This article appears in the December 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
With two 20-something daughters no longer living at home and 32 years of coaching experience, South Gwinnett head basketball coach Roger Fleetwood understands the way the world works.
He knows he can never win a race against time. Kids come and go. Graduation is inevitable.
But even Fleetwood couldn't have anticipated just how quickly his current crop of seniors would grow up. A crop that includes Louis Williams and Mike Mercer — by far the two best players Fleetwood has coached and more than likely the two best players he'll ever coach. Not to mention the nation's best scholastic duo.
A self-described cross between Vince Carter and Allen Iverson, the 6-foot, 172-pound Williams is a high-scoring, high-flying shooting guard who's rated the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. He averaged 27 points, six rebounds and five assists per game as a junior.
Mercer, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound point guard, is no slouch himself. Rated the nation's No. 21 recruit in the senior class, Mercer is a consummate playmaker who emulates Jason Kidd.
"I pride myself on making my teammates better," says Mercer, who averaged 17.8 points, 7.9 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game last year. "I try to do the little things to help my team win. I'm not looking to score 30 points."
In addition to cementing their blue-chip status this past summer, both players also found time to get their driver's licenses, expediting the empty-nest feeling for Fleetwood. Up until this school year, Fleetwood had driven Williams to and from school every day for three years.
"It's strange for me to be riding alone," says Fleetwood, 54. "It was a 10- to 15-minute ride every day each way. It was a great time for us to talk about a lot. I thought I did my best coaching in the car instead of on the floor."
Fleetwood's compassion and dedication motivated Mercer to come to South Gwinnett in the first place. Whereas Williams was a South Gwinnett kid from the start — he went to Snellville Middle School, played on South Gwinnett feeder teams and started practicing with the Comets just hours after graduating from middle school — Mercer started his high school career at Holy Innocents'.
Already good friends and benevolent rivals from the AAU circuit, Mercer transferred to South Gwinnett for his sophomore year after Williams hyped the program and the coach. Then for two years, Mercer hitched rides home from Fleetwood as well.
"[Fleetwood] has been everything I hoped for and more," Mercer says. "He's helped me with my leadership a lot. When I first got to South Gwinnett, I was real shy. Now I'm starting to be more vocal with the players."
But just because Williams and Mercer are now free to bump Lil Wayne to window-shaking levels en route to school (Fleetwood kept the bass to a minimum in his own ride), that doesn't mean the player/coach relationship has changed.
On the contrary, both players recognize the impact Fleetwood has had on their careers and make a point to visit his office on a daily basis. And neither of them anticipates severing ties with their coach come graduation.
"I owe Fleetwood the world," says Williams, who is a SchoolSports All-American. "He cares about you more as a person than as a basketball player. And not just me or Mike. That's how committed he is. He'll probably travel the world with me when he retires."
Williams is that loyal to everybody who's real with him.
On his left arm, Williams has a tattoo of angel wings, a halo, the date his father, Willie Williams, was born and the date Willie passed away when Louis was 10. And on his 18th birthday in October, Williams got a picture of his grandmother, Eula Williams, inked on his right arm. Eula is still alive, but Louis says his relationship with her has suffered due to her battle with Alzheimer's disease.
Also in the works for Williams and his four closest buddies is a tat that spells the words "Blood Brothers" in cursive. Included in the quintet known as "Tha Squad" is Mercer, who Williams says is his best friend. And vice versa.
"Mike's real important to me," says Williams. "He's my best friend, like a brother to me. Whatever happens to me, he knows about it."
Mercer and Williams do everything together. Go to movies, grub at Zaxby's, ball at the park, play NBA Live 2005. You name it.
"We share each other's thoughts," Mercer says. "We're so much alike. Watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, laugh at the same jokes."
Their bond is most evident on the basketball court. By far the best backcourt combo in the country, Williams and Mercer led South Gwinnett to the Class AAAAA state title last year. And thanks to them, the Comets started this season ranked No. 5 in the SchoolSports.com National Basketball Top 25.
"I don't think anybody else in the nation has a connection like us," Mercer says. "I feel as if when he has the ball, he can score any time. People find it amazing how I can just find him on the court."
That connection will continue at the college level. Both Williams and Mercer have signed with Georgia and hope to help the Bulldogs rebound from the scandal surrounding former coach Jim Harrick.
That is, assuming Williams doesn't spurn college completely for the riches of the NBA. As the top-rated senior in the country, Williams can't escape the straight-to-NBA chatter.
"I want to be part of helping build the program (at Georgia) up to where we compete in the national championship," says Williams, who occasionally hangs out with and receives advice from Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. "But my ultimate goal is to play in the NBA. I'm still committed to Georgia, but if the opportunity presents itself in the form I'd like it to, then it could happen for me."
And the reality is, the opportunity could present itself. The past two No. 1 draft picks — LeBron James and Dwight Howard — have both been out of high school, and the No. 1 recruit from the Class of 2002, Amare Stoudemire, skipped college and was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year two seasons ago.
Fleetwood says several NBA teams have already contacted him about attending South Gwinnett games this season to get a glimpse of the new-and-improved Williams, who added about 10 pounds during the offseason.
"I waited 29 years for a player like Louis," says Fleetwood, who coached one Division I prospect during his 27-year tenure in Indiana before coming to South Gwinnett. "None of my other players were even close to him."
Mercer, meanwhile, might not be getting straight-to-NBA hype, but that doesn't mean he's not a legit NBA prospect. Although he says he'll play four years at Georgia regardless, the opportunity to leave college early could present itself because of his deadly mid-range game and passing ability.
"I think they're both going to play in the NBA one day," Fleetwood says. "It'd be absolutely great if they played together because I wouldn't have to watch all the NBA games."
Of course, Fleetwood would be happy either way. And with two empty passenger seats, he's got plenty of time on his hands.