In the second-floor atrium at Coppin State’s Talon Center, an empty seat was nowhere to be found. Media, more than 20 of Larry Stewart’s family and friends, and his former teammates were there to celebrate one of the basketball program’s greatest heroes coming home.

Coppin State formally introduced Stewart, an Eagles alum, as its new men’s basketball coach on Friday. When school president Anthony L. Jenkins announced Stewart, thunderous applause was accompanied by a jubilant chorus of screams. “Yeah!”

“This is a new chapter and a new opportunity for the Coppin State basketball program,” said Jenkins. “Coach, you’re the right man. I believe that, Eagle nation believes that. What you’ve done as a player and a coach will lend itself to developing the type of talent in recruiting the young men who will return our athletic program, and more specifically, our basketball program, to the legacy that Coppin is so well known for.”

As the new head coach hugged his friends and family afterward, tears of joy trickled down his cheeks amid the loud banter and celebration.

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Coppin State Athletic Director Derek Carter, right, introduces Larry Stewart as the new head coach of the men’s basketball team on Friday, May 5. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Stewart replaces Juan Dixon, the Baltimore native and University of Maryland legend who was dismissed in March after leading the program to a 51-131 record in six seasons.

Stewart was a two-time MEAC Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991, along with being a three-time All-Conference selection during his three-year career at Coppin. He went on to play five years in the NBA with the Washington Bullets, Vancouver Grizzlies and Seattle Supersonics and another 10 seasons overseas in the top European professional leagues.

His journey, however, was not a typical one. It was more suited to a feel-good Hollywood treatment than actual, real-life events.

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Stewart enjoyed playing sports growing up in a caring, family-oriented enclave of North Philadelphia.

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“North Philly doesn’t have the best reputation, and some of that is deservedly so, due to the crime and overwhelming poverty, but I grew up in a good neighborhood filled with good families that looked out for one another,” said Stewart. “We played basketball on a milk crate attached to a pole on our block, we played football in the street and we played baseball in the parking lot of a nearby warehouse. My friends and I would play against each other and guys from other neighborhoods.”

The tight-knit family was required to be in the house by the time the streetlights came on, with Stewart, his sister and two brothers jockeying to watch their favorite programs on the home’s sole television in the living room.

“There were times when we struggled, where maybe the lights and water got turned off, but we made it work,” said Stewart’s youngest brother Lynard, the current head coach at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia. “When you’re young, you don’t know that you’re struggling, you’re just living. And Larry was the best big brother that anyone could ask for. He walked me to school every day and looked out for all of us. He took care of us and set a great example in terms of having a strong work ethic and walking on the right path.”

But due to his mother’s beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness, he was not allowed to play any organized sports and spent most of his time, when not in school, at the local Kingdom Hall, their place of worship.

Larry Stewart during his playing days at Coppin. (Coppin State Athletics)

By the time he began attending Dobbins Technical High School, he’d already formulated a vision for where life would take him. His grandfather was an automobile mechanic and his father was a welder and iron worker who helped build some of the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

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His uncles were master carpenters, and Stewart recalls being intrigued by all their tools that were lying around.

“I saw my dad getting up early to go to work, I saw that he and my uncles were builders that worked in the construction industry,” said Stewart. “That was the path I had set for myself, so I began studying carpentry when I got to Dobbins.”

In 1985, his sophomore year, Dobbins Tech featured one of the greatest teams in the history of high school basketball, with otherworldly talents like the late, great Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and a mercurial young point guard and assist machine named Doug Overton. The Philadelphia Public School league that year was stocked with an embarrassment of talent, like future NBA players Pooh Richardson at Benjamin Franklin High and Lionel Simmons at Southern.

At the conclusion of that season, Dobbins was matched up against Southern in the city championship in one of the most anticipated games in Philadelphia schoolboy history. The chatter and excitement about the impending matchup were ubiquitous around the school and the entire city.

“There was so much hype around that game that I decided to go,” said Stewart.

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He watched in awe as Kimble blazed with 27 points, 12 rebounds and three assists while Gathers erupted for 27 points and 14 rebounds. Overton, the slight, diminutive floor general who was a blur in the open court, also impressed with 12 points and four assists. Simmons, known as “The L Train,” also dazzled with 18 points and 11 boards as Southern fell to Dobbins, 86-82.

“I walked into McGonigle Hall on the campus of Temple University and was overwhelmed with the electricity of the crowd,” said Stewart. “The game was phenomenal and those guys were so good. The gym was standing room only and it seemed like half of the city was jammed up in there. I fell in love with the game right then and there. That’s where my journey began.”

But at the time, he didn’t entertain any thoughts of suiting up for the Dobbins squad. He’d never played a minute of organized basketball.

A few days after the city title game, Doug Overton saw Stewart walking down the hallway at Dobbins and approached him.

“Larry was skinny and quiet, never said too many words, and he was just a really good guy,” said Overton, who spent 11 years in the NBA after a decorated college career playing alongside Lionel Simmons at LaSalle University.

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“But he was tall, about 6-foot-5 our sophomore year. Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were about to graduate and I knew that I was going to need some help for the next two years. Every time I saw him in school, I was like, ‘Why is that tall kid not playing basketball?’”

When he approached his lanky classmate who was reticent with his words, Overton was direct and to the point. “You need to try out for the varsity team.”

Stewart told him that his mother’s beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness wouldn’t allow it.

Overton asked him to come to the gym that afternoon when school let out to play some pickup ball with him, Kimble, Gathers and a few others on the team.

“Larry came out there and was just relentless,” said Overton. “He had these natural instincts and a real knack for the ball. He had great footwork and could finish around the basket. And he was playing against guys who were already being tabbed as future pros. He’d never played organized ball before but it was apparent that he’d been playing somewhere. I was just mesmerized.”

Stewart began showing up for those after-school runs with regularity. But there was one problem — he had to be sneaky about it so his mother wouldn’t know.

“Our mother is a beautiful individual, but the support wasn’t there in terms of Larry playing basketball because she was very firm about her beliefs and what was allowed,” said Stewart’s brother Lynard. “He’d be walking out of the house in his shoes, and he’d whisper, ‘Hey Nardi, throw my sneakers out of the back window, I’m going to work out.”

Overton, already considered one of the top young point guards in the country, plugged Stewart into the city’s small inner circle of the elite basketball community, including John Hartnett, the acclaimed coach, trainer and mentor who ran the high school division at the legendary Sonny Hill summer league.

After one of their pickup games, Overton walked with Stewart to his home on Allegheny Avenue. He wanted to have a conversation with his new friend’s mother.

“Ma’am, I don’t know about your religious beliefs, but I do know this, you have to let your son play basketball,” Overton said, respectfully. “He has a chance to get a scholarship and get a free college education. I play on the team and your son is good. He has a chance to be really good. It would be a shame if he doesn’t take advantage of the talent that he has.”

Stewart eventually moved in with his father, who supported his son’s desire to play.

“Larry played every day with us after that, whether it was workouts, pick-up ball, in the Sonny Hill and other summer leagues, and he just kept getting better and better and better,” said Overton.

“People don’t understand what guys like Lionel Simmons, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers meant to me,” said Stewart. “Working out with and playing against those guys accelerated my development. Those guys were my idols. I wanted to be just like those guys. They were my first examples of seeing young guys in my peer group doing what they absolutely loved, being successful and going off to play ball in college.”

After that first spring and summer sharpening his skills, he was no longer the city’s best-kept basketball secret. He was named to the All-City public school team during his junior and senior seasons.

On his recruiting visit, he didn’t set foot on the actual campus. Coppin didn’t have its own gym at the time, they played their home games at a nearby community college.

“John Hartnett piled us into a car, we drove down to Baltimore and watched the team play,” said Stewart. “I met coach Mitchell, talked to him for a little bit, John Hartnett said, ‘This is where you’re going to school,’ we hit the road back to Philly and that was it.”

But he was slacking academically and didn’t achieve the requisite SAT scores, which made him ineligible to compete during his freshman year. When he suited up for coach Fang Mitchell as a sophomore at Coppin State, though, he quickly proved to be one of the top players in all of college basketball.

Larry Stewart during his playing days at Coppin. (Coppin State Athletics)

“Fang meant everything to me because, whether you liked it or not, he was going to tell you the truth,” said Stewart. “He used to get on me and push me all the time. I guess he saw what I was capable of and wouldn’t settle for anything less. I respected that.”

He led Coppin to its first MEAC Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in 1990. The following season, as a senior, Stewart averaged 23.9 points and 13.4 rebounds, both of which are school records, and led Coppin to the NIT.

“I was surrounded by great teammates in college and the university, the staff, the community and the city of Baltimore embraced us and showed us that they cared about us,” said Stewart. “So I felt obligated to give my very best effort every time I stepped on the court.”

His buddies back in Philly took notice of the noise he was making up in Baltimore.

“When we saw the career he was having at Coppin State, how he was just destroying everybody, me and Lionel Simmons would always look at each other and say, ‘Man, I wish we coulda got Stew.’”

Invited to the Washington Bullets training camp as an undrafted free agent, head coach Wes Unseld saw something in Stewart and kept him on the team. Stewart averaged 10.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in his 1991-92 rookie season with the Bullets, becoming the first undrafted player in league history to make an NBA All-Rookie Team.

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“No words can explain how I feel about Wes Unseld,” said Stewart. “Like Fang, he told me the truth and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. I only played two years of high school ball and three in college and now I was in the NBA, being coached and mentored by a Hall of Famer that truly cared about me as a person.”

The next season, his old high school buddy who implored him to play basketball at Dobbins Tech joined the Bullets.

“Larry became one of my best friends from the day we met,” said Overton. “So it was incredible to team up with him in the NBA. We played together in high school, in the Sonny Hill and other summer leagues, and now we’re in the pros together. He was in my wedding, I was in his and it was an honor and a joy to share that NBA experience with someone I consider to be my brother. Sometimes we’d just look at each other and be like, ‘Look at us, just two kids from Philly who followed their dreams.’”

But in early January of 1994, Stewart’s fairy-tale story almost came to a nightmarish end.

During a home invasion, four intruders broke into his place in the 900 block of Oakmore Drive and tried to rob him. They dragged him out of his sleep at 4 a.m., tied him up and ransacked the place. He was stabbed in the thigh and before the attackers left, one of them, armed with a gun, put a pillow over his head and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered the left side of the back of his neck, missing his spinal cord by one inch.

Luckily, the bullet went clean through and the attending physicians simply had to clean out the wound and let it drain.

“Other than those guys who broke in and tried to rob me, God was in that room because I walked away with minimal injuries,” said Stewart. “It took me a long time to deal with that trauma, to not be afraid to go to sleep and things like that. Eventually, I came to accept the incident as part of my journey and it allows me to help some of the young men I coach and mentor who are dealing with similar traumas as victims of violence.”

Stewart has never been about himself; the collective was always more important than any individual accolades. Early on, he set an example that his two younger brothers, Stephen and Lynard, who like Larry both stand 6-foot-8, would follow.

Lynard Stewart, Larry Stewart , Larry Stewart Sr. and Stephen Stewart pose for a portrait at Coppin State University.

“I wanted to be a good example for my brothers,” said Stewart. “In the ’80s, with all of the drugs and everything that was going on out in the streets, I wanted them to know that they could sidestep all that and accomplish anything they wanted through hard work.”

Stephen literally followed in his big brother’s footsteps at Coppin, becoming the MEAC Player of the Year in 1993-94 and 1994-95, and eventually played professionally in Europe and Australia. Lynard played his college ball at Temple University and played professionally overseas as well.

“Larry was an incredible role model who showed his younger brothers the pathway,” said Stewart’s father, Larry Stewart Sr., who’s known in Philadelphia as Big Larry. “He worked extremely hard so they didn’t have to work as hard. He was basically saying, ‘Lemme pull you up, brother, so you can be up here with me. Now you reach back and get our other brother.’ It’s a beautiful thing.”

Now, Stewart has come full circle. An assistant coach for the last 14 years, he has his dream job, coming home to a place that he loves and cherishes.

“Becoming the head coach at Coppin is not about me,” said Stewart. “It’s about teaching and growing. I got into this business because I wanted the young men I work with to experience some of the blessings that the game of basketball gave me.”

“I’m ecstatic and looking forward to this new journey,” he continued. “I’m ready to get to work, to be of service to the young men that play at this great university and get this Coppin State basketball brand back to where it used to be. Baltimore is a great city. It’s a great sports city. It’s a great basketball city. I’m looking forward to being back at the place where I formulated a vision for my life. I’m ready to go! Let’s go Eagles!”

alejandro.danois@thebaltimorebanner.com

Alejandro Danois was a sports writer for The Banner. He specializes in long-form storytelling, looking at society through the prism of sports and its larger connections with the greater cultural milieu. The author of The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, he is also a film producer and cultural critic.

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