BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Rod Middleton and Tony Watson II arrived in Western New York seven years apart, and neither believed he would stay here after college. Bonded by their common University at Buffalo basketball experience and early morning workouts in pursuit of overseas opportunities, Middleton and Watson eventually teamed together to launch Pro Training Basketball.
As the former UB players take control of prominent high school programs this season, the business partners led teams against each other when The Park School visited Lancaster on Friday night.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Middleton said as he and Watson geared up for the game at the Pro Training gym in North Tonawanda. “It’s always nice when you have someone on the other side, whether it’s a coach or players, that you know. I’ll probably be talking to Tony during the game. I plan to take it all in and enjoy the moment.”
Watson said he and Middleton coached against each other once before on the AAU circuit.
“I got the better of him that day,” Watson said. “So this is Chapter 2 in our rivalry. We don’t really have one, but Rod and I are both competitive and want to win. So this game will be extremely fun, not only for the kids, but for us as coaches. We are going to go at it.”
Since they don’t plan to see each other over the weekend, a smiling Watson said Middleton “is going to get a couple days off to let the loss sink in and we will be best friends again on Monday.”
The Pro Training partners are two branches on the growing tree of local coaches who played for Reggie Witherspoon at UB. Middleton’s former teammate Calvin Cage is one of Witherspoon’s assistants at Canisius College. Sean Smiley, whose UB career overlapped the end of Middleton’s and the beginning of Watson’s, is the head coach at SUNY Fredonia. UB graduates Greg Gamble and Jason Bird have each assisted the Park program in recent seasons. There’s also former UB student-managers Jake Kroll, who later joined Witherspoon’s staff at Canisius, and Adam Cohen, now the associated head coach for Xavier.
The first to join the coaching ranks was the best player of the bunch, Turner Battle, who started out assisting Witherspoon with the Bulls, before moving on to jobs at Chattanooga, UAB, East Tennessee State, Middle Tennessee. When Battle desired a return to the WNY home of his wife, the former Williamsville North girls basketball coach Claire Crowley, he was recommended for the athletics director position at Park by Bird, president of the school’s board of trustees.
“It’s really a thrill to see them adopt Buffalo as their home,” Witherspoon said. “Many of them, when they came here had never heard of the University at Buffalo. They might have known the Buffalo Bills, but we had to convince them that we were a Division I college. And now they are here, making it their home, and affecting the lives of young people. I’m really excited that they see enough value in coaching and have decided to it.”
Soon after taking the AD job, Battle recruited Middleton, a Chicago native who coached last year at Tonawanda, to revive a Park program that was returning to the Monsignor Martin league and striving to revive its status as a state title contender.
“I had every plan to go back to Tonawanda, but when Turner reached out to me, it was a no-brainer,” Middleton said. “It’s one of my best friends. He was in my wedding. I was in his wedding. We have the same work ethic, the same vision for where we want this program to go. When he asked me to be the coach, my response was ‘when do we start?'”
Middleton also believes that Battle’s return to WNY will enhance the recruiting of local players, particularly those who play for Park or work out at Pro Training.
“He has all these connections from coaching the past 15 years in Division I,” Middleton said. “I’m going to lean on him and his relationships to get coaches to take a look at our kids.”
Watson, the son of a state champion coach in Florida, begins his first varsity job at Lancaster after coaching the JV at Starpoint. He also described the decision to coach at the second-largest public school in the area as “a no-brainer.”
“When that district comes knocking, you have to listen,” said Watson, who lives in Amherst. “Between the success all the athletic programs at Lancaster have had and the size of the school district, it’s a really good opportunity to play against, public school-wise, some of the best competition in the area.”
Watson didn’t intend to follow his father into coaching after he played at UB. While playing overseas, he started creating videos for young players to develop skills before linking with Middleton, who was certified in strength and conditioning and apprenticing at another local training facility.
Middleton began coaching when Watson urged him to start an AAU program associated with Pro Training, where more than 500 players have honed their games over the past six years, including top collegians and professionals like Jordan Nwora and Davion Warren.
Witherspoon wasn’t certain that Middleton or Watson would join the coaching profession, but recognized their potential as players.
“I always though they were capable,” Witherspoon said. “In Tony’s case, his dad coaches, but I didn’t know that he would want to do it. They are both so bright and they love the game. There are a lot of areas where they could have been successful. It makes me feel good that they are not only coaching, but trying to impact the lives of young people.”
Settling in WNY wasn’t the game plan they drew up in college, but both Middleton and Watson recognize how Witherspoon influenced so many down that path.
“Coach Witherspoon definitely had an impact on all of us,” Watson said. “We all take stuff from those days, and the coaching rubbed off on us. Even though a lot of us played at different times, we consider ourselves family. We have group chats with a lot of former players. Our kids know each other’s kids. And when you watch the teams we coach, we are all hard nose, blue collar, mentally tough, and consistent with our mindset.”
“It’s pretty amazing that we all chose this path,” Middleton said. “If you asked any of us when we were at UB if we’d come back to Buffalo after graduation, we’d have said ‘absolutely not'” But Coach Witherspoon did a great job instilling certain habits in us, and when life presented these opportunities, we were ready for it.”
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Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.