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Damon Thornton

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Imagine winning a lottery where the prize isn't money, but education. Or athletic success. Or both.

That's how Damon Thornton feels these days.

Two years ago Thornton, a 6-7, 215-pound forward at Atlantic Shores Christian School, had never played organized basketball. He was academically ineligible at Granby and didn't seem to care.

Now, not only is Thornton eligible, he is rated the 76th-best senior in the nation by one recruiting newsletter, and in April will accept a basketball scholarship from a list of schools that includes North Carolina State, Syracuse, Maryland and Tennessee.

Thornton was discussing his transformation from chronic truant to basketball star last summer with Atlantic Shores coach Mark Phelps when the enormity of it hit him with the force of a two-handed dunk.

``We were driving home from (a basketball) camp at Old Dominion, I think it was,'' Phelps said, ``and Damon says to me, `I can't believe this. I really can't.' ''

Who can?

Thornton's parents split up when he was 7; his mother, Toni Wright, says her husband was abusing drugs and she issued him an ultimatum. He chose drugs and she moved out.

Wright remarried shortly thereafter and three months later her new husband was sentenced to prison. Since then, she has raised four children alone.

The demands on mother and son have seemed overwhelming at times.

Thornton, who turned 18 in August, recalls being ridiculed in middle school for wearing the wrong brand of sneakers.

Once when a group of kids mocked his wardrobe by singing the line ``parents don't understand,'' from a rap song, Thornton simply went home.

Thornton's first shot at organized basketball ended in disaster when as a 14-year-old he was chased across the Berkley Bridge by an angry mob of opponents following a recreation league game.

``They tried to get me - I'm not sure why - and no one on my team helped,'' he said. ``After that I said no more and just played in the park.''

Without basketball as a driving force, Thornton says he lacked the motivation to succeed academically.

He was given the opportunity to enter the vocational and technical program as a sophomore - a logical and practical path for someone who wasn't even playing basketball much less considered a college prospect - and he chose to study electronics.

``I had one math class and no English,'' he said. ``It didn't bother me then. It wasn't until later that I found out you needed to take English for college.''

Thornton took three classes at Granby in the morning and then bused to the vo-tech center on Military Highway.

At least, that's what the schedule called for.

But once again he didn't fit in. Most of the students in vo-tech were older, he said, and soon he began failing. Eventually, he stopped attending vo-tech and many days skipped school altogether.

``I'd come home and sleep or watch TV,'' he said. ``I was never in trouble that much.''

Tim Sweeney, the principal at Northside Middle School and a former assistant principal at Granby, remembers Thornton fondly.

``He was a nice kid, very intelligent. He just had trouble going to school,'' Sweeney said.

Wright remembers getting a letter from Granby notifying her that Thornton had been absent 10 days in a row.

``Not my son,'' she thought.

Just to be sure, Wright took off from her job at the Norfolk Naval Base and returned home to check.

Sure enough, there was Damon, hiding under the dining room table. They had what Wright describes as a ``heart-to-heart'' talk, and then she spanked him.

That didn't end his truancy.

When Wright again learned that Thornton was skipping school, she called the police.

``I said `Send out a unit, there is going to be a disturbance in my house.' ''

When the officer arrived, Wright showed him a stick she keeps at her back door for protection and said `I have a feeling my son is not going to school. If I deal with him, I'm going to hurt him. I need you to tell me what to do.' ''

The officer lectured Thornton on how skipping school could land him in court.

``To this day, I haven't had another problem,'' Wright said.

Basketball had something to do with that. Once Thornton began spending the full day at school, basketball beckoned.

Then-Granby coach Jim Harvey spied Thornton in a pickup game and quickly recognized the possibilities. Thornton said Harvey helped steer him toward courses he could pass and asked the guidance department to alert him when he was absent.

Thornton finally became eligible to play last December. But by then, he had transferred to Atlantic Shores.

On a good night, Thornton can dominate an opponent. Unlike many top prospects, the good nights blend with the mediocre nights and even the occasional bad night to reveal a work in progress.

``I feel like I'm getting there,'' Thornton said. ``I'm better than I was last year, but not where I want to be.''

Thornton, in his fifth year of high school, is averaging 13.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three steals for the 10-0 Seahawks.

The good nights came in bunches last week when he led Atlantic Shores to three victories and the championship of the the Hampton Roads Holiday Classic. He scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Flint Hill in the semifinals and followed that with 19 points and 10 rebounds against Theodore Roosevelt in the final.

Thornton had only two points at halftime against Flint Hill when Phelps' patience ran out.

``I told Damon, `I don't know what else to say, except that you have to do something,' '' Phelps said. ``There is no formula. He can control the way he plays. It's not how the ball bounces or how the other team plays.''

Thornton responded with 20 second-half points. He stuck a pair of 3-pointers, finished two drives with dunks, posted up low and scored three times, adding another huge dunk, and cleaned the glass like a professional window washer.

The next night against Roosevelt, he scored 15 points in the second half.

``His coming-out party,'' Phelps called the tournament.

Thornton apparently isn't much of a party animal. He scored only four points in Tuesday's 52-49 victory over Norview.

``I can't be too individually disappointed,'' Phelps said. ``It was a big game and we found a way to win.''

So how did Thornton end up at Atlantic Shores?

Marvin Terry, who runs an AAU program and a summer league, says he steered Thornton as well as two other noteworthy transfers - Kenny Inge and Joey Higginbotham - to Atlantic Shores.

``I got a call - I can't say from whom - and he told me about Damon,'' Terry said. ``I checked his grades and they were none too dandy. I checked his background.''

Terry met with Thornton's mother.

``She more or less wanted to get him out of Granby,'' he said.

Wright says that Granby didn't provide a suitable environment for learning. She said that too often his classes were preoccupied with discipline cases.

``What was important to me,'' Wright said, ``is not that Damon didn't go to school, but that he didn't want to go. It wasn't the way he wanted it to be. He wanted to learn.''

Terry says he made a few calls and found Phelps at Atlantic Shores. Wright met with Phelps and immediately liked the fit.

``I had never heard of the school, but I heard the word Christian and that's pretty much how I've tried to raise my son,'' Wright said.

There was still the matter of tuition, which is $3,100 a year at Atlantic Shores. Sponsors who back Terry's AAU and summer programs - and want to remain anonymous - are picking up the tabs for Thornton and Inge, he said.

Whatever the circumstances, it's hard to argue with the results.

A young man who was once failing because he had no interest in school scored 910 on his first attempt at the SAT last year and carries a 2.3 grade-point average in his core courses. Phelps expects that to rise to a 1000 and a 2.5 by graduation.

``All of my teachers at Granby told me I was able to do the work,'' Thornton said. ``I just missed classes. Here, everyone wants to get good grades and that pushes you in the classroom. The people are friendly. I enjoy coming to school every day.''

Not exactly the same as winning the lottery. But all in all it's a lot more valuable. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos by Steve Earley, The Virginian-Pilot

Two years ago, Damon Thornton had never played organized basketball.

Now his is rated the 76th-best senior in the nation.

Thornton is averaging 13.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, four assists,

three blocks and three steals per game.

Photo by Steve Earley, The Virginian-Pilot

Damon Thornton...

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