Horning: Norman's new hoops tourney has the right name for the right reasons

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Joe Lawson keeps an eye on things as coach of Norman North's freshmen team. Lawson died in 2017 and the basketball tournament that begins Thursday at Norman High and Norman North has been named in his honor.

There is no perfect line.

No perfect sentence or sentiment that says everything that needs saying.

They do, however, add up.

Tyke Lawson, speaking about his brother Joe, tried.

“He did things, like, he would pick his players up prior to practice,” he said, “just little things like that.”

A small gesture.

The extra mile.

“Parents liked watching their kids play for somebody who cared so much,” said T.J. Lawson, speaking about his brother Joe.

Who wouldn’t?

Bryan Merritt, who helmed the Norman North boys for five seasons, finishing with a final four run at the 2018 Class 6A state tournament, for whom Joe Lawson assisted, offered five fantastic words.

“You couldn’t not like him,” Merritt said.

For those reasons and more, the Norman Invitational Tournament, the once terrific tourney that shut its doors almost a decade ago, is not only back and bigger than ever, but back and bigger than ever under a far more meaningful name.

The Joe Lawson Memorial Invitational Tournament begins this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in both Norman North’s and Norman High’s gyms.

Once a boys only event, it’s now two different eight-team tournaments, involving all four Norman Public Schools high school basketball programs. It's a permanent remembrance, too, of Lawson, who played his high school basketball at NHS, and who coached at North.

Lawson, only 27, died on Jan. 8, 2017, of a brain aneurism. He was not ill, he displayed no symptoms. There’s no good way to say it, write it or make sense of it without conjuring the metaphysical.

Yet great good can come in the wake and aftermath of the tragic and that’s what today, Friday and Saturday’s about on the Tigers’ and Timberwolves’ courts.

“We are thrilled. It’s so exciting,” T.J. said. “I just honestly can’t believe it’s come to fruition.”

• • •

T.D. O’Hara, the Norman district’s athletic director, had been wanting to bring the old NIT back and wanting to bring it back as a bigger event.

It had ended under the weight of itself, struggling to put together an in-state field, struggling to bring in attractive programs, independent of where they might emanate.

Also, though not a favor to sportswriters, the OSSAA has continued opening up more tourney weekends for which its member schools may host events, giving the district the opportunity to not only to revive the old NIT tradition, but to be first on the calendar, like the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

The district’s coaches — Rodney Dindy, Kellen McCoy, Michael Neal, Rory Hamilton — were down for it, too.

“This would not be possible without the current girls and boys basketball coaches at both schools,” O’Hara said.

Somewhere in there it was also realized, though a reimagined and reformulated NIT remained a great idea, the name of the event could be altered for the best possible reasons.

“Once we figured we had a solid base … I reached out to the mother and the family and they were super excited that we were wanting to do that and we were super excited to be able to do that,” O’Hara said.

So here we are.

• • •

It’s more than a bigger tourney with a new name because Lawson’s family is intrinsically involved.

After Lawson died, his family created the Joe B. Lawson Memorial Foundation Fiscal Scholarship Fund. Google that title and contributing to it’s a snap.

Lawson loved basketball entirely and loved being involved with kids who loved basketball entirely. His surviving family knew it wanted to reinforce those causes — the game and the youngsters who play it — through the foundation.

The idea is “giving back to Norman basketball and also scholarships to individuals in need, whether it’s basketball shoes or basketball camps or independent lessons,” T.J. said.

One way to give back is to make the Joe Lawson Memorial Invitational Tournament the best regular-season basketball tournament in the state and the family’s all about that, too.

“It’s a little overwhelming the city is going to do this to honor Joe,” said Janne Penn, Lawson’s mother. “We wanted to do something with the foundation and we weren’t sure how to go about doing something with that. Then came the tournament.”

As bowl games are wonderful to the players and coaches who participate in them, Lawson’s family, through the foundation it’s created, wants to give participants in the tourney a similar experience.

“We want to make this a tournament people are fighting to get into,” T.J. said.

At 2:30 p.m. today, playing on its home floor, the NHS girls meet the OKC Storm and, simultaneously, on their home floor, the North girls meet Putnam City North.

The Tigers and T-Wolves played each other for a state championship last season and may play again as soon as 6 p.m. Saturday for a tourney title.

At 4 p.m., on their home floor, the NHS boys meet Putnam City North, while North faces Lawton Mac on its home floor.

Putnam City West is part of the boys draw, too, so getting a Week 1 Crosstown Clash out of it may not be easy. Then again, you never know.

It ought to be fun.

“Joe would like nothing better than knowing his name is on a tournament that has great high school basketball,” said Merritt, sounding thrilled by the prospect himself.

“He’s going to really be enjoying looking down and watching.”

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