Heart and Soul

Freshman point guard Drew Lavender inspires injury-riddled Oklahoma and silences critics in wake of personal tragedy. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Haderthauer)

The following article appeared in the February issue of Inside OU Sports Magazine. If you would like to read more articles in-depth articles on Oklahoma's players and coaches click the link at the end of the story to get more information on how to subscribe.

***

Long before he traded baskets with LeBron James, earned McDonald's All-American honors and became just the second freshman point guard to ever start under Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma, Drew Lavender was the stepson of Bruce Howard.

So last April, on a blustery, overcast day, Howard like any parent, awakened Lavender from his early morning slumber, just in time for school.

"We didn't say much," says Lavender, not knowing then that would be the pair's last words. "He told me to get up and get dressed."

Just two days before, Howard, the boys basketball coach at Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio and an instrumental part of the mighty Central Ohio Nike Basketball AAU hoops program, had undergone an outpatient procedure to alleviate his discomfort stemming from sclerosing cholangitis.

The disease is a rare condition in which the bile ducts inside and outside the liver become inflamed and scarred. Eventually, the ducts become blocked, not allowing the excretion of bile, which in excess causes liver damage. Doctors are unsure what causes the disease.

Howard was diagnosed with the ailment in January, following his collapse after a basketball game in Florida, where he fell to his knees before his players and began throwing up blood, some four pints, roughly one-third of that found in the human body. That episode required emergency stomach surgery.

"It was really scary," says Lavender, who witnessed the scene. "I didn't want to believe it."

Inspired by Howard, Lavender and his Brookhaven teammates, which included fellow Sooner freshman Brandon Foust, played on without their coach, dedicating the season to him, and advanced all the way to Ohio's Division I title game, where the defending champs lost to Cincinnati Moeller.

But on that fateful day in April, which began like so many do, Howard started experiencing upper stomach pains, shortly after Lavender left for school. He was then immediately rushed to Riverside Methodist Hospital, where he stayed overnight.

"He kept saying he was tired," says Shirlene Howard, Lavender's mother, who married Howard in December 2001. "And that his stomach hurt."

The following day, Lavender's mother, who at the time thought her husband's hospital stay would only last a week, received an early morning telephone call from a nurse that would forever change her life.

"She said, ‘Did anyone tell you your husband isn't going to make it through the day?'" says Shirlene Howard. "When I heard that, I just started screaming."

Summoned from school, Lavender hurried to the hospital, where surrounded by his family and with Lavender holding his hand, Howard died on April 11 of liver failure. He was 43.

"I felt a squeeze," says Shirlene Howard. "I could see tears dropping and that was it."

Days later, before an overflow crowd of 2,500 at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, a grief-stricken Lavender stood in front of the open casket of his stepfather, struggling to maintain his composure.

"I never expected him to pass (away)," says Lavender. "We all thought he'd get through it."

Sooner coach Kelvin Sampson, who attended Howard's funeral, vividly remembers watching his future point guard, the youngest of four children, console his family.

"He was the shortest one up there, but they all leaned on him," says Sampson. "In that time, I found out a lot about that young man. That was one of the saddest moments I've had as a coach."

This season, like Lavender's family, injury-plagued Oklahoma has relied heavily on their 5-foot-7, 155-pound freshman point guard. By January, he'd helped guide the young Sooners to a 10-0 start and top ten national ranking.

Still, the loss of Howard has been especially difficult on Lavender and often weighs heavily on his mind.

"Sometimes in the middle of the night, I still wake up crying," says Lavender. "I really can't get over it right now. It's not fair."

But at times, neither is basketball, which Lavender quickly learned as a first-grader in the Nike All-Ohio Summer Basketball Program, where Howard often pitted the youngster against fifth- and sixth-graders.

"At first, I was intimidated by them," says Lavender, who chose the Sooners over Clemson, Mississippi, Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Seton Hall. "But then I got really comfortable playing against bigger players. That's how I learned to play."

When Lavender was in third grade, his father, Anthony, and mother split up, later divorcing. His father moved to Florida, leaving Lavender and his brothers, Anthony and Antwain, both of whom would later play college basketball at schools in Ohio, with his mother, and sister, April.

To ease the void of his father, nine-year-old Lavender sought refuge in basketball, where Howard, whose Brookhaven teams went 198-52 with 10 City League North Division championships and one state title, continued to mentor the youngster.

"They had an excellent relationship," says Shirlene Howard. "He taught Drew the way of life. Basketball was just a tool to keep him focused."

Soon, Lavender was zigzagging throughout the U.S. year-round to play for Howard's AAU teams and before long had established himself as one the nation's top prep point guards.

"He was like my second father," says Lavender. "He did a lot of things for me. When I didn't have money for AAU trips, he always came up with it. He made sure I was doing the right things and stayed on top of me about school."

While Lavender basked in the AAU spotlight, Sampson found himself in a tough predicament following the 2001 season, a campaign in which starting junior point guard J.R. Raymond was dismissed from the team.

In need of a battle-tested point guard for the ever-rugged Big 12 and determined not to move then-junior shooting guard Hollis Price to the position, Sampson signed junior college point guard Quannas White.

Knowing he would have to replace White just two years later, Sampson was again faced with another pivotal decision: would his next point guard be via junior college or high school?

"We knew whoever we signed at that position had to be good enough to come into a top ten type program and start," says Sampson. "We weren't just looking for any point guard. We needed someone who could come in and start from Day One."

Ultimately, Sampson decided on a high school point guard and in 2001, the summer before Lavender's junior year, he saw the smurf-sized sophomore play for the first time and was instantly impressed.

"He knew how to win," says Sampson. "Sure, he's quick, a strong ball handler, good passer and has a high basketball IQ, but his greatest strength is winning basketball games."

The possibility of signing Lavender and Foust, who had agreed to attend college together, was initially a daunting task for Sampson, that was until he and Howard became close friends.

"Bruce was such a straight shooter," says Sampson. "He was always honest and never fed us any of the BS certain other AAU coaches do."

In September 2002, Lavender and Foust verbally committed to the Sooners during their official visit to Norman, which of course was chaperoned by Howard.

"I always thought we had a great chance at Drew, because of Bruce," says Sampson. "He was a tremendous ally, because Drew looked up and respected him so much."

From then on, Lavender was in essence Oklahoma's starting point guard months before he ever set foot in Norman, which explains Sampson's lack of surprise at the success of the Columbus native this season. After all, he expected it.

"Right now, he's kind of on a magic carpet ride," says Sampson. "Every time he goes to another game, it's a new experience for him. When everything is new, you tend to live in a dream world."

In the process, Lavender, who scored over 1,000 points and dished out over 1,000 assists during his prep career, has also quieted skeptics who proclaimed he wasn't tall enough to play major Division I basketball.

"Height never has been and will never be a factor for him," says Sampson. "He's got too much heart."

Many opposing coaches, including Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, marvel at Lavender's poise and his ability to score, despite his small stature.

"He's as quick as a cat," says Calhoun, after watching Lavender torch his then top-ranked Huskies for 22 points and seven assists, while committing only two turnovers in January.

But Calhoun is perhaps most impressed by the fiery nature of Lavender, who after fouling out in the closing seconds of Connecticut's 86-59 rout of the Sooners had several choice words for the Huskies' bench before being escorted away by officials.

"I'd much rather see a kid with an emotion and passion than a kid that doesn't really care," says Calhoun. "I like seeing guys that are pissed that are down. That's what I said to him, ‘Keep competing, you're going to be terrific.'"

Still, Sampson says Lavender, who tallied a 3.0 grade-point average first semester, is capable of far more than he's shown this season. The veteran coach believes college basketball players make the biggest improvements between the end of their freshman year and beginning of their sophomore season.

"He's kind of holding his reigns back," says Sampson. "I want him to penetrate and create more. I don't want him to be a vanilla point guard. I want to him make mistakes and learn from them."

Despite his jet-like quickness and seemingly boundless energy only rivaled in recent Sooner memory by that of Mookie Blaylock, Lavender readily admits he's been forced to adjust to the college game, citing the difference in speed and tempo. He's also experienced his share of growing pains as well.

"You can't take any possessions off in college," says the 18-year-old Lavender, who patterns his game after 5-foot-5 Earl Boykins of the Denver Nuggets, a Cleveland native. "You have to play hard all the time. If you take a couple of possessions off, it can cost you the game."

But even Sampson, who rarely grants the media access to his freshmen, is well aware that Lavender is special, mentioning him in the same breath as Price, one of his favorite all-time players and a rare four-year Sooner starter.

"Drew is every bit as good and if not better than Hollis was as a freshman," says Sampson. "His best days in college basketball are way ahead of him."

That may be so, but Lavender isn't taking anything for granted. He and Sampson both acknowledge there is plenty of room for improvement.

"There's a good chance Drew won't grow anymore," says Sampson. "But he can get a lot stronger."

Away from the basketball court, Lavender describes himself as "easy going and not cocky." He enjoys playing video games and is well known for his flashy attire.

"He likes to wear all that hip-hop stuff," says Sampson. "He's definitely not buying his clothes from the Gap."

Since moving to Norman, Lavender has maintained regular contact with his father, who works as a night manager in Columbus, but still manages to attend many of Oklahoma's games.

"We've got a good relationship," says Lavender. "But me and Coach (Howard) were a little bit closer."

Less than a year removed from her husband's death, Shirlene Howard says she and her children are still trying to cope with their loss. She says Lavender recently called her, wanting to fly home and visit his stepfather's grave.

"He wanted to thank him," says Shirlene Howard. "I told him, ‘Drew, you don't need to do that. He's with you in Oklahoma.'"

Even though his stepfather was never there in person to see him drop one of his sizzling no-look passes as a Sooner or sink a game-winning floater, as he did earlier this season vs. Purdue, Lavender takes solace in knowing that his coach is watching from above.

"He'd want me to keep winning and playing hard," says Lavender. "I think I'm doing a pretty good job of that."

Subscribe to Inside OU Sports Magazine

Sooners Illustrated Top Stories