Keon Lawrence: Through the Fire
He didn't believe them, so he called his brother's cell phone. No answer. Shock surged through his body. He'd lost friends to violence before – it's just a reality of life in where he's from – but never someone so close to him. His brother, Raheem, 31, had been shot in Lawrence's native Newark, N.J.
"He got shot or whatever, five times, collapsed and died," Lawrence said earlier this season, forcing a half-hearted smile. He always smiles.
"It's hard. It's hard to believe that he's gone, for real," Lawrence said.
Still, Lawrence somehow managed to keep that smile on his face, the familiar toothy grin that has earned his reputation as perhaps the most charismatic player on the team. It was a trait born in struggles.
"His home life wasn't that good, but the thing with him is character," said his high school coach, Derrick Butler. "The talent was there."
He practiced the morning after he heard the news, the left for Jersey. Only briefly after he returned would he crack and show a bit of emotion, and only inside his apartment with roommate and best friend Zaire Taylor.
"Keon's a strong person, so he was trying to go about his everyday life almost as if nothing happened. He was still going to practice everyday, working hard," says Taylor, who is redshirting this year after transferring to MU from Delaware at the urging of Lawrence.
"It's surprising how well he handled it, but he's a real strong person on the court and off the court," said Taylor, who tabbed Lawrence to be the best man at his wedding.
"I could always see it hurting him, but he'd always try to play it off as if nothing happened. He's a real strong person and fun-loving person, so he tried to have that personality throughout the while thing."
Still, it was clear things weren't all right, especially during an early-season shooting slump that saw Lawrence make six of his first 30 3-point attempts. He's shot nearly 40 percent from behind the arc as a freshman. While his brother's death had been a secret to everyone outside the program, people were also beginning to learn that both his father and grandmother were dangerously ill.
"I'm getting through it. I mean, I'm still having a problem, but I'm getting through it though. I've just gotta stay focused. I've just got to do a lot of things to keep my mind off of it," he said.
He called Butler for advice. The two talk regularly.
"I'm more of a father than a coach," Butler said. "I told him it could happen to anyone. Anyone could lose a loved one any day. It's a business. He has to get through it."
But the slump worsened. Though his jumpshot had betrayed him, he'd still managed to score in double-digits in eight of Mizzou's first nine games, the one exception a nine-point game against Fordham. But Dec. 15 against McNeese State, he began a five-game slump during which he averaged 6.2 points per game and missed 28 of 39 field goal attempts.
On top of his offcourt worries, he also now had the slump caused by them to stress about. It was a multi-layered shot to his confidence.
"I think Keon, he kind of beats himself up a little bit," MU coach Mike Anderson said. "He wants to so bad. Like all the young players do. They've got all the answers. They can do this and do that. But it's a progression, and I think he is learning about big-time Big 12 basketball."
Lawrence had lost his job in the starting lineup, and it seemed the skinny 6-foot-2 jumping jack, who some feel is the most talented player in the program, was in danger of losing his sophomore year as well.
"I've been thinking too much … I just can't finish like I know I can finish," Lawrence told the Kansas City Star. "I'm hoping, man. I've just got to try to put it behind me and play as hard as I can.
"I haven't been doing a good job. I've been letting it affect me on the floor a lot."
But then, abruptly, things began to look up. He scored 11 points and blocked three shots – an abnormal number of swats for a guard – in 23 minutes against Missouri-Kansas City, and followed that up with his best game of the season: 18 points in 26 minutes against No. 11 Texas, leading MU to an upset win that may have turned around a wayward season for Missouri.
"I always put a lot of pressure on myself and coach tells me I shouldn't do that," Lawrence said. "I try not to put pressure on myself, but I always do. I can't help it."
Given his natural gifts, it's difficult to blame him for expecting big things from himself. Marquette, Texas and Villanova were among the schools that recruited him after a decorated high school career capped by averages of more than 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game as a high school senior. He was the first player in his district's history to eclipse 2,000 points in a career.
A born scorer and explosive leaper who could dunk with ease at about 6-1, he also was nicknamed ‘The Human Pogo Stick.' In one game he scored 52 points without the benefit of a single 3-pointer.
"All layups and dunks," Butler said. "In high school, he was The player."
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