NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — One thought comes to mind when watching Sindarius Thornwell on the basketball court: He was born to do this.
Thornwell is 6-feet-5 and 190 pounds because that’s the combination agreed upon by his creators at the Celestial Hoops Factory. Not one inch is misused. Not one ounce is misplaced. His joints are greased ball bearings and his head swivels like an owl’s.
On the floor, Thornwell slashes through the paint with a reckless abandon, yet fully under control.
“Play hard, do anything it takes for a win,” Thornwell said following his game-high, 20-point performance Thursday morning at the Nike Peach Jam with Team United. He rattled off his hoops attributes in the verbal equivalent of a snare-drum staccato. Were they traits or operating instructions?
“Find the open man,” he continued. “Attack the basket. Hit the open shot.”
To see him going against the top players in the country – in front of virtually every Division I coach in the land, on the best stage in youth basketball – is like listening to “Somewhere over the Rainbow” while watching the Spartans defend Thermopylae.
Call it violent grace.
The same term can be used for his home town. Lancaster isn’t much to look at these days, but there is bustle and community pride.
There is beauty in Lancaster. A downtown that has aged well greets visitors with a gorgeous mural depicting people holding hands under the words “Forward Together: The Spirit of Lancaster.”
Young and innocent. Suspected or respected. There are no common denominators in the 11 killings that have occurred in Lancaster during the first six months of 2012. Some will point to the depressed local economy and the 11.9 percent unemployment rate.
Whatever the reason, it’s difficult to stomach the fact a community of just more than 8,000 has a violent crime rate 334 percent higher than the national average according to the National Crime Information Center.
This is where Thornwell has grown up. This is the place Thornwell is eager to leave behind.
Thornwell may be the perfect hoops machine, but for years, he operated with a football owner’s manual.
In ninth grade, Thornwell was a freshman quarterback for Bennie McMurray’s Lancaster High Bruins. One day, Lancaster resident Kyle Gaither dropped in on a Bruins practice and spied Thornwell.
In Gaither’s mind, it was unnatural and totally at odds with what he had seen from Thonrwell during a pick-up basketball game the summer before.
On that day, Gaither had picked up on Thornwell’s instinctual feel for basketball. Enamored with his potential, he asked Thornwell to join him for an elite drills camp.
“I ain’t coming,” Thornwell remembered saying.
So, Gaither went to Thornwell’s mother and she was the one who talked him into attending.
“He had this old-school game,” Gaither said. “I liked that about him.”
Until then, Thornwell played basketball to pass the time between football seasons.
But he played and played and played.
“I played in the yard, at the courts, open gyms,” Thornwell said. “But I didn’t play school ball because I just wanted to play football.”
But when McMurray eventually saw Thornwell play on the hardwood, the football coach knew he had lost his starting quarterback.
“Go to basketball,” Thornwell remembered McMurray telling him. “Basketball is your gift.”
So, he did. He kept playing. He kept getting better. By this past spring, virtually every available recruiting service listed Thornwell as the consensus top rising senior in South Carolina.
But there were concerns. Thornwell worried he was falling behind the nation’s elite by playing against inferior high school competition. He was frustrated with the limited amount of time he had to practice or work out.
Then one day he went to a party at his aunt’s house. He spent that day talking about the Super Bowl with his uncle and one of his uncle’s best friends.
The following morning, his uncle’s best friend was dead. His name was Danny Clyburn Jr.
Team United offered a brief escape for Thornwell. Gaither’s vaunted AAU basketball squad, comprised of top players from throughout the Carolinas, crisscrossed the country this spring and summer, playing in events such as the Elite Youth Basketball League tournaments.
It was at the Hampton, Va., EYBL event that Thornwell caught the eye of Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith. Before long, Smith offered Thornwell a spot at his perennial national powerhouse.
“Nothing against Lancaster,” Gaither said. “But if an opportunity like Oak Hill comes along and the coach is interested in you, then you have to take advantage of it.”
Still, Thornwell chose Oak Hill only after some sleepless nights.
“For, like, two weeks I didn’t want to go anywhere because I didn’t want anybody looking at me wrong or saying stuff to me or something,” Thornwell said.
Once he did leave the house, he went to one of his favorite places to grab a bite to eat. He was greeted at the door by crime scene tape.
“Lancaster, it’s rough,” Thornwell said. “Most people, if you’re not playing ball, you’re in the streets. I’m just trying to get away from that, to better myself. It’s just that there are gangs everywhere.”
Frustrated, Thornwell sent out a Twitter comment decrying Lancaster’s troubled ways adding “you wonder why I’m leaving.”
“I didn’t really think the town would take it like they did,” Gaither said of Thornwell’s decision. “Some people were a little upset, but at the end of the day, he has to do what’s best for his situation and his future.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on there,” Gaither continued. “A town that small? There shouldn’t be that many murders in it. Kids are growing up there and there’s not a lot to do. Him wanting to get away and not be around anything like that is good.”
So Thornwell is leaving Lancaster.
For all its faults, Lancaster is Thornwell’s home.
“At the end of the day, people were like, it’s good for you to get away,” Thornwell said. “That’s a good opportunity. They said to put Lancaster on the map. Most people just know Lancaster as a bad city where people get shot and killed.
“All of them just tell me now to go out and show them we can play ball.”
With his innate ability to drive to the basket, with the athleticism to play point guard, shooting guard or out on the wing and with a relentless desire to work at his game, Thornwell has the potential to carry Lancaster’s name to masses.
“He’s really made strides,” Gaither said. “He’s a hard worker and gets frustrated when he can’t get in the gym, which is a great problem to have. That kind of frustration means a lot. A lot of kids with his talent, they don’t want to spend the time in the gym.”
Thornwell said every school in the ACC except Duke, North Carolina and Maryland have made contact with him, as well as South Carolina, Tennessee, Syracuse, Connecticut, Providence, Florida, Memphis and Villanova.