Five years after he abandoned his dreams of playing professional soccer only months after he began dabbling in basketball, College of Charleston guard Andrew Lawrence still remembers the stunned reactions of his friends and coaches.
Lawrence was a promising striker on the U-16 team for Chelsea F.C., perennially one of the strongest sides in the Premier League. The London native isn't certain he would ever have been one of the lucky few who receive a call-up, but he believes he had enough talent to play soccer professionally in England's second or third division at the very least.
"It was tough because I was decent in soccer and I could have had a career in it," Lawrence said. "Basketball is not as high-profile as a lot of other sports in England, especially soccer, so all my friends gave me a little bit of a hard time. This summer, they realized why I did it."
Indeed any lingering doubts about Lawrence's gamble melted away in July when the 6-foot-1 senior learned he made Great Britain's Olympic basketball team. Lawrence was one of only two U.S. collegiate players to play in the Olympics, joining Saint Mary's senior Matthew Dellavedova, who started at point guard for Australia.
Having the chance to play in the Olympics in his hometown was a dream opportunity for Lawrence, so it's difficult for him to pinpoint one favorite memory.
He joined the rest of his countrymen and women entering Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony as 80,000 fans chanted, "Team GB." He shook hands and snapped photos with numerous Olympic luminaries, from Michael Phelps, to Usain Bolt to British double gold medal-winning distance runner Mo Farrah. And he enjoyed some success on the court, carving out a spot in his team's rotation and helping spark Great Britain to a win over China for the country's first-ever basketball victory in the Olympics.
"I definitely couldn't have dreamed of a better summer than what I had," Lawrence said. "It met every one of my expectations and more. It's really hard to put into words how indescribable it was to play in an Olympics, especially in London. It really was amazing."
If someone had told Lawrence when he was a kid that he'd play in an Olympics someday, he'd probably have assumed it would be on a soccer pitch rather than a basketball court.
Even though both his father and his uncle played college basketball at Appalachian State, Lawrence gravitated almost exclusively toward soccer. None of his friends played basketball, and he hadn't enjoyed the sport as much as soccer when his dad had him play in a league one summer when he was young.
"I very quickly made the England U-18 team for the European Championships and I played pretty well," Lawrence said. "From that point on, I was like, 'If I take it seriously, I think I have a chance to go somewhere.'"
A handful of Division I schools recruited Lawrence because of his performance at the U-18 European Championships, but he decided to attend a year of prep school in Virginia to see if he could drum up further interest. It was there that then-College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins first saw him.
Lawrence was initially reluctant to accept a scholarship offer from College of Charleston because Cremins had been his father's coach at Appalachian State and he wanted to make a name for himself. Eventually, however, he visited Charleston, fell in love with the school and realized it was the ideal spot for him.
Opportunities to make an immediate splash were scant for Lawrence his first two seasons because he was playing behind College of Charleston star Andrew Goudelock, but the London native enjoyed a breakout junior season. He averaged 13.0 points, 5.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game, helping him land an invitation to training camp in Houston with Great Britain's Olympic team.
Lawrence wasn't certain he'd earn a roster spot, especially after logging just 17 minutes in five games for Great Britain at the European Championships the previous summer. As a result, it was hard for him to sleep the night before the coaches met with players individually to inform them if they made the team or not.
"I was pretty nervous," Lawrence said. "I thought I played pretty well, but I had no idea if I was going to make it. Finding out the news, I was just ecstatic. I can't even put into words how indescribable the feeling was. That was the start of everything for me and from that point on it kept getting better."
In London, Lawrence averaged 8.5 minutes in Great Britain's first two games against Russia and Brazil and 23.7 minutes in the team's final three games against Spain, Australia and China. Playing in front of his parents and other friends and family members, he had six points and six assists in Great Britain's landmark victory over the Chinese.
Holding his own against some of the best players in the world gives Lawrence immense confidence entering his senior season at College of Charleston. Whereas the Cougars fizzled last season after a strong start in non-league play, Lawrence hopes to team with fellow guard Anthony Stitt and frontcourt standouts Trent Wiedeman and Adjehi Baru to help Charleston contend in the Southern Conference and perhaps even return to the NCAA tournament.
Regardless of how his college career finishes and what opportunities he has to play professionally, Lawrence is sure of one thing: He was correct to give up soccer for basketball.
"A lot of people tell me I made the right decision now," Lawrence said. "As soon as I started playing more seriously, I really developed a passion for it. Now I don't know how I didn't play all those years."
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