Miami Norland Senior High’s basketball coach shows his players how to be winners – on the court and in life
Lawton Williams’ activism comes from being a positive role model day-after-day and season-after-season to High School teenagers, many of whom come from an at-risk environment. MiamiActivists.org visited with him in December and January.
Miami Gardens – Lawton Williams III got his first basketball coaching assignment in 1994. A church league in North Dade assigned him to a team of lanky 11- to 13-year-old boys who’d been cut from other teams but still wanted to play, even under the guidance of a rookie coach.
“We didn’t win many games, but those were good, hardworking kids,” recalls Williams, who still separates the imperative to win games from what he considers the greater goal of building young men.
These days, Williams succeeds at both.
The Miami Norland Senior High School boys’ varsity basketball team has won six state championships under his leadership, including four in a row between 2012 and 2015. So far this season, the Norland Vikings are 12 and 5, putting them in contention for a seventh state championship, which would secure Williams’ place as one of the winningest Dade County high school basketball coaches of all time.
Williams’ success is a blend of basketball fundamentals and a deep understanding of what makes kids tick, which Williams has gleaned from his years as a coach, a social studies teacher, a Phys Ed instructor for students with special needs. He’s also been married for 17 years and is the father of an 11-year-old son.
“Kids used to be tougher,” he said on a recent afternoon at Norland High in Miami Gardens. “Kids are more entitled now. But it’s not their fault, they’ll get away with what you let ‘em. I don’t let ‘em get away with much.”
Williams’ style is not for everyone and he’s cut some talented players.
“You’re not going to play for Coach Williams if you come to practice late; if you don’t play defense, and if you don’t do what he tells you,” says Ira Fluitt, a long-time Williams school district colleague who advocated for promoting Williams from junior varsity coach at North Miami Beach High to the Norland varsity position 16 years ago.
But Williams’ success doesn’t just come from being a no-nonsense disciplinarian who expects 110% day after day. He’s also become the patriarch of a large extended family in which he’s the hard-nosed but dependable and loving male role model.
This softer side comes through on Williams’ Facebook page: “Facts. They say I have favorites. I do. I favor workers. I favor humble. I favor GRINDERS. I favor DOGS.” Williams is writing about a code of conduct he calls “Vike Life.” “Grinders,” to him, are hardworking, selfless, accountable and willing to go the extra mile. When he says “dogs” he’s using slang for someone’s who’s there for you and who you can depend on.
His Facebook page also lays out the Coach Williams philosophy. Some of it is borrowed, like, “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” But Williams’ original writings are equally profound and even more relevant: “Two people who I will NEVER RESPECT. A woman who puts a man before her kids. A man who doesn’t take care of his kids. I don’t see you.”
Facebook also offers a view into the community Williams has built. When his father, who had been a long-time principal at Miami Douglas MacArthur North Senior High School, passed away in November, Williams grieved publicly and online. His posts prompted hundreds of likes and comments. Photographs showed him surrounded by his players who had come — in suits and ties — to comfort him. His expressions of his own grief were starkly beautiful. “Rest up daddy,” he posted, “Momma got you.”
Williams’ willingness to be vulnerable touches the entire Norland High community, especially his teenage players. Maurice McDaniel, who played for Williams all four years of high school and has stayed close to the coach since graduating remembers that Williams cried publicly when he learned that his father was sick. Williams’ players, both current and past, rallied around him.
“I didn’t grow up with a father figure,” McDaniel said. “My mom did most of the work. Coach showed me what it means to be a man. He showed us it was okay to be vulnerable.”
Norland High Principal Reginald Lee sees that side of Williams as well. “There’s nothing more important than his students. Lawton would give them the clothes off his back, the money out of his pocket. He’s a father figure, or at least an uncle, for most of these kids.”
And it’s not just the kids. Williams’ colleagues feel the same way.
“He’s like a big brother,” said Sonjia Ross, head of the school’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program which supports students will special academic and physical challenges and in which Williams holds both academic and Phys Ed teaching certifications.
Before game time on a recent Thursday evening, it’s easy to see Williams’ ethic at work.
His players look fit and confident and fall into a well-rehearsed formation as they go through their warm-up drills. It’s a pre-game ritual that Milton Parris, Jr., has seen often. He’s a 1986 Norland graduate and is now president of the Viking Alumni Association.
“They don’t lose games from being out of shape,” he boasts and explains that Williams’ success comes from keeping things simple, focusing on fundamentals and, perhaps most importantly, making the kids play basketball all summer to stay in shape.
Once the game begins, Williams is all business. At 6’2” and more than 300 pounds he’s a fierce giant, glaring at his players when they make a mistake, yelling at them during time-out huddles, and benching them if they make an error he’s corrected before.
Near the end of the first quarter, with his team down four points, Williams has had enough. He calls for a full court press. His players swarm around their opponents. Within a minute, the game is tied. A minute after that, Norland is up by four and the tide is irrevocably turned in Norland’s favor.
But Williams doesn’t lighten up. He maintains the full court press, yelling, flashing offensive and defensive signals, making frequent substitutions and pushing his team harder.
It’s only with four minutes left, with Norland up by 20, that Williams relaxes. He sends his third string onto the court, takes a long drink of water, and does a little strut. He cracks his first smile of the evening, pats players on the back and dishes out compliments which his players lap up basking in the glow of his approval.
“He pushes us to the point where we can’t do anymore, but we always can,” says Kendrick Wilson, a junior.
“He’s hard on us during the game,” admits senior Travis Baker, “But it makes us want to push ourselves harder.”
“He’s the same way off the court,” says senior Brandon Spaulding, “He tells us to go to class.”
Williams’ approach works. His teams win and his player’s take away lessons for life.
“Sure, he’s hard-nosed,” says Zach Johnson who played for Williams at Norland and is now a starting guard at the University of Miami. “At the end of the day, it’s out of love. He just wants you to be the player you want to be.”
“The most important thing I’ve learned from Coach Williams is that excellence is a habit,” said Maurice McDaniel. “If you want to achieve something you have to put the work in.”
McDaniel graduated from FSU in December with a degree in finance, making him, by William’s count, his 19thcollege graduate, a statistic the coach says is much bigger than basketball.