SALT LAKE CITY — The only thing standing between Dedric Lawson and the most important event of his life was the leader of the free world.
Flash back to March 15, 2017. Lawson, then a sophomore with hometown program Memphis, had competed just five days earlier in his final contest with the Tigers, a 30-point drubbing to UCF in the AAC Tournament quarterfinals. In less than a month, Lawson and older brother K.J. would announce their intention to transfer, the duo just days later identifying Kansas as their next destination.
The seeds of that decision very well could have been germinating in Lawson’s head on this date, which also represented a Tennessee Class AAA basketball semifinal for Memphis East sophomore Chandler Lawson, the second youngest of the four Lawson brothers. Neither, though, were at the forefront of the thoughtful forward’s mind on this particular Friday.
Something else took precedent.
Lawson was about to become a father.
While his own father, Keelon; mother, Dedra; youngest brother, Johnathan; and K.J. made the trek to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to watch Chandler’s pursuit of a state championship, Dedric Lawson had made other arrangements. He planned to leave that day to visit the soon-to-be mother of his child, whose due date was still a week away.
That’s when unexpected news came down the pike — the baby was on its way, and soon.
Lawson made it to Nashville International Airport, but there was one problem: A high-profile visitor had a rally that day in the same city.
As Lawson learned, Air Force One only prioritizes one person’s travel itinerary.
“It was crazy. I think the president was down there and everything. I almost missed my flight,” Lawson recalled in a recent interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal. “But I ended up making it. I ended up making it.”
Kennedy Paige Lawson was born March 16, 2017. As those closest to Lawson contend, it was a moment that further matured a person already described by those in his community as beyond his years.
Priorities and perspective, it seemed, had shifted.
“It was just a special moment being in the room. It’s a feeling you can’t describe," Lawson said. "I’d definitely say it changed my life forever.”
The two years since that day have seen Kennedy come into her own as the superstar of a family already full of athletes and dynamic personalities.
“Man, she’s the most beautiful human being," said Lawson, who will try to lead KU to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 at 8:40 p.m. Saturday, when the Jayhawks (26-9) play Auburn (27-9) in Salt Lake City. "Feisty. She can be sweet at times. Don’t get in her way. She gets a little attitude — don’t know where she gets that from."
Lawson laughed, then continued: “She’s definitely the best baby that I can ask for, and I love her to death.”
Fatherhood is just one element of this story. When one learns of Lawson’s own upbringing — the gritty city that raised him, the road that led him to Lawrence and the family ties that held it all together — a more robust picture is painted of the maturation of a man hell-bent on doing the right thing.
“Once I see her, it’s just so much attachment I have with her, just being here for a couple of days that she is,” Lawson said. “Then she leaves, and sometimes, you know, FaceTime just don’t get it. It’s just trying to be there for her and just trying to be the best father I can be for her.”
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Dedra Lawson has worn many hats in her son Dedric’s life — mother, coach and snack delivery service, to name a few.
An AAU circuit fixture in Memphis, former collegiate standout and, as K.J. Lawson puts it, “the brains behind everything," Dedra has been a rock in the budding hoop journeys being forged by her four sons. That’s true of Dedric, who awed his mother at a young age — “I’ve never seen anybody do this: He could throw the ball the length of a court at 8 years old,” she recalled.
Still, when discussing her second son’s appetite for the sport, Dedra can’t help but chuckle.
“Dedric, this is no lie, he would have to eat before a game,” she said. “It’s just something that most athletes are like, ‘How can you eat before a game?’ I mean, literally right before a game, he’d have to eat, because at the time he was chunky, he was a little fat kid, and he would have to eat. He would go out there and people were like, ‘How is this kid able to do this and he just ate a full meal?’ ”
On occasions where the pregame spread didn’t cut it, Lawson suffered what his mother labeled “hunger headaches.” That's when a simple glance to the stands by father and head coach Keelon set the wheels of recovery in motion.
“I would have to literally go get him a Snickers bar during the course of a game,” Dedra said. “This is no lie: He would eat that Snickers bar, he would come back in the game, score 30 points, 15 rebounds. I was like, oh my goodness, what’s going on?”
Big-boned struggles aside, Lawson's exploits earned him a reputation in the area, and a nickname: "Slow Good."
“He wasn’t fast, and people say he’s not athletic," Dedra said, "but he was always able to get things done."
While Lawson was building an on-court identity, his world away from it brought a struggle with what brother K.J. simply labeled "heartache."
As Dedric Lawson explained, Keelon didn't have the best-paying job, and while Dedra did the best she could, the family's financial outlook often turned bleak. There were nights where the lights in their home were shut off, forcing the Lawson brothers to an extended stay with their grandmother, Walterine Jeffries.
Lawson acknowledged it was difficult not to be worried about how the financial struggles were affecting his parents, but in the tough times, he remembered his father's often-expressed message: "No matter what, just keep going. Find a way to be a man and grow up."
“That’s really the most adversity I ever had in my life," Lawson said, "just not knowing where you’re going to sleep."
Jeffries, the boys' great-grandmother Jamie Morris and family members on Keelon's side were the glue that held things together during the rocky situation, right down to the last detail.
“My mom, this is no lie, we had like five baskets of socks in our house, and my mom would sort all those socks,” Dedra said. “She would have all the white socks, black, colored socks, and the boys would just grab their socks and leave or whatever.
"It was just a collective effort.”
Dedra said the family's situation wasn't unique in the backdrop of Memphis, a city that in 2018 had a poverty rate of 24.6 percent and a child poverty rate of 39 percent.
“It’s always a backs-against-the-wall mentality that kids have there, that everybody’s against them,” Dedra said. "So when they leave Memphis and they go to different places and they’re being exposed to different adversity, I think they feel like, ‘OK, this is nothing compared to what I’ve been through or what I’ve gone through. I’ve got friends that’s been shot. I’ve had teammates that are in gangs and whatnot.’ They don’t have a dad around or a mother around.
“So seeing that and being exposed to that prepared them for the real game that is life, and I think because they are from Memphis, that prepares you because that’s a tough city to come from. The ‘grit and grind,’ they say, that truly is a city of grit and grind. That’s who we are. That’s what we believe in.”
K.J. Lawson, who came of age in that environment, expressed the same sentiment.
“Everybody from Memphis is tough. Everybody,” he said. “Everybody has a tough upbringing. Suburbs is very urban. Nowhere is safe, and everywhere you go you just try to be as competitive as possible because it’s like a crab-in-a-bucket mentality. Everybody’s trying to make it.”
Out of Memphis and on the cusp of making it, Dedric Lawson recalled one odd feeling from his childhood: Despite having friends with more material possessions, an around-every-corner presence of those in even rougher situations than the Lawson family provided ample perspective.
“I understand how to be grateful and not want so much,” Lawson said. “It just put me in the best situation to have a better mindset. Like, man, I can use this tool of basketball that God blessed me with to make a difference for my family and others.”
* * * * *
Dedric Lawson’s first impression at Kansas didn’t go well. His second was worse.
A former McDonald’s All-American coming off averages of 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds as a sophomore at Memphis, Lawson arrived in Lawrence in 2017 with high expectations, even with those around the program aware that patience needed to be exercised for the transfer still more than a year away from in-game action.
Still, Lawson didn’t exactly set the program on fire out of the gate.
“When he came here, first time he practiced, he didn’t make any shots and he was slow as all get-out,” assistant coach Norm Roberts recalled. “But you could see, whoa, whoa, whoa, he’s just not in shape and his timing’s not right. Then he just kept getting better and better and better.”
Any progress Lawson made that summer came to a screeching halt in July, when the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder was banned from the team's upcoming exhibition tour of Italy following what coach Bill Self simply labeled an altercation the forward didn't handle well. An ensuing suspension removed Lawson from team practices indefinitely.
Recalling the incident today, Lawson declined to talk specifics, though he acknowledged it was a heated moment at a practice “that didn’t have to occur.”
“I just understand that you can’t handle all situations the same as you handled in the past," Lawson said. "It was all just a growing lesson.”
Dedra Lawson agreed.
“He just realized that he can’t allow people to get under his skin,” she said. “I know Dedric is a mild-mannered person and he’s let so much stuff go. He gets pushed to that limit — you just saw another side of him that you didn’t want to see.”
She laughed, then finished her thought.
“That’s life,” she said, “for people who are quiet.”
Lawson’s suspension was lifted after the team returned from Italy, but the first-year struggles weren’t over. Watching that Final Four-bound Jayhawk team’s run was both a rewarding and frustrating experience for Lawson, who said he too often released steam by unloading on officials at scrimmages or by giving unmotivated efforts at practices.
A heart-to-heart with Self changed that attitude, with the Hall of Famer contending the team couldn't reach its peak unless it was pushed in practice every day by the Lawson-led scout team. A short time later, Self commended the contributions of the group for the Jayhawks' late-season push.
As for the year since that turning-point moment? Call it "Smoove" sailing.
Selected a preseason All-American, Lawson has lived up to the hype and his "Smoove" nickname in his redshirt junior campaign, averaging Big 12-leading marks of 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. Lawson has recorded 21 double-doubles this year, with his 50-point, 25-rebound two-game effort against Marquette and Tennessee at the NIT Season Tip-Off on Nov. 21 and 23 in New York serving as a nationally televised coming-out party.
Rarely one to show emotion on the court, Lawson did just that after an out-of-character dunk in the overtime period of the Jayhawks’ 87-81 victory over the Volunteers, the lanky forward kicking his right leg forward and letting out a celebratory shout.
“I don’t even think he knew he took off like he did. I think he shocked himself,” said Kevin Conley, Lawson’s former freshman team coach in Memphis and someone who describes his role as a “mentor, big brother or uncle."
"He gets a lot of grief behind not really dunking the ball a lot," Conley added. "We always joke around and say, ‘Hey man, you’ll start dunking when they start giving you five points for it.’ ”
Lawson is finishing strong, too — his 25-point, 11-rebound line in just 27 minutes in his NCAA Tournament debut paced KU to an 87-53 opening-round victory over Northeastern on Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
If Roberts wasn't sold after Lawson's underwhelming debut practice, well, the longtime assistant has certainly bought in by now — both in player and person.
“He’s awesome,” Roberts said. “What Dedric does, Dedric brings the same positive attitude every day. Every day. I mean, he has been an absolute joy to coach. ... To me, the sky’s the limit for him because he can affect the game in so many ways on the offensive end, from shooting to passing to ball handling to rebounding. He can do so many different things.”
Roberts described Lawson as “a sweet, sweet kid” but cautioned outsiders, and perhaps future opponents, from thinking the frontcourt force is a pushover.
“He’s got an edge,” Roberts said. “When the game is on the line, he wants the ball. He wants to make plays and he’s not afraid. Some guys are afraid to fail. He’s not afraid to fail. He understands that’s part of the process and everything, so he’s going to do everything he can to help us win.”
For as much as the Jayhawks (26-9) have gotten out of Lawson, perhaps the same could be said in reverse, at least in the eyes of one in-the-know figure.
“Lawrence is such a small town. It kept him more focused on what he really wanted for his dreams,” Dedra Lawson said. “Memphis did too, but it’s more of a distraction because, you know, you’ve got your friends there, and you’ve got your teammates. There’s just a lot going on, and a lot of crime in Memphis.
“In Lawrence you’re more focused because it’s so cold and then it’s so small, there’s really nothing for you to do but focus on what you want to do, your academics and your athletics.”
* * * * *
Dedric Lawson has multiple nicknames. Daughter Kennedy earned her first before her second birthday.
“Man, she’s ‘Miss Personality,’ ” said Conley, Lawson’s mentor. “Whenever she comes to the gym with Dedric or her uncles Johnathan or Chandler or even K.J., man, she takes to the gym like a natural. She bosses everybody around. Wherever she wants to go, wherever she feels like goin’, she goes. She loves to kick that basketball around the gym, and man, she’s definitely a chip off the old block in terms of being a young person that just loves to be in the gym but, more importantly, loves to be around her family.”
While Lawson and Conley speak almost daily about hoops, life and “things that don’t even matter,” the subject of fatherhood hasn’t been a frequent topic. Conley sensed nervousness in Lawson during the months leading up to Kennedy's birth, but March 16, 2017, made it clear his protégé had the situation well in hand.
“I would say immediately upon her arrival he completely shifted that (mentality),” Conley said. “He’s been a man of confidence and he’s been a wonderful father. Any time her name comes up or any time we’re talking about Kennedy, you can just tell by the grin that he wears (that) of course, he's in love. Of course, he loves her to death. Whenever he’s holding her I can just tell, man.”
K.J. Lawson indicated his brother has stepped up to the plate.
“Fatherhood’s a serious thing,” he said. “You're raising someone in the world and you’ve got to prepare them for everything to come. That will make you grow up faster than you think you can grow up. Just watching him handle the situation he’s in, being distant from his daughter — you go out there and create the best opportunity for your family and really for that little girl that didn’t ask to be here.
“That’s a great opportunity, and fatherhood, you can’t take for granted. You’ve just got to be a great example for them, and I’ve just seen him glow.”
Anxious as her son rushed to Wisconsin for Kennedy's birth two years ago, Dedra Lawson felt immediate relief when she saw the first picture of Dedric with his newborn daughter — “Kennedy is like putty in Dedric’s hands,” she now says.
While Kennedy will undoubtedly be a central figure in Lawson’s future, when and where that next chapter will be written remains unknown.
Lawson said he tries to avoid thinking about the decision he must face after the Jayhawks’ season ends — that is, whether the standout will forgo his senior season and enter the NBA Draft. He feels he’s “checked off quite a bit” of the unknowns league scouts and executives offered as feedback when he tested the waters in 2016, but he added that his future — the on-court version, at least — remains yet to be determined.
Whether Lawson stays or goes, there’s one thing his mother knows for certain.
“He truly, truly, truly loves his family, he loves KU and he loves what he does,” Dedra Lawson said. “He’s giving you 110 percent every time he steps on that court. That is something that I would want the KU family and fans to know — that he loves what he does, and he loves exactly what he’s doing right now.”