Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Three (Quick) Thoughts on the Lawsons' Exodus

Posted By on Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 3:53 PM

Tubby Smith has to make the University of Memphis basketball program his, and that wasn't going to happen with Keelon Lawson sitting on his bench. The Lawson family wasn't a problem of choice for Smith — Josh Pastner brought all three aboard — but it became Smith's problem the day he took the Tiger job. The most important person for Smith to keep happy last winter was his director of player development. Not athletic director Tom Bowen, not Tiger boosters (there are still lots of them), not Tiger fans in the least. Smith had to keep Keelon Lawson happy if he had any chance of retaining the services of Keelon's two sons, one of them supremely talented. That's no position for a decision-maker to find himself.

When the Tigers' season spiraled downward over the team's last nine games, no one was happy. And in this town, when the Tiger basketball program goes sour, fingers get pointed and names get called. Smith is the easiest (and first) target, of course, and he's paid handsomely for his ability to absorb criticism like he has since mid-February. But the Lawsons weren't happy either. To K.J.'s credit, he acknowledged what a poor loser he is during a late-season press conference, saying a loss always feels "like someone died." The atmosphere at FedExForum (and certainly the Finch Center) became hot with tension. The quickest way out (for one party) is to move on. That was Keelon Lawson's choice, and one he made for his sons.
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Business with family is dangerous. Basketball with family is much the same. And when basketball is business, forget about it. (I keep coming back to images of Cosa Nostra in this affair. One Michael Corleone line after another. "It's not personal, Coach Smith ... ") Keelon Lawson's sons are a business venture for him. He recognizes demand for their talents, and projects a certain value for their services. Part of his deal with Pastner was a well-paying job in exchange for Dedric and K.J. (and the inside track on Jonathan and Chandler). I haven't asked Tubby Smith the question straight up, but I'm guessing the head coach's big-picture view of the Tiger program doesn't necessarily include what's best for Keelon Lawson, short-term or long-term. Perhaps Keelon came to see this truth. Perhaps Smith told him, either directly or by the way he managed the program. Trouble is, the "business" of Tiger basketball clashed with the "business" of Lawson family basketball. No fishing trip for Fredo, but this made for an ugly split nonetheless.

• There's no drama like Memphis basketball drama. At his season-ending press conference last week, Smith let slip the word "rivalries." He wasn't clear if he meant internal (within the locker room) rivalries, or external (throughout the Memphis community). What does it matter? This town can be its own worst enemy when it comes to cultivating (read: selling) its talent pool of basketball players. Say the wrong thing to a certain high school (or AAU) coach, and the Tiger coach has new enemies for the duration of his time at the helm. Favors are sought. Preferences are expressed. And yes, rivalries surface between coaches and players from different high schools. (Andre Turner once told me how astonished he was at how quickly former rivals became brothers wearing the Tiger uniform together. That's a credit to Turner's teams — and the Little General's leadership skills — but hardly a given for every generation of local players.) Smith would be wise to assess his recruiting priorities within the city of Memphis. John Calipari — unfair standard or not – showed Tiger basketball could be sold to fans and boosters even with a roster of "outsiders." If it reduces rivalry and drama within his program, Smith should schedule more long-distance recruiting trips.

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