The gymnasium at Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge is, to be kind, a very modest Quonset hut structure. The bleachers only go four deep and air circulation is limited through the outdated structure. If judging by appearance, you would never think one of the Louisiana's top basketball programs called it home.
But it was largely within these confines that the Panthers posted a 35-3 record over the 2001-02 season that ended with a Class 5A championship.
On Thursday, the Woodlawn Gym was the setting where 6-foot-7 junior Darnell Lazare - a key player in the Panthers' championship run - announced his intentions to play for LSU in 2003.
Lazare, who averaged 15 points a nine rebounds a game last season, elected to give an early pledge to the Tigers after taking an official visit to the LSU campus in April. His parents, Kerry and Julie, accompanied him on the visit and were at his side when he signed a national letter of intent with the Tigers.
"I really like the coaching staff and I've gotten to know some of the players at LSU," said Lazare. "I'd rather stay home and play for a quality team and get a quality education."
A student in the honors program at Woodlawn, Lazare holds a 4.2 grade point average and scored a 19 on his first attempt at the ACT. He says he plans to take the test again to improve his college placement as a Computer Science major.
A reason Lazare gave for committing early was his desire to concentrate on academics and defending Woodlawn's state title. The Panthers advanced to the 5A title game in Lazare's sophomore year before taking the crown in 2002.
Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana Tech were the only other schools to offer Lazare a scholarship, but increased interest came from Miami, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Ole Miss after his strong junior season.
Woodlawn head coach Kenny Almond uses Lazare as a low post player but feels he will be able to transition to the perimeter player role he will fill in LSU's 4-out, 1-in scheme.
"A 6-7 high school player is usually going to play close to the goal. That's big for high school," said Almond. "He's going to be used for his athletic ability (at LSU). He can run well, jump well and is a good defender. He's able to play inside and outside."
According to Lazare, LSU head coach John Brady has told him he could play just about anywhere besides point guard in the 41 scheme but will probably concentrate on one of the forward positions.
Almond says while many people think Lazare physically resembles NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant, the coach finds his game reminiscent of former Glen Oaks standout Lester Earl. A strong inside-out player in his heyday, Earl gained infamy as the focal figure in a recruiting scandal that resulted in NCAA sanctions for the LSU basketball program.
"I told Darnell he can play like Lester Earl, just don't act like him," Almond said with a laugh.
Almond brings a strong Woodlawn team back for 2002-03 and should challenge again for the state title. Joining Lazare will be 6-7 Kentrell Gransberry, a wide receiver who is drawing interest from the LSU football program, and 6-3 Rashan Jacobs, a transfer from East Ascension who had to sit out last season after switching schools.
Almond believes both athletes will be highly recruited through the remainder of their high school careers.
The LSU basketball program is likely to pursue both prospects along with a handful of other players in the Baton Rouge area – all of whom have become very familiar opponents to Lazare and the Panthers.
Woodlawn met district opponent Denham Springs, featuring 6-8 freshman forward Tasmin Mitchell, twice in the regular season and again in the playoffs. The teams split their league games before the Panthers prevailed in the post-season.
Lazare has also squared up against Capitol's Brandon Bass and Glen Davis of University High, both of whom are considered Division I talent and ranked high on the Tigers' priority list.
"I think it's great that there's so much talent here in Baton Rouge," Lazare said. "What else can you ask for on a Tuesday and Thursday night to see a good game of basketball?"
"I might be the first domino to fall," said Lazare when asked about the possibility of being followed to LSU by other Baton Rouge prospects. "It would be good to see all of us stay home, come together and play for LSU - because they're the enemy now."
Lazare has played with the aforementioned players in AAU games but says he will not do so this summer. He has invitations to the Bob Gibbons and abcd camps he's considering while working out with noted strength coach Gale Hatch to bulk up his 215-pound frame.
Brady in accident, receives minor injury: Lazare's commitment was much-needed good news for Brady, who was involved in an automobile accident in north Louisiana on Tuesday and came away with a busted nose. Brady's vehicle was totaled but there were no other injuries in mishap on Interstate 20 heading toward Minden where Brady had a speaking engagement.
According to the Minden Press-Herald, Brady took his eyes off the road for a split second to put a cup of coffee in his console when he looked up to see two cars in the median sticking out into the left lane. A car in front of Brady in the left lane swerved to the right to avoid the parked cars, but a car to Brady's right prevented him from doing the same.
Brady went into the median where his brand new Chevrolet Trailblazer slid into a guardrail after nearly meeting oncoming traffic and came to rest on its side.