LOS ANGELES — The gravitational pull at the Galen Center first began with Lindsay Gottlieb, in orbit in Cleveland thousands of miles away, no intention of leaving until she felt the magnetic tug toward an untapped gold mine.
She was a part of history, entrenched on a path few have walked before, the first women’s college basketball coach to be hired as an assistant by an NBA team. Yet Gottlieb found herself drawn to the head job at USC, to a program that hadn’t much as made the NCAA tournament for eight years. And her colleagues with the Cleveland Cavaliers asked her a rather fantastic question, back in 2021: Why is this a good job?
“I’m going through all these things I said,” Gottlieb said last week, reflecting, “but also I said, ‘the best player in the country is here in L.A.’”
Yes – the push for JuJu Watkins began, even as just a figment in Gottlieb’s mind, before she ever took the job at USC. And she set sail with all she had in recruitment, recognizing Watkins was a generational tide that could lift all ships. Gottlieb’s eye was clear: why couldn’t this program, with all its history and resources, be a perennial hotbed for women’s college basketball?
And USC clinched it on one presentation from Gavin Morris, USC’s director of player development, who pitched Watkins on the importance of building a culture in Los Angeles, the emotion of seeing little girls from her hometown of Watts wearing her jersey and coming to see her play.
It made Watkins burst into tears.
“I saw a vision for myself, just like being here – well, the vision that I’m living right now,” Watkins said.
On Nov. 13, after a blowout win over Le Moyne to improve to 3-0, Gottlieb was asked about the ways in which Watkins had been better than advertised. The coach gushed for two minutes straight, weaving a tale of a fearless freshman who dove to make her time during a conditioning test in summer workouts and had few flaws in her game.
“Should I stop now?” Gottlieb asked Watkins, who sat next to her blushing with head buried in hands.
“Yeah,” Watkins muttered, as the room burst into laughter.
It’s a pairing that will mark not just a revitalization of women’s basketball at USC, but the next era of college hoops across the country. A pairing united in risk, of two talents who had every reason to turn elsewhere in their lives but bet on each other.
And almost every piece of this program, drawn to the vision, has followed in Gottlieb’s wake.
“When the story plays out,” Gottlieb said, “it should always be more beautiful than you imagined.”
LEAP OF FAITH
Watkins could have chosen any program in the country and gone straight to the Final Four. She took a chance on Gottlieb.
It’s impossible to be hyperbolic with Watkins, because the superlatives all hold up. Assistant coach Beth Burns has been around the collegiate game for 40 years; Watkins puts in more work than anyone she has ever coached and has done things in practice she’s never seen before.
In the summer, USC was running a three-on-three-on-three full-court drill – you score, your team keeps the ball, first to eight possessions. Watkins was on a team with returning big Rayah Marshall and guard Taylor Bigby. On the first possession, as Marshall recalled, she came down and hit a hesitation pull-up.
Then she scored seven straight, capping it with a nasty reverse layup.
Dude, I’m going to walk out the gym, Marshall thought.
“She just freakin’ blew my mind,” Marshall said. “I was like, there’s no way you’re out here doing this. She’s just getting to college. Hasn’t played a basketball game yet.”
It was obvious, to everyone, that the shotmaking talent from one of the greatest high school careers in Southern California would translate. Through her first three college games, Watkins averaged 28.3 points. But Watkins has made this program better, too, in the small details, Gottlieb said: her coachability, her effort, indirectly pushing her teammates.
And, perhaps most special of all, she signed her letter of intent to USC when the program was coming off a losing season – the kind of belief that is pushing a team to make it pay off.
“JuJu had a huge leap of faith,” Burns said. “JuJu had to have courage.”
Beth Burns could have bet you her mortgage that she would end her career in Louisville. She took a chance on Gottlieb.
In the spring last year, while a few months pregnant, Gottlieb called Burns – needing, as Burns felt, some experience on her staff to steady the ship while she’d be out on maternity leave. Burns, entrenched in a cushy special assistant role to Louisville head coach Jeff Walz, said no. But she kept thinking about it. And Gottlieb kept calling.
And the impetus for Burns taking the assistant job, in May 2022, was simple: this USC program hadn’t made a Final Four since the 1980s, the days of Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper and Linda Sharp.
“I thought it would be really cool to help Lindsay do something that someone hadn’t been done in 40 years, and I believed in her,” Burns said. “So next thing you know, I was getting in a moving van, and here I am.”
It’s been an ideal coaches’ pairing: Gottlieb an offensive mind running an up-tempo, pro-style system, with Burns bringing decades of defensive-minded focus as balance.
“It was a blank slate,” Burns said. “There was nothing to build on. It’s easier, to me, to start from scratch, to blow it up, start from the bottom, and get to work.”
TRUSTING THE VISION
Marshall could have transferred after her freshman season, the most talented returning player on a 12-16 team. She took a chance on Gottlieb.
She came in from Lynwood High into a fraught situation, committing to USC in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when no visits were allowed, enduring a rough freshman season. Marshall, though, always “kept her North Star” on what the program could be, Gottlieb said.
And Marshall trusted Gottlieb’s leadership, she said. Trusted her vision.
“I think – she’s from South Central L.A., and from day one, valued every opportunity to be on this campus … she gives so much to our program,” Gottlieb said, “and I think has largely defined the improvement for three years.”
The 6-foot-4 Marshall was a key double-double presence in the middle for a team that flipped to 21-10 last season, and through three games this year, she has averaged 16 points on 70% shooting. Her pairing with Watkins has become special; members of USC’s football team have taken to calling the duo “Shaq and Kobe.”
“She embraces Ju and everything that Ju brings, in maybe a way that she didn’t have people embracing her in that way as a freshman,” Gottlieb said, “and I just think that relationship’s really important and special.”
COMMITMENT GOES BOTH WAYS
Aaliyah Gayles could have given up on basketball entirely, after an unfathomable tragedy. She took a chance on Gottlieb, because Gottlieb took a chance on her.
In one of the more remarkable comeback stories in recent basketball memory, the redshirt freshman took the court in USC’s second game a year and a half after being shot 18 times at a house party in Las Vegas, according to ESPN. Her story has quickly gone viral, an inspiration, Gayles a quiet presence simply happy to be moving forward.
“They all just love seeing me, just even walk on the court, put on a jersey,” Gayles said of her USC teammates, “’cause they seen me (through) a lot worse times.”
She was Gottlieb’s first major recruit as USC’s head coach, a lengthy process of committing and decomitting and committing again, before the shooting left bones broken and a year-and-a-half journey through rehab. There was no guarantee she’d be able to take a court again.
And yet Gottlieb, Gayles said, was the first person to hop on a plane to come to see her while she was bedridden in the hospital. She still had Gayles sign the letter of intent, a show of commitment to a player who’d committed to her.
“She still wanted me a part of this community,” Gayles said. “So that’s what – a lightbulb clicked. Like, this is where I wanted to be.”
FOUNDATION IN PLACE
Kennedy Smith could have chosen a program – South Carolina, UCLA – with more recent success, and where she could have created her own headlines. She took a chance on Gottlieb. And on Watkins.
For two years, Sierra Canyon vs. Etiwanda – Watkins vs. Smith – became perhaps the most scintillating basketball rivalry in California. Watkins and Sierra Canyon knocked off Etiwanda and Smith in the CIF State championship playoffs two years ago; Smith came back to win last year, her junior year and Watkins’ senior season.
They are two alpha personalities, fierce competitors, stubborn rivals that have suddenly become USC’s future. In November, Smith, the top recruit in California in the class of 2024, committed to USC.
“Playing against her, you see how competitive she is, the dog that’s in her,” Watkins said. “So, to have that – I had to have her. I had to hit her phone up. I appreciate her heavily, because I know what she’s capable of.”
Smith is one of three five-star recruits – joining New York’s Kayleigh Heckel and Idaho’s Avery Howell – in the class of 2024 that chose USC, a masterclass by Gottleib on the recruiting trail. The foundation has been laid for a national power in Southern California, the wings stocked to the brim, all striving to ride a wave to glory rather than start at its crest.
And that culture, Marshall said, started with Gottlieb.
“To start to see that momentum build is really, really exciting,” Gottlieb said after the Le Moyne game. “And it’s what this program deserves, it’s what these players deserve.”
“And I’m not going to rest until we get the right people, the right atmosphere.”