Q&A with Florida basketball great Rep. Al Lawson on this year’s tourney, paying college kids, and losing to Bill Walton

Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Last year around March, Al Lawson, a black Democrat serving in the House of Representatives from Florida, made waves throughout Congress by replacing former Rep. Corrine Brown.

He’s also a huge basketball guy. Lawson was one of Florida A&M’s greatest players in the 60s; the school named its basketball gym after Lawson. He spent time in the NBA and ABA. He went on to help coach Florida State to their only NCAA championship appearance in school history.

In a conversation that took place before the bracket was released on Sunday, he discussed picking schools in the segregated South, getting cut by Wilt Chamberlain, coaching Florida State to their first national championship, losing to Bill Walton, chicken shacks in Georgia, his picks for the national championship, and why college players should get paid.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

In 1966, you turned down an offer to go to Florida State because you said at the time they weren’t ready for a black athlete.

Rep. Al Lawson: It’s not so much they weren’t ready for a black athlete. It’s just that there wasn’t any black athletes hardly on campus. I had been on campus a great deal. And at that particular time, segregation was still big in those areas, especially in Gadsen County where I came from. They pretty much weren’t ready to accommodate African-American athletes.

If the circumstances were different would you have went?

Lawson: I don’t know. I had the opportunity to go a lot of places. You know, it’s just that I was very familiar with Florida State. I felt like I would be better off at a historically black college.

You had said once that you had about “50 to 60” college offers at that time.

Lawson: Well, I don’t know about 50 to 60. I might’ve overstepped that. It was in the neighborhood of 15 or 20 offers.

So, why you’d pick an HBCU?

Lawson: They had a lot of great athletes. Some of the top athletes in the country.

Did you feel as though you had to go to an HBCU or that you could freely pick where you played your college ball, given some limitations?

Lawson: My coach in high school was really influential on where he thought I should go and where I should be. There was no major criticism on going to HBCUs then. Top athletes in the NBA were going to HBCUs.

After your stint at Florida A&M, you spent a few years in the NBA and ABA, tell me a bit about that.

Lawson: Well, I didn’t have much of a career. I went to the Indiana Pacers and I got hurt. Once I got hurt, after the preseason stuff, I came back. The next year I signed with the San Diego Conquistadors in the ABA. After making that team, San Diego brought in Wilt Chamberlain to coach. He only came in about once a week for practice. Wilt made a decision that he was going to cut five guys to make room for some of his friends. I was one of the guys he cut [laughs]. I came back to train again and signed with the Atlanta Hawks. When it was time to report, I received my contract in the mail with all the clauses cut out of it. I went to a lawyer and we ended up suing the Hawks for a million dollars for breach of contract. That lawsuit went on for two and a half years. By 1971 I took a coaching job at Florida State University. I had an opportunity to come back to Atlanta, but my lawyers suggested I take a settlement.

What was it like getting cut by Chamberlain?

Lawson: You don’t get a chance to know him very much. The practices were once a week. He flew in from Bel Air, California. It wasn’t like he was there all the time. [An assistant] was doing all the coaching. You don’t get a chance to know him. He called in and said “We had to make room for other people.”

So, you just left?

Lawson: [Laughs] Well, we had to leave … we was living in Chula Vista. Once they say it’s over, it’s over.

During the time you were coaching, there’s this story that former FSU coach Hugh Durhamsent you on a recruiting trip with his wife to Cordelle, Georgia. And it resulted in you eating in a chicken joint instead of a white restaurant.

Lawson: It was getting to lunch time. The fact is, it’s Georgia. It was very different. Instead of going to the restaurant we went to a chicken place where you can drive in to the window and pick up something and keep going.

What you order?

Lawson: Just chicken. It was some Maryland Fried Chicken place.

While you were coaching, you went to FSU’s first national championship and watched Bill Walton give you 24 and 20. Y’all put up a fight, but, I mean, Walton gave you a 20 piece.

Lawson: I mean, Bill Walton played OK. We was up seven points on UCLA and the officials took over. This was as close as anyone was to beating UCLA in about 10 years. We knew we had them on the line. But we was in Pauley Pavilion. That place seats 19,000. The place we played in only seats 3,500. The momentum was always on their side. Officials made some calls that was always questionable. I think they were intimidated by John Wooden. All he had to do was stand up and things start changing. We had about three minutes and 50 seconds left in the game and he stood up and started walking the sidelines and we got some bad calls.

FAMU named their gym after you. I know we talked about chicken joints. So, what do I need to do to get a Popeyes named after me? What’s the process?

Lawson: [Laughs]Well, ya know, I didn’t ask them to name it. The president and them decided what they wanted to do was name the facility after me. They were in a facility that was 50 or 60 years old. And when I was in the state senate I was able to get some funding for them.

I don’t know if Florida State is going to make the tourney this year.[Florida State did make the tournament as a No. 9seed.] FAMU has won nine games this season. So, who you got winning the natty this year?

Lawson: I think this is a tough one to call this year. Florida State probably will get into the tournament, though. They won 20 games. It’s really hard to tell this year. A lot of teams are pretty even especially when it comes down to the ACC. If I had to pick a team out the ACC to make it to the Final Four, I’d probably say Virginia.

You gone pick Virginia?

Lawson: Virginia was No. 1 for a long time.

Can we put some money on that? Virginia? You sure?

Lawson: They only lost one or two games in the ACC.

Alright. Anyway. I heard you have a March Madness party up in Congress. You taking invites?

Lawson: I’m probably gonna have it again. They asked me the other day if I was gonna have another [party] and I said, gimme a lil’ time, and lemme see this bracket and see where FSU playing.

There’s been a lot of debate this year if college players should be paid. Do you think college athletes should be paid?

Lawson: They bring millions and millions of dollars to universities. The [NCAA] needs to increase the stipend they have. A lot of these kids come from very poor families and they are bringing millions into the university and they need to live a better lifestyle for what they are doing. They should have their necessities taken care of. Athletes just hungry at night. They need more resources for them to be able to live. They might be able to stay in school a bit longer.

If you made a billion dollars you can pay these kids more, right? If you made a billion dollars in revenue over a given year, you can pay these kids.

Lawson: Absolutely. It’s the way it should be. You sign an outstanding player and all of a sudden your revenue goes up. But if that player doesn’t make it in the pros or isn’t able to finish school, a lot of athletes I coached are barely getting along today. They were great athletes. But their pro career was cut short or for some reason they couldn’t finish school. I’m still now trying to help players in their late 50s and 60s trying to help them get back into school to get their degrees. Colleges need to make adjustments for that. It’s good to go back every year and see your face hanging on the wall, and see the championship you had. But, you know, we still got guys who spent three years in college that’s custodians at banks. Once you coach, you never get rid of guys. You never forget their families. I had to raise money to bury one of our players. They all call. They call from time to time when they have problems. That’s what the NCAA needs to consider. What’s gonna to happen to these guys later in life that made billions for you? The average tenure is from three to five years. Look what happened to me. I never made it big. But I was able to get my degree. A lot of guys now, they aren’t that fortunate.

Well, if it’s any consolation, maybe you can help get their names on a chicken shop.

Lawson: Hey, you know, you never can tell.

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