When Lou Williams was in high school here, his mother, Janice Wofford, made him wash the dishes and do his chores, the same as always.
Outside the family home, however, any shred of teenage normalcy ended and burgeoning celebrity began.
“It was crazy,” Wofford said. “That’s all I can say: It was crazy.”
By Williams’ junior season at South Gwinnett High in Snellville, when he led the Comets to a Georgia state championship, then-Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and hip-hop artists Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow were showing up at the school’s red-brick gym, a 45-minute drive east of downtown Atlanta, to be among the standing-room-only crowds watching the 6-foot-1, slightly built guard play in person.
The fire marshal kept an eye on the doors and the overflow crowds that filled the 2,500-seat arena all the way up to a raised track that encircles the court from above. If two fans left, two others were quickly admitted. Getting a seat meant showing up by halftime of the night’s preceding game, though business owners who couldn’t close early enough found a workaround — paying $1,000 per season to reserve space in a VIP section.
“It was celebrity night, all the time,” said Jim Rhodes, South Gwinnett’s public address announcer for the last 44 years.
Fifteen years after his graduation, the Clippers guard made the grandstands shake again Thursday morning. South Gwinnett students and teachers stood and rumbled when Williams, 33, walked inside at 10:12 a.m., his left arm around his mother, for the dedication of the basketball court in his name.
Lou’s whole high school came out to welcome him back on the day the gymnasium’s court is being dedicated in his name. pic.twitter.com/5z1GfVxnGk— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) January 23, 2020
Williams’ No. 23 jersey was retired several seasons ago, but now, “LouWillVille” — his nickname for Snellville, where he moved from Memphis when he was 9 — is painted on the hardwood beyond the three-point line, and a stencil of Williams, seen dribbling from behind, is cut just outside the paint. Seated on the court next to Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his teammates, Williams smiled when Snellville’s mayor declared the day in his honor.
“You don’t really envision that,” said Williams, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer off the bench. “I thought my number would be retired and once that happened that would be kind of cool, but this is surreal just to be memorialized on the floor.”
For the Clippers, whose traveling party arrived at the ceremony en masse on their way to Miami, the 30-minute stop was a chance to learn more about the player whose high school baskets were often accompanied by just a one-word cry from Rhodes: “Louis!”
Inside the gym lobby, teammate Kawhi Leonard read a framed jersey with a list of some of Williams’ high school accomplishments, such as 2005 Naismith national player of the year and Georgia’s Mr. Basketball as a junior and senior. There was so much information inscribed on the frame, Leonard had to lean in to read the small type.
Williams’ local legend began in eighth grade, his first year of organized basketball in Snellville, when he averaged 25 points while playing only two quarters per game because of a rule encouraging participation for all, said his middle-school coach, Quintin Jones. At the time, Williams “was a skinny kid who didn’t look like he weighed 50 pounds,” Rhodes said. But appearances weren’t deceiving to all. After one eighth-grade game, ESPN broadcaster Brad Nessler, who lived nearby, approached Jones and told the coach he had a future NBA player on his roster.
By his freshman year at South Gwinnett, so many letters from college coaches had arrived that Wofford stopped counting. Then the coaches arrived in person, elbowing for room at games with many others in this city of 18,000. Home games were “electric,” said Dorothy Jarrett, South Gwinnett’s principal.
During his senior season, Wofford took then-South Gwinnett coach Roger Fleetwood aside to ask a question in confidence: Is Louis as good as everyone says he is? At a time when Atlanta was becoming a prep-to-pros NBA pipeline (local stars Dwight Howard and Josh Smith were first-round picks in 2004), Williams drew attention because of his everyman size combined with extraordinary shooting ability. He scored 32 points as a senior against national powerhouse Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy.
“Lou has an influence,” Rhodes said. “Even though he’s not 6-foot-7 or 300 pounds, he’s always had an influence. Especially here. Everybody looked up to him.”
During Williams’ final season at South Gwinnett, around the same time he was featured in an episode of MTV’s “Cribs” touring Bow Wow’s Atlanta mansion, he began reconsidering his commitment to play for nearby Georgia. The NBA and its players union was still months away from implementing the “one-and-done rule” that requires players to be 19 to be eligible to be drafted, but Williams understood the possibility that his class could be the last that could go straight to the pros.
“Once [celebrities] started showing up, I think I realized that’s when I wasn’t going to college,” he said. “I was like, this is where I belong, this is the spotlight I belong in. In that time it was just surreal to have those guys here and try to put on the best show I could.”
When Williams held a news conference inside South Gwinnett’s gym after his senior season to announce whether he would play in college or go straight to the NBA, even his mother did not know his decision. He chose the NBA, and was a second-round pick.
He nearly retired in 2017, shortly after being traded to the Clippers — his fifth team in four seasons. Sticking around paid dividends. By winning the league’s sixth-man award each of the last two seasons, Williams is one of only two players in league history to have won the award three times. Jamal Crawford, who played five seasons with the Clippers, is the other.
Early during Thursday’s ceremony, after Jarrett quieted down a raucous crowd at this 2,600-student school, it was Rhodes’ time to speak. He drove his wheelchair to Williams’ seat on the court to offer a hug, then grabbed the microphone to tell the crowd his desire to see Williams win a fourth such award.
Williams smiled, and not for the last time that morning.
“I’m glad I stuck around long enough to hear the cheers and see the flowers grow and just be recognized for everything I’ve been able to accomplish in my career,” Williams said. “Especially in my own community.”
When: 5 p.m. PST, Friday.
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Update: Miami (31-13) has won nine consecutive at home, owns the Eastern Conference’s second-best winning percentage and is led by Jimmy Butler’s 20.3 points per game. The Clippers (31-14) could get guard Patrick Beverley back after he missed Wednesday’s loss because of a sore groin.