Home Local Sports Laton’s Legacy: Over 40 years of coaching excellence

Laton’s Legacy: Over 40 years of coaching excellence

Though retired from coaching, David Laton (center) still lends his basketball knowledge to local teams like at Hamlet Middle School. (Contributed photo by Keith Parsons)

David Robinson’s path to basketball stardom certainly came with a humble beginning. He played his first season of organized basketball as a high school senior, and even though he stood 6-foot-7, he didn’t consider himself to be much of a standout.

Someone who did believe in Robinson’s future on the court was David Laton, a Richmond County native who at the time was an assistant coach at Navy.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without David Laton,” Robinson told me in a phone interview.

Anyone who follows basketball knows where that path led – a Hall of Fame career which includes an NBA Most Valuable Player award and two NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs. He was named one of the Top 50 players of the first 50 years of the NBA and made the cut as one of the top 75 players during the league’s 75th anniversary, too.

Before all that, Robinson simply was learning to play the game at Osborn Park High School in Manassas, Va. He initially was interested in attending the Naval Academy as a regular plebe, not as a basketball player. Coach Laton helped him change his mind.

“Coach Laton was the first person who really believed I could be something special as a basketball player,” Robinson said. “There is so much power in someone believing in you, believing you’re better than you think you are.”

Robinson rewarded Coach Laton’s confidence in him, helping Navy reach the Elite Eight in the 1986 NCAA tournament. The run included an upset of second-seeded Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, when the rules still allowed top seeds to play at home.

A few years ago, when the team held a reunion to celebrate the historic season, everyone got rings to commemorate the achievement. Robinson and his teammates purchased ones for all the coaches, and Coach Laton proudly wears his today.

“I don’t get to see Coach Laton or talk to him as much as I would like, but he’s somebody I’ll never forget,” Robinson said.

Robinson is one of hundreds of players Coach Laton impacted during his more than 40 years on the sidelines, a career which ended last spring after he led Temple Christian to a conference tournament championship. And his success might be even more improbable than Robinson’s.

Coach Laton always knew he wanted to be a basketball coach, even though he didn’t make the team at Hamlet High School. During his summers, he worked at the Coca-Cola bottling plant, where he assisted full-time employee Roger Brown and shared his life’s goal. 

“He used to tell me all the time, ‘I’m not a very good basketball player, but I’m going to be a good basketball coach someday,’” Brown recollected. “I knew he was serious about basketball, but I was worried he had his expectations too high.

“He went out and did it. You love to see someone live out his dreams. I’m happy for him.”

That type of commitment to basketball is one reason Coach Laton earned his position at Navy. 

“David always was all-basketball, all the time,” said Paul Evans, who was the head coach at Navy in the early 1980s when he hired Coach Laton as an assistant.

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“I can’t tell you how many times I would come to the office early in the morning or late at night, and there was David, making one more phone call to a recruit or writing one more letter. He always gave 100 percent.”

Coach Laton graduated from UNC Greensboro, where he walked on the basketball team and became a key contributor by his senior season. Originally, he planned to take a job as an assistant coach at Guilford College, also in Greensboro, before hearing the University of Maryland and famed coach Lefty Driesell needed a graduate assistant.

That is where Coach Laton went, where he served on Driesell’s staff for three seasons. The Terrapins went on to win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title in his final year in College Park.

Then came Navy and a stint at Army as an assistant; how many coaches can boast of serving both military academies? 

Once he left college coaching, Coach Laton decided to move back to North Carolina to be closer to his mother, Elva, who still lived in Hamlet. He found a job at West Forsyth High School near Winston-Salem, and fate brought him there in time to coach Chris Paul, now a star guard with the Phoenix Suns.

“Coach Laton helped my career a lot,” Paul told David Brandt of The Associated Press in Phoenix a few weeks ago. “I played two years of JV, and Coach Laton allowed me to practice with the varsity every day for those two years.”

It is a lesson Paul has passed on to other young players.

“I try to tell kids all the time, people want to play varsity to get a letterman’s jacket of to say they’ve played varsity,” he said. “At that point in my life, it was more important to play JV to build up my confidence.”

When the health of Coach Laton’s mother declined, he moved back to Hamlet to care for her and became the girls’ coach at Richmond. Despite coaching women for the first time, Coach Laton led the Raiders to the state tournament.

He took over the boys’ program the next season and compiled a record of 140-66 in eight seasons. In his final year, Richmond set five state records, including most points in a quarter (50), most games with at least 100 points in a single season (17) and most points in a state tournament game (123).

After retiring from the public school system at that point, Coach Laton stayed in coaching. He spent two years at Marlboro Academy in Bennettsville, S.C., before taking over the boys’ junior varsity and varsity teams at Temple Christian.

This season is Coach Laton’s first without a team to call his own since his time at UNC Greensboro. He stays involved with the game through TV and a lifetime of contacts, and a few weeks ago, he talked with Evans, his former boss at Navy.

Evans now is 77 years old and took a position this season with a private high school in Florida. His team was having trouble on defense, so he called Coach Laton, who shared a scheme Lefty Driesell used so effectively during his time at Maryland and other schools – a triangle-and-two, which is part zone and part man-to-man. Not surprisingly, Evans called back to share how successful the advice had been.

Turns out Coach Laton exceeded that modest goal he shared with Roger Brown all those years ago on that Coca-Cola truck. He didn’t become a good coach. He became a great one.