Before dawn most days Sir Lawrence Darby would be on the Winthrop Coliseum basketball court. By 5 a.m., the sole person in the building. He heard no cheers.
He was a custodian. A janitor.
Nobody clapped for him.
Darby was there not to play, but to clean. The floor polisher, the waxed hardwood – for more than 15 years the arena was his workplace. Supporting the Winthrop teams was his passion.
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Until early Sunday, when Darby died in a car crash. He died coming home from a benefit party for a family dealing with breast cancer where he refused to accept any money for his DJ service. Two other people died in the Chester County crash.
A funeral had to be held for Darby – a legendary DJ known as “Sir-Nose” who was scheduled to play the music for Winthrop’s Homecoming events next month. For a man so loved, the Darby family needed a big room.
They found one. The biggest in Rock Hill.
Darby’s funeral Saturday will be at 3 p.m. in the Winthrop Coliseum, seating capacity 6,100 – the same place that the man cleaned on thousands of days so that others could hear the ovation and be the star.
“I am so happy, and proud, that Winthrop allowed us to have the funeral there at the coliseum where he worked, because he cared so much about making the place perfect for those teams,” said Dominique Walls, the oldest of Darby’s four children. “He loved those players. They loved him. They were his family, too.”
Winthrop officials made the call to allow just the second memorial service in the coliseum’s three decades of existence. The first was a decade ago after men’s basketball player De’Andre Adams died in a car crash.
So many people around the coliseum this week have been stunned by Darby’s death. They said Sir Lawrence Darby was not a janitor. He was not a worker.
He was family.
“I loved the man,” said Kevin Cook, women’s basketball coach. “But he loved us more. He loved these players like his own children.”
The team has dedicated the upcoming season to Darby, who was so devoted that long before practices and afterward he would shoot baskets with the players. He would talk to them about success, and dreams, and life. He cooked for them and never missed a home game.
He would dare them to be great.
“Every day he had a smile, asked how we were doing,” said Erica Williams, the star player on the women’s team this year. “We were very close. This season, we are going to do it – for him.”
On Williams’ basketball sneakers she wrote in marker that will last all season: “Sir Lawrence.”
The funeral in the coliseum is the right tribute, Williams said.
“This is where everybody saw him,” she said. “We are all going to be here to show that we all loved him the same we he loved us.”
And after practices finish Friday, the arena that has hosted big games, graduations and a Donald Trump rally will turn into a funeral parlor.
“We have had big funerals in a hundred years in this business – but never one in a place this big,” said Monique Ramseur of Robinson Funeral Home.
The people who worked with Darby at the coliseum, the other custodians, are going to make sure the building, the floor, is spotless and ready. These are hard-working people among whom the words “honor” and “love” and friend” means more than money.
“He would have wanted it that way – the way he always had it,” said his co-worker for three years, Linda Thomasson.
James Ervin, Darby’s supervisor, said he learned from Darby every day about how pride in a job, and caring for people, can change lives.
“He was always smiling, greeting people,” Ervin said. “He brought a lot of positivity to the coliseum, to the campus.”
Vernadine Patterson, who worked with Darby for years, said that making sure the coliseum is perfect Saturday is a tribute to Darby and the hundreds of players that he befriended and loved.
On one final day, in the Winthrop Coliseum, the ovation will not be for a dunk, or a game-winning shot. But for a life lived well by the man who kept the place running so that others would hear those cheers.
“He loved his coliseum, he loved his job, he always wanted to take care of the building,” Patterson said. “We will make it perfect, the same way he always had it, and help send him home.”