Staff Photo: John Bohn South Gwinnett High School graduate Lou Williams (3), of the Atlanta Hawks, takes part in a Hawks team practice held at South Gwinnett High School. The event was held last year as a reward for top academic students at South and students from Britt Elementary School.
Given his preference, Lou Williams would have loved to delay his Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame induction to another year.
It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the honor, but normally his NBA basketball schedule would keep him from attending today's ceremony at Coolray Field. But after a season-ending knee injury in January, the Atlanta Hawks guard suddenly had more free time and accepted the Hall of Fame invitation.
The celebration, with his family and friends, is a welcome diversion from his heavy schedule of rehabilitation. He splits time between Atlanta and Florida, where his famed knee surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, is based.
"It's going good," Williams said of his improving knee. "It's slow, but it's going good."
Of the many familiar faces Williams will see at today's induction will be his former coach at South, Roger Fleetwood. Fleetwood, back in Indiana as the head coach at Brown County, will introduce the high-scoring guard at the ceremony.
The two still talk and text regularly, and Fleetwood meets up with Williams when his NBA team passes through Indianapolis. Their conversations are about the present, but also wander into the past, specifically recollections of their amazing run at South from 2001-2005.
The two first met after Williams played an eighth-grade game for Snellville Middle.
"I remember meeting him and thinking, 'How can a kid that young be that mature?'" Fleetwood said. "Not physically mature, but that he was tough enough mentally then to play with seniors in high school. When I met him in the locker room afterward, the way he shook my hand like a man, the way he looked me in the eyes, I could see that maturity."
Williams and his teammates put on quite a show for the ensuing four seasons, highlighted by a state championship his junior season.
South played in front of packed gyms for every regular-season game throughout Williams' career, as fans flocked to see the 6-foot-2 star, who became the first boy from Georgia to win the coveted Naismith National Player of the Year award in 2005.
There were frequent celebrity sightings at Comets games, from regular visitors like rapper/actor Bow Wow and NFL quarterback Mike Vick to others like rapper/producer Jermaine Dupri, former NBA player Scottie Pippen and model Tyson Beckford. LeBron James tried to come on two occasions, but had to cancel.
"It was amazing," Fleetwood said of the massive crowds. "I still laugh about that with my family. Half the crowd there wasn't from either team. It was our crowd, their crowd and people from all over Atlanta coming to see us play. That's the reason we always had regular-season sellouts."
Williams rarely, if ever, disappointed in terms of putting on a show for those fans.
"Those were my glory days," Williams said. "Just competing and having fun, knowing everybody was there to see your team play. It was a fun style of basketball we played. A lot of people still come up to me and say they've never seen high school players play like we played. It was fun. I wasn't worried about anything back then. I just had fun playing."
Williams was a prolific scorer from the time he donned a Comets uniform, going for 45 early in his freshman season. He scored 28 off the bench in his varsity debut that season against a good Tucker team. Fleetwood also recalled another story of Williams personally driving to the basket through Parkview's 1-3-1 zone, aimed at forcing the Comets into 3-pointers, for a two-handed dunk.
But his best memory is how well-liked Williams was to opposing fans, whose feeling toward him seemed to lean more toward respect than hate.
"I remember his sophomore year in a game at Central, the gym was packed, and the crowd was really on him," Fleetwood said. "They were booing him from warmups on, yelling that he was overrated. By the second half, the Central student body started cheering for him. He got 50 (point) on them.
"That was amazing to me. Guys had come there specifically to harass (Williams) for 32 minutes. And they did for 16. Then they saw what he did and they started cheering for him. They were high-fiving on his dunks."
Some of Williams' performances also got South national TV exposure, something Fleetwood really appreciates. Basketball factories like Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and others regularly pursued Williams, but he elected to stay in Snellville for four seasons, a great show of loyalty according to his high school coach.
Along the way, South even beat Oak Hill by 14 points. Williams scored 34 in that victory against an Oak Hill team that featured Kevin Durant and Ty Lawson, among others. Durant, then a junior, scored 14.
"The reason I didn't transfer to Oak Hill is I felt like we had a team that could compete with those teams," Williams said. "One of our favorite quotes was, 'We're better than all the (teams with big) names.' They can say what they want to say, but once you lace them up, we could play with anyone."
Williams also became one of the biggest prep stars in Georgia basketball history, scoring a state boys record 3,388 points. He fell just short of the overall mark held by Athens Academy's Jill Razor, piling up the points with an array of 3-pointers, drives to the basket and dunks.
"He scored whenever he felt like," Fleetwood said. "He loved to win more than any player I've ever had. I don't think Georgia's ever had a better scorer and he's proven that on the pro level. ... He's a great player, but he's also always been so well-liked by his peers, by everyone. You hear how some star players act, but he was never like that. He never missed a meeting. He was never late for anything. He wore a headband for AAU games and I'm old school, so I told him freshman year that I don't allow my players to wear headbands. He just said, 'Yes, sir.' He never said a word about it again. That's the kind of kid he was."
Williams entered the NBA Draft right out of high school and was a second-round selection by the Philadelphia 76ers. He played sparingly his first two seasons, but has averaged double figures in every other season of his career.
He's averaged career bests the past two seasons --14.9 for the Sixers last season and 14.1 for the Hawks this season before his injury. He was a popular figure in Philadelphia, hosting his own radio show, and he's eager to resume his playing career next season with the hometown Hawks.
Williams, who splits his time between residences in Grayson and Atlanta, is stuck being a spectator now during Atlanta's NBA playoff games.
"It's frustrating (to sit out)," Williams said. "It's especially frustrating being my first season with the Hawks and back in my hometown. I was really looking forward to playing in front of the home crowd, especially at playoff time."
Another hometown crowd will cheer the 26-year-old today at his hall of fame ceremony.
"It's definitely a big honor to be a part of the culture of Gwinnett sports," he said. "I feel like the four years I played (at South), we put together a solid body of work. To be recognized for that is really nice."