ST. PETERSBURG — Following the biggest game of his coaching career, Lakewood High School’s Anthony Lawrence Sr. made a calculated move, holding back any thought of hopping onto the court into the joyous arms of his son, star guard Anthony Lawrence Jr.
Instead, they waited until after the bus ride home from Cape Coral to acknowledge a defining moment — a 64-53 win over Mariner that propelled the Spartans to their first state semifinal since 2008 and the first ever for the Lawrence family.
“It was exhilarating,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I never made it as a player at the school or as a coach. But I couldn’t go out there and embrace my son any more than I would any player on the team. I treat them as if they’re all part of my family.
“It wasn’t until we were in the car heading home that I told him how proud I was.”
This is the parental predicament Lawrence Sr., 44, has faced since taking over the Lakewood program from legendary coach and mentor Dan Wright three years ago.
“It’s a difficult process,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I don’t want people to think I’m just coaching for my son. I have an entire team out there.
When I’m on the sidelines coaching, I don’t see him as my own son. But sometimes I sit back and I’m in awe of the player that he’s become.”
Lawrence Sr. was an all-Pinellas County forward at Lakewood in 1988 who went on to play at Alabama and Miami. After his college career, Lawrence Sr. played overseas, bouncing from Portugal to Mexico to the Dominican Republic, among other stops.
He decided to give up a professional career in 1996 to focus on his family.
“I was gone for long periods of time,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I came from one of my last stops and my daughter (Taylor) looked at me as if she barely recognized who I was. That really struck me. I knew I couldn’t do this any more. I didn’t want to be that absentee father.”
There was another reason for coming home. Lawrence’s wife, Zelia, was pregnant.
From the moment Lawrence Jr. was born, he was destined to play basketball. He measured 22 inches and was an ounce shy of 10 pounds.
“Amp (Lawrence Jr.’s nickname) was a good-sized baby,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I thought I was looking at myself when I first held him. He came home in basketball booties and we had him sleep in a basketball crib.”
By the time he was 3, Lawrence Jr. was already participating in basketball workouts, dribbling around cones in the front yard or at the nearest court. He played on the AAU basketball circuit by age 4, often against players older than him.
Lawrence Sr. was always there, either conducting workouts or coaching those AAU teams. But he had a growing desire to move to the high school level. He coached Shorecrest’s girls basketball team from 1995-2005 and Admiral Farragut’s boys from 2005-07. Then Lawrence Sr. returned to his alma mater to become one of Wright’s assistants.
“I was encouraged by someone to apply at Shorecrest,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I loved it. And Amp was right there with me.”
Being the kid of the coach is like being the son of the minister, with expectations to be dutiful and follow in dad’s footsteps.
Often, the expectations are too weighty, and the son wanders off to find a career and an identity of his own. But in this case the son always loved what his father loved, and he was good at it, too. Wherever big Anthony went, little Anthony went — to shootarounds, to practices, to games. Lawrence Jr. was forever on the floor or in the stands, watching, experimenting, dreaming.
The only time Lawrence Jr. deviated from basketball year-round was five years ago when he decided to play youth football. That lasted two seasons.
“I missed the basketball workouts too much,” Lawrence Jr. said. “Plus, I don’t think I was very good at football.”
Lawrence Jr.’s three seasons of high school basketball have been almost equal parts criticism and praise.
He was given a larger role in the offense the past two seasons and ranked second on the team this season with 19 points per game.
Lawrence Jr. is listed as a three-star recruit by ESPN and has eight offers, including ones from Clemson, UCF, Louisiana Tech, Miami and Southern California.
Because of his role as a shooter, Lawrence Jr. often needs plays called for him to get open shots. Lawrence Sr. acknowledges a hesitancy to call too many plays for his son. He doesn’t want to see the shoulders of his other players slump with the thought he was playing favorites.
“When I got into coaching I wanted to teach kids how to play for anyone, especially my son,” Lawrence Sr. said. “I tried hard not to coach Daddy ball. I’m always wondering if I’m being fair to Amp. It’s a constant give and take.
“And it’s harder in high school because I know there are people in the stands who think all I care about it is my own kid, which is totally untrue.”
Lawrence Jr. said his dad often exhibits tough love on the court.
“I think because he knows me so well and what I’m capable of that he’s probably tougher on me than anyone else,” he said.
But expect a very public display of affection if the Spartans win it all.
“It’ll still be about the team and the accomplishment if we win,” Lawrence Sr. said. “But there are definitely going to be some hugs flying around. The proud papa will probably emerge.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.
Where: The Lakeland Center
Admission: $10 per session; parking is $8.
5A: Lakewood (19-11) vs. Gainesville Eastside (24-6), 11:30 a.m. Friday