournament. In the next four years, travel teams that Johnson coached and Manuale played on consistently placed well in tournaments.
Johnson and Melvin Watkins bonded over their shared experiences playing and coaching basketball. They watched college basketball together and often golfed. Melvin Watkins and Johnson's other friends knew better than to play money games with him, because Johnson once had around a 10 handicap. Manuale Watkins never joined them, though.
"I don't think Manuale has the patience right now for it," Johnson said, laughing.
Unlike many travel teams, the Orange players spent time together off the court. After tournaments, they would go out for pizza, or one of the coaches would have the players over for dinner. Sometimes they would go to each other's homes and spend the entire weekend. Even now, Manuale Watkins remains close with Johnson's ninth-grade son.
"It wasn’t like a 'Go and play and then come home' type thing," Manuale Watkins said. "We were all friends."
On the court Johnson developed the younger Watkins with firm instruction that never seemed too harsh. During games he would get in the young player's face, but he would not yell.
"He's such an enthusiastic coach," Manuale Watkins said. "In the games he gets into it, but he's teaching you. You're learning when he says something."
As Manuale Watkins disrupted Hickman's momentum early in the December game, it all seemed too familiar to Johnson. He remembered how a younger Manuale Watkins used his long arms and his ability to anticipate on defense to make "big time steals." He would then drive down the court and finish with a layup or, more often than not, pass to a teammate.
"Those are the things that came into fruition against us," Johnson said. "I wasn't very excited about it at the time, but I was proud of him."
Watkins doesn't usually start for Rock Bridge (13-4), but he often ends up playing more minutes than some of the starters. Rock Bridge coach Jim Scanlon has called the 6-foot-2 sophomore a player without a set position.
"We like to bring in some energy off of the bench, and he gives us that," Scanlon said. "At the end of the game, win or lose, he's usually in there."
Both Johnson and Scanlon have faulted Watkins for being too unselfish. Sometimes he will drive to the basket or work for a rebound, only to pass back outside.
"That's up to him (to change) right now," Scanlon said. "I'm looking forward to seeing, as he develops, how much stronger and better he'll get. I think he's only touched the surface of what he can do."
That's a scary thought for Johnson and Hickman (7-10). Back problems have inhibited Manuale Watkins lately, and he only scored two points in Rock Bridge's 61-56 loss to Branson last Saturday. He has responded to treatment and Scanlon expects him to be fine when the Bruins try to extend their 16-game win streak against Hickman on Friday.
Johnson wouldn't give away any of his game plan, but he indicated stopping Manuale Watkins is part of it.
"Certainly he’s on my mind," Johnson said.