The Moore League basketball season usually gets underway in mid-December. In a typical year, it would not be out of the ordinary to spot a few Long Beach Poly basketball players outside the front entrance to Cabrillo High School. But this is not a typical year, and the reason that a star-studded trio of Jackrabbits was on the Westside last week wasn’t for basketball, it was for the community.
Peyton Watson, his younger brother Christian Watson, and Jalen Pitre joined a group of other volunteers and staff at the Westside Boys & Girls Club for a holiday toy drive, handing out backpacks and toys to kids. A line of cars and minivans stretched along Cabrillo High School and out onto Sante Fe Avenue, as families in need were able to pick up some needed holiday cheer.
“I just think every kid deserves a Merry Christmas,” said Christian Watson, a kid in his own right who’s in his junior year at Poly. “I think with us being blessed, we should give back and help our community as well.”
Pitre is new to Poly after transferring from nearby Gahr High School in Cerritos. He grew up in the Carson and Compton area and spent plenty of time in Long Beach as a kid. He was eager to give back and try to make a positive influence on the community.
“We’re blessed. And I feel like it’s important to give back to the community and bless others, because you don’t know what others are going through,” said Pitre, who recently signed a scholarship with Pepperdine. “You might brighten their day, brighten their Christmas, you just never know. So it’s important to be humble and give back the blessings that we’ve received.”
While it’s not uncommon to see professional athletes make donations or appearances as an attempt to give back to their communities, it’s rare to see high school kids take on that same level of responsibility. It’s been a while since Long Beach has had a recruit at the level of Peyton Watson–a consensus five-star talent, Top 15 national prospect, and a UCLA signee–and it’s unique to see that level of social awareness from high school athletes.
“For us, it’s never too early to give back,” he said. “We feel as though we’re already fortunate in that we have an influence on our community, just through the God-given ability to play the game of basketball. So we just want to come out and give people a Merry Christmas, because all these kids deserve it and we just wanted to do something special for them.”
The players spent a few hours handing out backpacks, toys, and clothes, donated by various organizations to the Boys & Girls Club. They also spent time with the kids at the club, shooting some hoops with them on the facility’s outdoor basketball court.
Several other members of the Watson family were in attendance at the event, along with Bryson Financial CEO Trent Bryson and his family, who have been longtime supporters of the Boys & Girls Clubs. Long Beach Poly legend and three-time Super Bowl champion Willie McGinest also came by to support the toy drive. As a kid who grew up at the city’s Boys & Girls Clubs, McGinest knows first-hand how important those facilities are, and the difference an athlete can make in a young kid’s life. He spoke to the importance of athletes being visible in the community to help inspire the next generation, how that experience helped him, and how integral that’s been through several generations of Poly athletes.
“I think it’s extremely important. I had guys like Mark Carrier, Leonard Russell, Chuckie Miller, all those guys came out,” McGinest recalled. “They went to major universities and were professionals, and they always came back and worked out right at Poly during the offseason. That gave hope. It showed me that if I stay focused and do what I need to do, I can have an opportunity to be where they were.
“It doesn’t take money, it doesn’t take a lot of things people think it takes. It just takes what you see right here, this man and all the success he’s had and all the things he went through is right here at the Boys & Girls Club with these kids, shooting the ball around, hanging out and giving back. How important is that? You can’t make that kind of stuff up.”
That mentality has carried on through McGinest and down to younger generations of Jackrabbits. That’s reflected in the Watson brothers, who have already taken to their position as role models in the community.
“As kids, there were older guys we used to look up to as well, and they used to pave the way,” said Christian. “So now that we’re in those shoes it’s important that we do the same.”
“There were also times where there were guys that we looked up to, but we never really got to see them or be with them or talk to them,” Peyton explained. “So the best part for us is just going back there and being with the kids. Being able to communicate with them, shoot a few baskets with them and just being around them, that’s important.”