Nine Georgia Tech underclassmen have entered their names in the NBA draft over the years. Only one withdrew his name and stayed in school -- Gani Lawal.
The 6-foot-9 power forward from Norcross decided in June he would return for his junior season at Tech. He'll lead Derrick Favors and a talented freshman class into what figures to be a turnaround season. Today is the first official day of practice.
His decision to stay, Lawal said, was based on apprehensions that he would fall to the second round of the draft and lack the security that comes with a guaranteed contract guaranteed to first-round picks.
"I was hearing late first round to second," Lawal said.
But his actions speak not only to what he was hearing from coaches and general managers during 2-1/2 weeks of NBA workouts, but the voice on the other end of the phone at home.
Gani Lawal Sr. is an immigrant from Nigeria, who is living his own version of the American dream. He instilled in his son that education is the way to achieve it.
"The purpose of education is not to make you rich," Lawal Sr. said. "I make that clear to him. You will make money playing basketball, but when you take the education out of it, it takes a lot of gravity out of success. You take out a little bit of wisdom, a little bit of knowledge, your power of being inquisitive."
Lawal Sr. wants his son to have the confidence that comes with having a degree, and he wanted a commitment in writing.
Shortly after Lawal Jr. declared in late April that he would explore the NBA draft, his father asked him to promise in writing that he would finish college if he left early for the NBA and do it within a certain time frame. So Lawal wrote "I, Gani O. Lawal Jr. ... make this promise to my father ..." He agreed to get his degree within six years of starting his NBA career. And he signed it.
After that, Lawal Sr. sent his son off in hopes that he would decide to stay in school, but it was going to be his son's decision. He would support him either way.
Lawal Sr. has been planting seeds in his son's mind for years, with stories of his past, with weekly quotes to his e-mail inbox, and the kind of close father-son relationship that radiates through the personality of his polished 20-year-old.
He told Gani stories about coming to Atlanta from Nigeria at the age of 24, with $500 in his pocket. How with a scholarship and odd jobs as a cab driver and an ice-cream man, he earned a degree in math from Georgia State and still sent money home to his family.
He made a career in computer technology and now owns his own mortgage and real estate company.
"He teaches me about integrity and being a man of your word and working hard, having values," Lawal Jr. said.
Of all the quotes he has received from his father, Lawal said one stands out: "Without struggle, there's no progress."
"Things just don't happen," Lawal said.
He is not afraid of taking the hard way. Lawal was that way before he ever considered a career in basketball. He was in ROTC at Riverdale High School before transferring to Norcross High and used to think he would enter the military.
"I felt it would make me a better person," Lawal said.
In the spring, Lawal went on a 19-day odyssey to learn about his NBA chances, starting with the rookie combine in Chicago and ending at a workout in Sacramento, with stops in between in Minneapolis, New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland and New Jersey.
His father met him for a couple of days in Chicago. Otherwise he traveled on his own. And he made the decision on his own.
"I wanted to make a decision for me, not my mom, my dad, not [Tech] coach [Paul] Hewitt," Lawal said. "That's why I chose to come back, it was for me."
Lawal said he prayed every day. He listened. And he came away with a feeling that he needed to keep working -- on his mid-range jumper, his free throws and his defense.
He delivered the news to his parents and to Hewitt in a conference call from Sacramento.
"I was so excited," Lawal Sr. says. "I didn't even ask why."
Hewitt thinks Lawal entered the process in the first place out of curiosity.
"That's how Gani tends to look at things," Hewitt said. "He's got to see it, feel it, touch it, understand it."
Maybe that same thirst for knowledge, for wanting to be prepared, is what has Lawal back in school, and as he pointed out to his father, one year closer to graduating.
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