With his childhood dream about to become reality, Omar Wattad embraces the challenges that come along with it.
The all-time leading scorer in Science Hill basketball history has signed to play professionally with Energy Invest Rustavi basketball club in the country of Georgia.
Scheduled to depart the Tri-Cities on Sunday to play the final five months of the 2013 season with his new team, he will become the first Hilltopper to debut professionally since JoVann Johnson played in Poland and Iceland in 2003.
While joining a team which has already played 10 games this season in the Georgia Superleague and learning to communicate with mostly foreign teammates sounds intimidating, Wattad is ready to get started.
“I’m open-minded to things I haven’t experienced,” Wattad said. “I embrace new challenges. On the court, I just have to take the right mentality and be in the gym when it’s not practice time. I have to be in the training room, the ice room, keeping my body right.
“A major adjustment will be using my time well. In college, you have classes that occupy your time. This is my job now so I have time to work out, study film and really know what’s going on. It’s going to be a big adjustment for sure, but I have a positive attitude everything is going to work out.”
He’s certainly excited to join Rustavi, one of the league’s premier teams with four straight championships from 2007-10.
“From I’ve heard, Skyping one of my teammates, they have a lot of support and love for the team, so I’m excited,” Wattad said. “I thrive on that fan support. I’m going to grind, making sure I get in there and get extra shots up. Ball is life, that’s how I have to look at it.”
It’s always been a big part of life for Wattad, a two-time All-State selection at Science Hill and the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,191 points. Besides looking to the future, he took time to reflect on some of the greatest moments from his prep career.
“The all-time leading scorer is an honor because so many great players have come through Science Hill,” he said. “My favorite memories were senior year, beating Greeneville by 30 when they were No. 1 in the state. One of my best friends is Antwaine (Wiggins) and beating them by 30 in the ‘Topper Palace on a Saturday, that was awesome.
“Then, beating a team out of Canada in the Arby’s Classic my sophomore year, coach (Ken) Cutlip switched to a 2-3 zone and they kept jacking it up. We spread the floor and got them by doing back cuts. The way we came back on them in the third quarter, that was so much fun.”
After high school, he played at Georgetown for two years before finishing his career at Chattanooga. At Georgetown, he appeared in 11 games as a freshman, and 25 games as a sophomore. That time working with Hoyas coach John Thompson III, he said, was critical to his development as a player.
“I learned so much the two years I was there,” Wattad said. “I became a better player, a smarter player. I learned how to work out off the court, what it takes pushing yourself through drills. I think that was the right choice, but it was also a good choice to leave.”
The decision to transfer to Chattanooga gave him more chances to display his talents. With head coach John Shulman giving him increased playing time, Wattad was a two-time All-Southern Conference selection. His senior year he averaged over 14 points per game and also excelled in the classroom, a sociology major who made the Southern Conference Honor Roll.
Despite playing for the Mocs just two seasons, he ranks fourth all-time at Chattanooga in 3-point field goals made.
Overall, he hit 35.7 percent behind the arc for the Mocs and had 39 double-digit scoring nights. He scored 20 or more points on 11 occasions, and had a knack for coming through in the big games. He scored 24 points against Indiana, 16 points against Tennessee and nine points against national champion Kentucky.
Now, Wattad will carry on a long tradition of former Science Hill players in the pros. Among them, the most successful was Damon Johnson, whose 10-year career in Iceland and Spain included three consecutive Iceland League MVP awards and leading his team to the Icelandic Cup championship in 2003. Johnson also won a league title in Spain, where he was named to the all-star team.
In addition, former Hilltopper Nathaniel Bailey played in the NBA Development League for the Roanoke Dazzle and Gary Carter was drafted in the fifth round of the 1982 NBA draft by the San Diego Clippers.
Wattad went through a longer than expected process to get to this moment. Three months ago, a deal to join a professional team in Israel fell through in the final hours, and he had to sit on the sidelines as his agent worked through other negotiations.
“I’ve stayed patient, stayed positive that God knows best,” he said. “The credit of me doing anything I’ve done, first goes to God and second to my mother and father. It’s hard to show your appreciation as a young man, but I couldn’t have done it without them.
“This has been my dream since I was five years old, and now I’m getting to play professional basketball. The credit goes to my parents. When I played AAU basketball they would drive from Johnson City to Kansas City. That’s just love, the truest meaning of unconditional love, and I appreciate them so much for that.”