April 4, 2007
By Jamie Lay
Sports Unlimited Magazine
On a homemade dirt court behind an old house in Perry, Ga., Al Thornton made his first impressions on the game of basketball. It was not his final home game at Perry High School when he scored 53 points and impressed Division I college coaches. It was not his “signature games” last year against Boston College and Duke in which he had 37 points in Conte Forum and Cameron Indoor, impressing NBA scouts. Nor was it the last regular season game of his senior year in which he placed the struggling Seminoles on his narrow but strong shoulders and scored a near school-record 45 points without a shrug, hopefully impressing the NCAA Tournament committee.
In a small electric blue-and-white trimmed house within walking distance of Perry Middle School, Thornton grew up with his parents and three sisters. On the dirt court behind it, he learned the game of basketball.
When his sisters were in high school and Thornton was merely a tot, his dad built and erected the first hoop in their back yard. He smoothed the bumps out of the gray dirt floor, and the court was ready for his three sisters, all over six feet tall. Their interest in the game brought them to the high school gym for practice. And since both parents worked during the summer and Thornton wasn’t in school, whenever his sisters went to the gym, he tagged along. “I grew up around girls and basketball,” said Thornton proudly.
In middle school, basketball was Thornton’s least favorite sport behind baseball and football. “I was more of a football guy,” he said. “My dad just kept me in sports. But I hated basketball. I hated the movement of the game. I hated the whole purpose of basket-ball. After a while I wanted to get out of it, but my dad kept me in it.”
When Thornton was about six years old, he showed his true indifference for the sport. During a recreational game a “big guy” was closely guarding the young Thornton, who is now six-foot-eight, 230 pounds. Intimidated, Thornton handed him the ball without protest and said, “Here, just take it.” (Later in life, Thornton would dunk on him.)
His dad’s insistence, that he continue playing basketball, eventually encouraged Thornton, who after several years began to understand the intricacies of the sport. After years of fighting it, Thornton took his first step forward when he asked his father to add a second hoop to the dirt court in the back yard. It was on this court that Thornton practiced almost every minute he was awake beginning in 8th grade. When asked how many hours a day he was out there his mother said, “Oh, Lord” as if to say, “just too many to count.”
Those practice hours literally shaped him into the player he is today. Random humps on the court’s floor made playing on it like managing a minefield. They forced him to dribble low to the ground and control the ball. The ball often hit these bumps and bounced off the court in all directions. Whenever Thornton complained, his dad would quickly remind him, “if you can handle the ball on a dirt court where you have humps, imagine when you’re on a real court what you can do.””
Thornton ‘s game also survived another obstacle: the court’s slight incline, curved about one step up from level ground. Here he climbed and sweated through his father ‘s drills. There were lay-up drills and ball handling drills, and shooting drills. “My drills were very exhausting,” Thornton aid. With his innate talent and ability, Thornton dominated this court and others, and not many in the area matched up against him.
Still, his game was raw like an unedited manuscript. Everyone that saw him play said the same thing. “He had a lot talent and ability,” said Brett Hardy, the boy’s basketball coach at Perry High School. “At the time he was just growing into his body and learning how to play the game. He was always so athletic. You could just tell he was going to be a good player when it was all said and done.”
The transformation began during a regional tournament game in his junior year in high school. Coach Thomas, the former head coach, took Thornton aside and said, “Look if we ‘re going to go deep in
this tournament, if we ‘re going to be successful, you have to take the responsibility of scoring some points and being our go-to-guy.” Thornton responded by carrying his team n the tournament.
As the only returning starter the next year, he was the team’s focal point. In five games he scored 40 or more points. Junior college coaches began calling. Then on Feb. 1, senior night, n front of several colleges including the College of Charleston, Thornton netted 53 points in Perry ‘s double overtime win. The next day and the weeks after the phone rang off the hook from coaches like Tubby Smith and Bob Huggins and teams like Georgia Tech and Tennessee.
One day there were no Division I teams recruiting him but the next day Thornton was staring at four scholarship offers. And in a snap, hey were one like birds at the first sight of stones.
When these college coaches learned Thornton wasn’t academically eligible, the phone calls stopped all together and the offers disappeared. Then Thornton received a call from Leonard Hamilton, the former Washington Wizards coach. Hamilton was taking the head coaching job at Florida State. The two talked on the phone several times before
Hamilton took the position, and he reassured Thornton that if he was eligible, there was a scholarship for him at Florida State.
Thornton ‘s new dirt court became 10 Real SAT s and his basketball a No. 2 pencil. He studied it religiously. He read the newspaper regularly to improve his comprehension. He used the computer to
take practice tests. When he finally finished the six-pound book, it was as ragged as an old pair of jeans. It was usable, but the front cover was torn off and the bottom corners of every page were curled like dried eaves.
Thornton took the test four times. The fifth time on December 10 was his last time no matter the results.
His mother, Philomenia, placed conditions on her son that allowed him until December to qualify. If he didn’t, then he was off to junior college. For Thornton the motivation as simple because “junior college was not an option..”
On the same day as his last SAT, Thornton participated in And1, a national street ball tour. He impressed the promoter with his play and was asked to join the tour. The pair exchanged phone numbers and Thornton told him, If don’t get this score, I might be playing. ”
At the time, Florida State was in Arizona at the Fiesta Classic. When Thornton finally received word that he had passed, the message was relayed to a Seminoles’ assistant coach who woke Hamilton in the middle of the night and old him the news.
Thornton was Hamilton ‘s first recruit and he was prideful of that fact. Similarly he described Thornton much like his high school coach had. When Hamilton was recruiting Isaiah Swann, now one FSU’s top guards, e told him, If Thornton ever gets it together, he’s going to e a great player.”
For Thornton the situation during his freshmen year was much different than he envisioned. His
headshot in the 2002-22003 media guide displays this fact. In the photograph, Thornton looks glum
like a spoiled child not getting his way. That year Thornton averaged only seven minutes per game but
believed he should have been the star. Thornton returned to Perry after that season upset about his first
year and his lack of playing time.
“I said son you gotta pay your dues,” said his dad. “After his freshmen year, he told me, Dad, I’m going to work hard. I’m going o earn it.”
So Thornton returned to the court and changed his attitude. “I think coming in I thought I was going to
be the man. I think over the years I’ve changed,” he said. “I started being more humble and listening to the
coaches. Saying I don’t know everything. Now I try o be sponge and soak everything up.”
Swann, who witnessed Thornton ‘s transformation from his freshmen and sophomore years to his junior
year, described Thornton ‘s situation. “Al really wasn’t a go-to-guy. The way he’s exploded over the past
two years has been a tremendous jump. When he got here my freshmen year he really wasn’t an option,”
said Swann. “He worked for everything he has right now and he deserves every bit of it. He learned how to shoot. He had it where he was pushing it with both thumbs and it was just ugly. He’s straightened that out
and now he ‘s an All-American candidate.”
Thornton finally refined his talent and ability and it showed in his junior and senior years. He led the
league this year with 20 points per game and finished second in ACC player of year voting. The player who
won it, Boston College’s Jared Dudley met Thornton this summer at a Michael Jordan camp in California
for elite college players. They worked out together a few times and have played against one another the last
Dudley gave his highest praise. “Al’s one of the hardest people to guard. He’s so tall and athletic,” he
said. “He can shoot the ball. He wants to score at all costs. To try to match up with his speed and athleticism, it ‘s almost impossible so you try to take angles on him and deny him the ball. But he’s a player that can get a shot from anywhere.”
In both games Florida State and Boston College played this year, the two friends bruised under the basket and fought the whole game for space and the ball. “We’re both relentless on the glass,” said Dudley. “He
Plays above the rim. I play below it.””
This summer Thornton and Dudley will enter the NBA draft and are potential first round lottery picks.
When asked if Thornton will change in the NBA from the kid who made his impression on the game on a
dirt court n their old back yard years ago, is dad proudly and assuredly aid, Al s just going o be Al. “