Former European hoops pro Shane Lawal has Renaissance Phoenix girls on the rise again
DETROIT — For former professional and Olympic basketball player Olaseni “Shane” Lawal, the measure of his first season on the bench as the head girls basketball coach at Detroit Renaissance all lies in a handful of numbers.
There’s a number that he likes, and one that he loves.
There’s one he’d love to change, and one he knows he can’t do a whole lot about.
A graduate of Southfield-Lathrup, the 33-year-old Lawal played 10 seasons in Europe, retiring as a player last October to embark on his next career, as a high school basketball coach.
So far, it’s gone well, as he’s got the Phoenix on the rise again, 12-1 after Thursday’s 72-40 win over Detroit Cody that gave Renaissance sole possession of the Detroit Public School League’s West Division title.
“When you take over a team, and they’re used to doing things one way — I think our growing pains were more in the summer. You’ve got a new coach that runs you to death, you lift a lot,” Lawal said. “I’m just a high-intensity guy, and they’re just so laid back as a team, so I’m always in their face, and they just have to get used to it. Even going from being coached by a woman to being coached by a man. Just so many changes. The one thing I would give them, no matter how hard it’s been for them, they’ve always been open to changes. That’s all you can ask from kids. They bought in early.”
That 12-1 start is the number that Lawal likes — and it’s certainly hard not to.
But the number he loves is the 3.19 GPA posted by his team in the first semester, no small feat at a school like Renaissance.
“It’s important to me because you don’t just want them to go to college, you want them to succeed at college. I hate when people say ‘I want to get my kids into college.’ And then what?” said Lawal, who has canceled practice a few times this season to allow his kids to concentrate on school.
“I want them to get great degrees in college, I want them to get great internships in college. I want them to get great networking. I want them to come out of it with a strong career, whether it’s in athletics or not in athletics. I don’t just want them to go to a school, and they’re just there for a year and a half, and they fail out, or they transfer because the school is too hard, because even though it’s a great basketball school, it’s also a great academic school, and they don’t have good study habits. No, we want to build habits that are going to take them to 25, 30 years in their lives. We don’t just want to make them good basketball players — I want my kids to come back in 10, 15 years, and I want them to be successful. That’s huge for me. That’s huge for me.”
Lawal himself graduated from Oakland University in three years, then played out his fourth season of eligibility at Wayne State, before heading overseas.
“Then I just sort of faded into oblivion for 10 years — more like four or five years, then I kind of popped up in the Olympics, and different things,” said the 6-foot-9 forward, who played in Qatar, Spain, Libya, Italy and Kazakhstan, winning the Italian Cup and Italian Supercup, and the Kazakhstan Cup, then helped Nigeria’s national team clinch its first-ever continental championship at the FIBA Africas in 2015.
But coaching was always on the horizon for whenever he hung up his own career.
“Whenever I stopped playing, yes. I didn’t know if it would be the boys or the girls side, but I knew that it was very possible for me to do the girls side, because of my sisters,” said Lawal, whose younger sisters, twins Taiye and Kehinde Bello, play for the University of Minnesota. “When I was teaching them the game, and we used to be in the gym working, I just felt like — not everybody can coach both sides, because not everybody is wired to do this side (the girls). Me? I love it. I love either side. It’s basketball. That’s just where my passion came from: It didn’t matter to me which side I coached on.”
There’s been an adjustment factor to coaching a team full of high school girls, but it’s hasn’t been overwhelming for the former pro.
“The biggest thing with girls is, if you yell at me, you better yell at her. And if they can get that from you, I think they respect you. They just want to know that you’re equal, and that you care,” Lawal said. “Boys sometimes might not care if you care, but girls wanna know that you care. You have to care. You have to be genuine. You have to be a #girldad. I love that hashtag. You have to care about their day, care about what happened to them. You can’t coddle them, because if they come at you with some stuff that you know is them, and not the other person, you’ve gotta check them, ‘No, it’s YOU. Fix you.’ And they respect that in the long run. They might not talk to you for a couple of days, but they respect you.”
The Phoenix did buy in quickly, too, getting most of their growing pains with their new coach out over the summer. It was one summer-league game, against powerhouse Wayne Memorial, that proved to the new coach that he’d gotten through to his new pupils.
“I know the exact moment. Summer-league game vs. Wayne Memorial. … We were pressing them, and we weren’t in the same shape that we are right now. So in order to give them a break, I went 2-3 (zone). I called a timeout, and said ‘You guys wanna go 2-3?’ And Kailee (Davis) just screams out ‘No, coach. Let’s keep pressing!’ I was like, ‘We’re good, because they want to do it my way,’” Lawal said. “When you’ve got your best player, arguably, saying ‘Hey, let’s do it your way,’ it’s all downhill from there.”
And, it appears he’s gotten results.
Last season, the Phoenix were just north of the .500 mark, losing three times to eventual PSL champion Mumford — the final time by a 55-38 margin in the PSL tournament semifinals on their home floor— then bowing out in their first district game, thanks to a 20-point loss to eventual D1 runner-up Southfield A&T.
The formula for Mumford was what it was for many opponents: Take away the Phoenix’s best player, Davis, and hope the rest couldn’t beat you.
This year, that’s not as easy to do.
“Looks a little different, huh? A lot of threats out there. We play hot-potato basketball. Everybody touches it. The ball moves. The ball has energy. I don’t like stagnant players, I don’t like stagnant basketball, so I don’t like when they’re standing, or when they’re forcing it in. We don’t do that,” Lawal said. “I’m a European guy … so all I know is ball movement, ball screening, finding the open person. Mikyah (Finley) might score 20 today, Kailee might score 20 the next day — I don’t care. And it helps everybody, because when you play better teams, you don’t know who to stop. You can’t game-plan for us.”
Lawal even added a wrinkle, moving Davis — nominally his point guard — off the ball, and handing the point over to Nika Dorsey, to make the Phoenix that much harder to guard.
“It’s a struggle for people, because it’s hard to stop somebody who’s off the ball. It’s hard to deny someone that you’re not looking at,” the coach said. “She’s so freakin’ gifted. She’s such a talented kid, her IQ’s off the charts. She’s way more unselfish than people think. Just the way she was kind of forced to play. But she’s a team player.”
With the resurgence in the early season came the usual accolades, in the form of rankings.
But those rankings weren’t always in lock-step, varying from outlet to outlet, with respect to how high they should be slotted (Renaissance was ranked No. 4 in the most recent STATE CHAMPS! Top 25), leaving them feeling there’s still something they have to prove.
The rankings are the one that Lawal knows he can’t do much about.
“Yeah. But for me, I might joke on Twitter about rankings and stuff, but I really don’t care. Because at the end of the day, the way high school basketball works, rankings don’t affect the playoffs. … We don’t care about other people’s respect, because we’ve gotta play DEPSA (Saturday). If we lose to DEPSA by one or by 20, people will say ‘Oh, they’re cool, but they’re not there yet.’ If we beat DEPSA, it wakes everybody up,” Lawal said. “We’ll see eventually, I guess. It’s like ‘You’ll find out soon.’ And the people that played us? They know. They know.”
To date, the only loss for the Phoenix is a 65-50 setback at the Roundball Classic to a 23-2 Chicago (Ill.) Simeon squad that’s ranked No. 3 in Class 3A in the most recent Illinois Associated Press poll.
They’ve played quality competition, beating programs that have spent time in the rankings in West Bloomfield, Wayne Memorial and East Kentwood in the 5-0 start to the season.
But the last month hasn’t really done much to prove anything about them one way or the other.
Thursday’s running-clock, 42-point win over Cody (11-3, 6-2 PSL-West) was actually the closest game the Phoenix have had inside their division, winning eight games by an average of 46.9 points per game. Davis had 22 points, while Dorsey had 14, and Taylor Anderson and Shannon Wheeler had 10 each.
The next three weeks, though?
Tons to prove.
First, there’s Saturday’s visit to nationally-ranked Detroit Edison (11-0), followed by the start of the PSL tournament, where the Phoenix are likely favorites, along with Detroit King (9-0, 7-0 PSL-East) and Cass Tech (11-1, 7-0 PSL-East).
Then there’s a visit to Flint Carman-Ainsworth (11-1) on Feb. 19, followed by a likely matchup with a team like Birmingham Marian (10-2) or Farmington Hills Mercy (11-1) in Operation Friendship, should the Phoenix make it all the way to the PSL tournament finals.
That’s a gauntlet.
One that will prove if the Phoenix are for real or not.
It also provides the number that Lawal would love to change: 18.
The Phoenix haven’t won the city title since 2011 — 18 years running — but would love to finally make an update to that portion of the banner in the gym.
“Oh, yeah, we definitely want to change it,” Lawal said.
After that, no telling how far they’ll rise.