Lawrence Alexander Jr. corralled a short-hopped bounce pass on the right wing with 11 seconds remaining in the 2014 NCAA Tournament second round and his 12th seed North Dakota State Bison trailing fifth-seed Oklahoma by three.
He had no fear. The pressure of playing the role of giant-killer against a national power on national television, and taking the biggest shot in school history — one on which the hopes and dreams of an entire state rested — had nothing on trying to keep his son alive as a poor teenage father in Peoria, Illinois.
“That was an amazing day,” says Alexander, who calmly drilled the game-tying 3-pointer en route to a then career-high 28 points to lead the Bison to the first NCAA Tournament win in school history.
But it wasn’t the most amazing day of Alexander’s life.
“Not by a long shot,” he says, with palpable joy in his voice as he thinks back four and a half years earlier to Oct. 26, 2009, the day his son, Lawrence III was born.
“The birth of my son is the greatest moment of my life, it’s not even close,” says Alexander, who had turned 18 just four days before Lawrence III entered the world. “I was broke, I was scared and I didn’t know how I was going to keep him alive, and I am forever a better person for it,” he says.
Now 23, as a 6’3” point guard, Alexander has emerged as a bona fide NBA prospect and mid-major star, earning Summit League Player of the Year honors by averaging 18.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Achievements and honors that, along with his shot against Oklahoma, he says would not have been possible without his son.
“I don’t think I’d be playing basketball if he wasn’t born,” says Alexander. “He definitely changed my whole life, my responsibilities completely changed: It wasn’t just worry about yourself and your own needs, it’s you have to put someone else whose entire life depends on you first.”
Against all odds
Poor, black and a teenage father; Alexander had three strikes against him in the eyes of many by the time he turned 18.
“I kind of had a lot on my plate before getting here,” says Alexander. “My senior year (of high school) I was becoming a father, I had to balance school and basketball and becoming a father.”
But Alexander credits the odds that seemed to be stacked against him for making him the man he is today.
“I think everything I faced growing up, the family I have, and of course my son, are what made me who I am today,” he says.
Alexander was born and raised in Peoria, a city that sits on the Illinois River in the heart of the state.
“It’s a great city and a good community, but you still have things that make you lose focus, a lot of danger,” says Alexander of his hometown, where nearly 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
“The crime rate has been going up every year. You have peers who try to force you to do things that are not healthy for you, healthy for your body,” he says.
Alexander admits that he didn’t always have his priorities in order as a teenager, but that all changed when his son was born.
“Once I became a father, I started to get a lot better,” he says, “he turned me into a better person.”
On the hardwood, Alexander had a solid career at Peoria Manual High School, averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game as a senior for the Illinois Class 2A runners-up, earning First Team All-Conference, All-State and state tournament MVP honors.
But upon graduation, he found himself without a single Division I scholarship offer.
“North Dakota State actually wanted me to walk-on,” he says of his senior year, “but my family didn’t have the money so I couldn’t.”
But he was able to land a scholarship to play prep basketball for St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisc. It was an opportunity that Lawrence could not pass on if he was going to make a run at his dream of playing college ball, but one that meant moving away from his young son, which he calls the hardest decision he’s had to make in his life.
“It’s definitely hard. No father wants to be away from their child for not even a half hour. But I knew it could lead to a better life for him,” he says. “I knew once I left it would be tough on me, him and his mom, but I knew when it was all said and done he’d be able to have things that he needs and he wants.”
After a standout prep season at Northwest Military Academy, Alexander was offered a scholarship by then head coach Saul Phillips, and jumped at the opportunity. The only thing was, he didn’t know the first thing about Fargo.
“No, actually, I couldn’t,” he laughs when asked if he could have located Fargo on a map at the time.
“When [Phillips] old me he was in Fargo North Dakota I was like, ‘where is that?’ All I could think of was just a bunch of farmland and nothing surrounding it,” he says.
But Alexander says he immediately warmed to the notoriously frigid city.
“Once I got here it definitely changed my mind. I came here and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I was kind of spoiled for the first two years, because they didn’t really have a bad winter, but last year it definitely caught up to me.”
Far apart but always in his heart
For Alexander, playing college basketball and earning a college degree has meant spending most of his four-years in college nearly 700 miles away from his son, something he calls “excruciating.”
“I love him, and I want to be around him all the time, but I think the sacrifices today will provide him with a much, much better tomorrow,” he says.
Alexander has kept up with his over the phone, facetime and the internet, and remains a constant presence in his life even from afar.
“He was born with a basketball,” he says proudly of his son, “he had one in his crib.”
But while Alexander admits he’d be happy if his son enjoyed the same successes as he has on the court, he isn’t trying to push him into the sport.
“He’s had a ball with him ever since he could walk, but he actually played peewee baseball last spring. He wants to play flag football, but I don’t think his mom is going to let him,” he laughs. “Honestly, I don’t want him to feel like he has to follow in my footsteps or live up to anything I’ve done, as long as he’s happy and healthy, I’m happy.”
Announcing himself to the world
Alexander stepped out onto the hardwood at the Spokane Arena on March 20, 2014 and stared across the court at fifth-seed Oklahoma. He saw as not only chance to prove that he belonged on the same floor as one of the premier programs in the country, but also as an chance to pay back the school that had given him the biggest opportunity of his life.
“North Dakota State gave me a chance to continue to play basketball and even more importantly to get a degree, it gave me a big chip on my shoulder to prove myself against everyone else and to play against Oklahoma,” he says.
Up until that point, Alexander had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career, averaging between 10.8 and 12.8 points per game in each of his first three seasons. But against the Sooners, Lawrence played out of his mind, drilling 10-of-15 shots and 4-of-7 three-pointers.
The monster game served as a launch pad for Alexander’s career. As a senior, Alexander has scored 20 or more points 14 times, including 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half, in a 57-56 win in the Summit League championship game over archrival South Dakota State.
Alexander has vowed to savor every moment and leave every once of himself on the floor when 15th seed North Dakota State takes the floor against second-seed Gonzaga in the final NCAA Tournament of his career.
“This is it. I’m forever grateful for everything North Dakota State has done for me and I’m going to give them everything I have in return,” he says.
When his college career does come to an end, Alexander would like to continue his career professionally, either in the states or overseas.
“Hopefully I can continue to play basketball and be somewhere playing professional basketball, but if not, I’d love to get into coaching,” he says.
But wherever he goes and whatever he does, his motivation remains the same as when he first set out on his journey five years ago.
“Whatever I do, I’m going to be doing it to provide with my son,” he says.
For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.