Please enjoy the second installment of “Personal Journeys,” a new weekly feature for readers who like good writing and compelling stories. Each week, our best writers will bring you a local story about the people who help define metro Atlanta and our region.
Sylvester Lawson didn’t come armed with many details on the late May morning he paced the parking lot of Atlanta’s New Day Treatment Center. All he knew — and all he needed to know — was that a man he had catalogued nearly 40 years ago as a mentor gone missing was due on the next van.
Obviously, there would be some catching up to do. For instance, why was Lawson’s old basketball coach at Douglass High now riding a shuttle from a homeless shelter to a clinic where his pain would be dulled by methadone?
We can get to all that later, Lawson reasoned. There would be no easy answer to a question that had nagged him since he graduated from Douglass in 1973: Whatever became of Coach Larry Cart?
Now 57, Lawson had long remembered Cart — the only white face in the gym — as the strongest male figure in his young life. His own father had died when Lawson was only 2, and, seeking a surrogate, he was drawn to his coach.
Back in 1968, when Douglass High opened in northwest Atlanta, Cart was not so far removed from his playing days at Auburn. He still possessed the strength and skill to run any drill with his team. No one dared challenge the coach in a free throw shooting contest. Bright and brash, he bought yellow blazers for his guys to wear on road games. And when he asked a player to go to Burger King to buy him a sandwich, he always handed over a $20 bill and never asked for change.
Lawson was one of Cart’s main guys, coming up through the feeder program for the new school and eventually rising to team captain his senior season of 1972-’73.
For close to 40 years, the two had been drifting apart on the currents of their own confused lives. Cart vanished from the local high school coaching scene, succumbing to a life of cards and gaming. Lawson’s vices were illegal drugs and crime, before he found God and turned his life around.
The further they got from one another, the less coach and player had in common, save the penchant for putting themselves in a bad place.
Neither was arriving at that clinic parking lot unscarred. And neither could have predicted how their first meeting in four decades was about to reroute their lives yet again.
Lawson had begun getting sideways shortlyafter graduating from Douglass. As much as he loved basketball, football was his ticket to college. While at Tennessee State, he began developing a dual life — that of flashy wide receiver and occasional drug dealer.
Following Lawson’s senior season in Nashville, a confrontation with a cab driver while he was back home completing a drug deal led to an armed robbery conviction at the age of 22. Lawson did a five-year stretch, being released in 1983. He returned to prison twice more, once for receiving stolen property (1992) and then for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute (1995).
During that last 28-month stay in federal prison, Lawson said, “That’s when I reallyconverted to Christianity. I began studying the Bible real good. I had tried everything. This was the only thing that worked for me.”
Married twice, the father of six children, a grandfather once over, Lawson was in rebuilding mode both personally and professionally. He has been riding the boom and bust of construction since his release. Business is slow these days.
A promising career gives way to gambling
The passenger on the incoming van had found another route to ruin. There had always been the suspicion around Cart that he enjoyed gambling a little too much, even while at Douglass and, from 1973 to 1978, when he coached at Forest Park High School in Clayton County.That compulsion eventually cost him his career, as he was sucked into an alternate, shadowy life. It had become more important to him to stay up all night playing poker than to teach some kid to weak-side rebound.
“I could have a career, maybe as a college coach, made a good salary, hopefully gained some notoriety,” Cart said. “I chose the gambling world, and that kind of put a dark cloud on coaching. That’s what hurt me.”
There was no pulling him out of the quicksand of that lifestyle. In 1978, Larry Chapman, a former teammate at Auburn and current coach at Auburn-Montgomery, tried to get Cart back on track by offering him a grad assistant position at Auburn-Montgomery.
Only three years ago, after Atlanta’s floods washed Cart out of a low-rent apartment, Chapman again stepped up and set up his friend at an assisted-living facility in Alabama. Both efforts ended with Cart bolting for Atlanta and the circle of gamblers and hustlers that held gravitational sway over him.
“A regular job wasn’t something Larry wanted,” Chapman said.
Cart did try to hold other jobs, lasting the longest, he said, as an office worker with Delta Air Lines. But he inevitably slipped back into a Runyonesque lifestyle filled with slick characters and subsistence gambling. One of his oldest acquaintances, Ed DeMar, said he first met Cart while helping another man collect on a bet from him. The first words he heard directed at Cart were, “Throw out the keys, Larry” — an order from the bookie who was standing outside an apartment demanding Cart’s car. Cart and DeMar later teamed up to play in poker and gin rummy games around the country.
When Kennesaw’s Josh Arieh finished third in the 2004 World Series of Poker main event, he looked up Cart and gave him $2,000.
“I learned a lot from Larry,” Arieh said. “Mostly I learned what not to do. I learned I didn’t want to live my life like him.”
Regulars at the Atlanta pool hall that was more a home to Cart than anywhere else tell stories of the regular who often waited outside the joint for an hour until it opened, then claimed squatter’s rights the rest of the day. Cart would take a few bets, borrow a few bucks when his small stake ran out, grab a long nap in a big, overstuffed chair in the back.
His last visit to the pool hall, early this year, did not end well. He got into it with a fellow nicknamed “Groundhog” over a gambling debt and wound up in the emergency room.
Along the way, Cart lost an eight-year marriage and contact with his only daughter.
By the time he arrived in the parking lot that May morning, Cart was alone, sick and seemingly out of luck. He was simply another disconnected soul on his way to get medicated. He had no hint that there was a different kind of salvation waiting for him.
A man without a home finds one
As the van appeared, Lawson took up an ambush position. He rushed the vehicle as soon as it was put in park. He pressed his face up close to the passenger-side window, a rather startling vision, for Lawson is still an imposing 6-foot-4.
But the old man in the van wasn’t shaken. He remembered.
“Oh, my God; Oh, my God,” Cart said in as much a voice as he could muster. “That’s my guy. That’s my guy.”
As soon as Cart struggled out of the van, Lawson hugged him as tightly as he dared. Cart cried. Lawson sobbed and still does on every retelling of that day. The few onlookers misted up, too, even if they didn’t fully understand the breadth of the moment.
Both were a long way from the days of state tournaments and 30-win seasons. Lawson had put himself through the mill and now saw in front of him what living hard can look like at 72. Cart was a cornstalk in autumn, thin and brittle. A few wisps of white hair crowned the sunken features of his face. His steps were unsteady, unsure. He spoke in a pained whisper. Yes, it was Larry Cart in body, but very soon another thought struck Lawson: “Man, that’s not my coach anymore.”
From that moment, the idle question of what became of Coach Cart turned to another, far more pressing one. What was to become of Coach Cart?
Less than two weeks after that hug in the clinic parking lot, Cart was moved into the south Atlanta home Lawson shares with companion Glenda Brown. Nearly 40 years later, and here the one-time coach and his former player were sitting in a warm den repeating an exchange that had become something of a ritual around the Lawson home.
“What’s my relationship with you?” Lawson asked Cart.
“You’re my son.”
“How long have I been your son?” Lawson followed up.
“Two or three months.”
Cart paused, reconsidered. “Really, since you were 15 years old.”
On June 8, Lawson picked up his coach from a dreary transitional house in Atlanta — where the homeless with physical issues are housed until they have some hope of living independently. And he never took Cart back.
Coach, you are living with me now, he said. We’ll sign whatever papers or jump through whatever hoops it takes. But you don’t have to go back to that place.
How common it would have been for Lawson to catch scent of his old coach’s trail — a former Douglass classmate just happened to see Cart at the clinic and then just happened to pass along word to Lawson — find him and leave it at that. Curiosity satisfied, Lawson could have edged away from the unpleasant reality, just as easy as crossing the street to avoid a panhandler.
But once he followed up and visited his coach at the transition home, Lawson was bound to another course.
Months later, Lawson’s voice still quivers, and the tears still breach his tough-guy levee when he recalls his reaction to what he saw: “I can’t let my coach stay here like that, man. He was too good to us, man.”
“I went and talked to his counselor and told her my coach can’t stay over there. Whatever I got to do, he’s going to stay with me, because they ain’t taking care of my coach.”
It wasn’t that the place was a house of horrors. It just struck Lawson that Cart was so utterly alone at that place, an elderly, feeble man too easily overlooked.
While receptive to the idea of a change of scenery, Cart’s caseworker at New Day, Adrianne Vickers, kept asking her charge if he really knew this man who wanted to take him in.
On the surface, they made such a preposterous pair — the quiet, stooped white guy and the boisterous black guy trying to work out an arrangement that normally is the duty of family.
She could not be expected to understand the relationship they had formed long ago in a high school gym.
“People saw a white coach with black players; we never looked at it like that,” Lawson said. “That was our coach, man. If coach told us, ‘I want y’all to come up to Douglass at 3:30 in the morning, and I want you to be warm and ready to go,’ where we gonna be? Right there. We trusted him.”
Lawson sold Glenda on the idea of sharing her home with a man who was a stranger to her. Much of the labor was going to fall to her, after all, because she was the trained professional in the house — a certified medical attendant. Hearing the passion in her man’s voice, she couldn’t resist.
Suddenly there was a new guest in the small spare bedroom next to the kitchen, one whom would require a lot of attention and one Glenda began kissing on the head each morning before leaving for work.
It might not have been a dream golden years setting, but that little room and those two people were a marked upgrade over where Cart had been.
“The reason I’m happier here [is] I know these people. They were in my life. We go as far back, about as far back as you can go,” he said.
“Why is it better?” the coach mused. “More privacy. More conversation. More loyalty. It’s hard to find people who are good to you.”
The player becomes the coach
Cart today is unrecognizable from the man who came out of Indiana and established some impressive basketball bona fides.
As a player, he was a shifty guard who took his talents first to Young Harris and then to Auburn.
Of the 1963 Sugar Bowl tournament MVP, Sport’s Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins wrote: “Oddly enough, Auburn’s hero, and the player who upheld the honor of the South was a sparkling Midwesterner, Larry Cart. A fast, bowlegged head-faker, Cart gives away his Indiana basketball training with such slick tactics as passing behind his back and shooting jump shots from the hip.”
“He was a big-time shot-taker,” said Chapman.
As a coach, Cart made an immediate impact upon arriving at Douglass when it opened in 1968. Within two seasons, the new school was a regular in the state tournament, advancing to the semifinals in 1971-’72 and ’72-’73.
“His teams always played hard. You can tell in high school who’s in charge, and he was in charge,” said Bob Reinhart, who matched up against Cart early in his 14-year run at Decatur High (before going on to coach with the Hawks and Georgia State).
It was the early 1970s vision of Cart that was cryogenicallyfrozen in Lawson’s memory. With his own father gone, the young Lawson regularly relied on Cart to shuttle him from practice to home. Cart took him and other teammates to college and pro games. Then, during Lawson’s senior season, Cart ordained him his captain.
“When I was in school, they always said I had a white daddy,” Lawson said.
The oddest twist yet is the way time and circumstance has reordered those old roles.
For the player is now the coach. And, in turn, the coach has given himself over completely to the player.
Where Cart once guided his guys at Douglass, teaching them a game and offering some a view of life outside the confines of poverty, he now has his most basic needs looked after by Lawson.
Cart’s career choices have not come with much of a pension plan. He said he gets by on $690 a month in Social Security. Having survived a bout with bone cancer, he continues to rely upon Medicaid for the industrial-strength methadone treatments for his crippling joint pain as well as his anti-depression medication.
Nor did he cultivate a family. Cart has no siblings, and it has been decades — he doesn’t know how long for certain — since he had any contact with his only daughter.
Glenda and Sylvester took on the work of kin, attempting fundamental changes in Cart’s self-destructive routine.
One thing they noted immediately was Cart’s atrocious eating habits, since he had developed a taste for whatever was quickest and easiest. They began reintroducing him to the notion of nutrition.
They’d roust him each day and help with his bathing and other bathroom chores. There was no time for embarrassment or misplaced modesty.
Lawson even found himself giving his old coach a rather salty speech about rediscovering his pride and getting himself up in the night rather than just lying there and urinating in the bed.
“I stopped him from saying I can’t. That was his No. 1 phrase: I can’t,” Lawson said.
“I’d say, ‘C’mon, coach,’ when I was in school and we were practicing and you were telling me you wanted me to do something and I said, ‘I can’t.’ What you gonna do? You gonna sit me down.”
When Cart first arrived, Glenda gave him a small bell he could ring from his bedside whenever he needed something. The summons from the little bedroom have become less frequent as Cart has grown stronger and more confident in his movements with the aid of a walker.
“Sylvester came in a great time,” said Vickers, the treatment center case worker. “Mr. Cart was very depressed [at the transition house], he felt lonely there.
“At first, I was concerned about how it would work, because [Lawson] seems so aggressive, and I wasn’t sure how Mr. Cart would be able to handle it.”
Her concerns were dispelled when, on a home visit a month ago, Vickers noted, “For the first time, [Cart] didn’t cry while I was there.”
Cart says he has no interest in living anywhere else. Lawson insists his coach will be with him “until one of us meets Jesus.”
The coach returns to his team’s embrace
In the short while Cart has been with Lawson, he has rebuilt more connections to his coaching past than at any time since he left high school coaching in 1978.
A steady stream of his former players have come by the house to visit, many of them congregating at a barbecue Lawson threw in July. Lawson reintroduced Cart to the Douglass community when he took him to the high school for an Aug. 4 alumni gathering. Patching the holes in the past has been major repair work.
Lawson said he also has been trying to wean Cart from some of the harsher medication that fogs his mind.
Distilling the changes in his coach over the last couple of months, Lawson said, “he has gone from a pessimistic attitude to optimistic.”
“It’s a beautiful thing. I didn’t expect it. All I wanted my coach to do was to have an address. I didn’t want my coach to be homeless or living in any transition house,” he said.
“When I first got with him, I knew I had my work cut out. I never said he wasn’t gonna make it. I ain’t ever been negative. I never confronted a situation where it was bigger than me. That’s what I’m trying to convey to him.”
Insert happy ending here?
It is a lot to ask to wrap so much dysfunction in a prettybow. Call it an ending better than it would have been had Larry Cart not, for one sliver of his life, cast such a powerfully positive influence.
An ending rewritten by a grateful player who, even after doing all the unpleasant work of caregiving can say, “It’s a privilege to have Coach Cart back in our lives.”
About the reporter and photographer
For 23 years, Steve Hummer has covered sports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has another 10 years of experience writing sports for newspapers in Florida. He has covered events from the Olympic Games (five summer, four winter) to the Masters (25) and currently focuses much of his work on personality profiles. Born in Clearwater, Fla., schooled at the University of Florida, he lives in Kennesaw with his wife, Rae. Their son, Grant, serves in the U.S. Army.
Curtis Compton has been a staff photographer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 1993. He has worked for United Press International and the Gwinnett Daily News. In 1984, he won a World Hunger Award for covering the famine in Sudan. “The most rewarding work we do is having a positive impact on people’s lives,” says Compton.
How we got the story
A call came in last month to the AJC sports department with a tip. Harold Thomas wanted to pass along something that a friend and former Douglass classmate had done. Finding his basketball coach of nearly 40 years ago sick, down and out, that friend – Sylvester Lawson – had taken in the ailing man and was caring full time for him. Thomas thought it quite extraordinary. We agreed.