Saturday, January 20, 2018

Roles of father, coach a delicate balance for Lakewood's Lawrence

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 and into the joyous arms of his son, junior 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 for the Lawrence family.

"It was exhilarating," said Lawrence Sr., whose team faces Gainesville Eastside in today's Class 5A matchup. "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 Lakewood from mentor Dan Wright, Pinellas County's all-time wins leader with 674, 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 ended his pro career in 1995 to focus on his family.

"I was gone for long periods of time," Lawrence Sr. said. "I came home 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 anymore. 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., nicknamed "Amp," was born, he was destined to play basketball. He measured 22 inches and was an ounce shy of 10 pounds.

"Amp 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 doing basketball workouts, dribbling around cones in the front yard or at the nearest court. He was playing on the AAU circuit by age 4, often against older players.

Lawrence Sr. was always there, either conducting workouts or coaching those teams. But he had a growing desire to move to the high school level. He coached Shorecrest's girls 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 identity of his own. But in this case, the son always loved what the 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 football. That lasted two seasons.

"I missed the basketball workouts too much," Lawrence Jr., now 6 feet 7, 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 has played a large role in the offense the past two seasons and this season ranks second on the team at 19 points per game. Lawrence Jr. is listed as a three-star recruit by ESPN and has eight offers, including from Clemson, UCF, Louisiana Tech, Miami and USC.

Because of his role as a shooter, Lawrence Jr. often needs plays called for him to get open. 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 is 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 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 protected] or on Twitter at @BobbyHomeTeam.


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