Staff Photo: John Bohn South Gwinnett High School graduate Lou Williams (3), now playing for the Atlanta Hawks, takes part in a Hawks team practice held at South Gwinnett High School Tuesday. The event was held as a reward for top academic students at South and students from Britt Elementary School.
SNELLVILLE -- Kids at South Gwinnett High School were excited to see the Atlanta Hawks practicing in the school's gym Tuesday. But the Hawks, including South grad Lou Williams, were also a little giddy.
Josh Smith, another Hawk who grew up near Atlanta, shouted "ATL! LouWillville!" with excitement as the team departed the locker room after the 90-minute practice, showing the spirit the 1,000-plus students had shown earlier by screaming, waving towels and banging the wooden bleachers with their feet.
The star of the day was Williams, who played for the Philadelphia 76ers for seven seasons before signing with the Hawks during the summer.
"That was exciting," Williams said. "I hope the students had a good time. We definitely did. We were just talking about the atmosphere. Everybody wants to come back to their high school and play a game. It was exciting for me, and I'm glad my teammates shared the excitement."
Williams, who will turn 26 on Saturday, is no stranger to big scenes and a packed house at the South gym. During his much-heralded prep career, he played in front of an ESPN audience and led South to a Class AAAAA state championship in 2004.
But Tuesday's event was also a part of the other side of Williams. He has visited South a number of times as a pro with a camp as part of his Lou Williams Foundation. Williams, some of his former coaches, teammates and friends put on the camp to raise confidence, teach kids to be team players and keep them active.
Tuesday's practice session was part of the NBA Cares program, an outreach initiative that addresses issues such as education, youth and family development, and health and wellness. Hawks management reached out to the people at South earlier in the year to set up the event, and it served as a welcoming party for the hometown hero.
"With Lou Williams having gone to school here, we wanted to come down here and one, show our appreciation for him becoming a Hawk," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "We kind of kill two birds with one stone. We come down here to practice, but also do something that's good for him."
The event at South had younger elementary kids on one side of the gym and high school kids on the other. But not just any South student was allowed to come. Only students with a grade-percent average of 85 or higher were allowed to watch the practice.
"We wanted to reward the kids in the building who were doing what they needed to do in the classroom," South athletic director Rodney Born said. "Coming to school, there's a lot of distractions during the day and outside the building. But the main reason that kids are here is to get their education, and one of our major mottos at South is 'College: Not if, but where.' And to get there, you've got to be successful in the classroom."
Williams introduced his team before the practice and thanked the crowd after a scrimmage of two 12-minute periods. The first loud roar of the scrimmage came when Williams deflected a pass away and broke away for a one-handed dunk with about 3 -1/2 minutes to go in the first period.
After hitting a couple of long-range jumpers during the action, Lou's blue team trailed the white team by a point in the final minute. He led his squad down the court for a potential winning score. Williams took a shot from distance with less than 10 seconds remaining, but it bounced off the rim and back down the floor. After a scramble for possession, the white team grabbed possession and ended the game with a thunderous dunk by Damion James, delighting the fans almost as much as a winning shot by Williams would have.
"We lost that one on my jump shot," Williams said. "We'll take that one for the day and we'll get back in the gym tomorrow, see if we can try it again."
People who knew Williams when he was at South spoke glowingly about his attitude and dedication despite the circus atmosphere that sometimes surrounded his career.
"It's great to have Lou in Atlanta," said Born, who was a U.S. history teacher when Williams attended South. "When he was a student, and he was Louis, he was an excellent kid. He conducted himself like a man at the time. We knew that he was special by the way that he played, the way that he conducted himself."
One of Williams' top fans -- his mother, Janice Faulkner -- was on hand and thrilled to see her son back in Georgia as a pro and playing where he grew up.
"This moment is phenomenal," she said. "I couldn't be more proud. It just means everything to me for him to be able to come back home and still have the outpouring of love that we see."
Faulkner said the transition back to the Atlanta area has been great after a wonderful period in Philadelphia. She hasn't seen as much of Williams now that they each have their own home, but she looks after Williams' 2-year-old daughter very often.
Faulkner said Smith has been a welcoming teammate for Williams. "Lou and Josh have been together since high school," she said. "Every time we do Louis' camp, Josh is a mainstay. I can always count on Josh to come. ... When (the Hawks) would come to Philadelphia to play, Josh would always come over to the house. Sometimes I would cook dinner.
"They've been together for a while. It helps to know that (Williams) has that brotherhood."