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ST. PETERSBURG — Dan Wright no longer strolls the sidelines in the gymnasium.
But he is not entirely absent from Lakewood High School’s boys basketball program.
After all, the team plays in the Dan Wright Gymnasium, also known as “The Wright House.”
It is an unchallenged reminder his successor, Anthony Lawrence, faces daily in one of the most carefully scrutinized transitions in bay area prep basketball history.
Wright’s name is still attached to the home of the Spartans, but his job after 35 seasons and 684 victories belongs to someone else.
Lawrence, one of Wright’s former standouts who was an assistant at Lakewood the past three seasons, took over the program during the summer.
“I think it finally hit me the first day of practice that this was my program now,” Lawrence said. “I just had a funny feeling come over me because it was something I didn’t know would ever be possible.”
Still, Lawrence, 42, finds himself in the uncomfortable position of replacing a living legend, a man who is to boys basketball on the south side of St. Petersburg what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey.
Wright is a 59-year-old icon who won two state titles and is the all-time wins leader among bay area basketball coaches. He also sent dozens of players to college.
One of Wright’s first stars was Lawrence, an all-county forward in 1988 who went on to play collegiately at Alabama and Miami, and professionally overseas.
“Even when I was playing in college and professionally, I always kept tabs on Lakewood basketball,” Lawrence said. “That was my school. I rarely missed a game whenever I was in town.”
Lakewood has a gravitational pull on those who attended, particularly athletes. Spartans greats such as Necole Tunsil (girls basketball) and Cory Moore (football) returned to their alma mater to coach.
Lawrence wanted to do the same. But he wasn’t about to unseat Wright. So Lawrence bided his time, first becoming a teacher at St. Petersburg High (2007-08) before transferring to Lakewood as an FCAT reading instructor.
Lawrence also took on coaching jobs. He coached Shorecrest’s girls basketball team from 1995-2005 and Admiral Farragut’s boys from 2005-07. Once Lawrence got to Lakewood he became one of Wright’s assistants.
“The first thing I was thinking about was teaching,” Lawrence said. “I was willing to go anywhere to do that. Then I wanted to coach. I was around a lot of great programs. But it still was not the same as Lakewood. This is where I always wanted to be. It’s kind of surreal to think this is now my program.”
But the transition from Wright to Lawrence has not always been smooth.
Wright stepped down because he was in the teacher’s deferred retirement option program. But Wright said administrators were still trying to find a way for him to continue coaching after he retired from teaching. Wright, however, decided to call it a career.
A committee was formed to find a replacement. Lawrence was one of the candidates, along with former teammate Dwight Latimore, a longtime assistant with the program whom Wright endorsed.
“Dwight and I have been friends since 1986,” Lawrence said. “It was a tough position for both of us. But there’s no controversy.”
In the months since Wright’s retirement, followers and observers in the community have been consumed by the adjustments of a team that will contend for a district title without its legendary coach.
The institution of Lakewood basketball, under Wright’s guidance, has been successful because of its consistent attention to detail.
While there might be a few tweaks to how things are done, the Lakewood staples of up-tempo offense and stifling defense are like heirlooms to be treasured and displayed under Lawrence’s reign.
“We all kind of wondered what it would be like with a new coach,” said senior Denzel Brooks, who played three seasons under Wright. “It’s turned out to be okay. Coach Wright was a tough coach who wanted the best out of his players. Coach Lawrence wants the same thing. He’s just a little more laid back. We do a few more things in practice. That’s really the only difference.”
Lawrence inherited a team stocked with underclassmen eager to learn, augmented by veterans willing to lead. The Spartans are 2-1, the only loss coming in overtime to defending state semifinalist Gibbs.
One noticeable absence has been Wright.
“I kind of wanted to stay in the shadows of the program,” Wright said. “Retirement is agreeing with me and this is Anthony’s team now. I’ll probably go to a game eventually, but most likely one on the road. But Anthony and I still talk and he asks for advice from time to time.
“I know he’ll do a good job.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org