COLUMBIA, S.C. — If you grew up at the Northwest Apartments in Lancaster, S.C., you know about the mailboxes.
A hoopless apartment complex for many years, the long, metallic structure composed of individual mailboxes became the way to play basketball. A crack made by a resourceful teen in the piece of wood running the length atop the mailboxes served as a makeshift hoop.
The way the game was played revolved around the fact the goal was less a basket and more a head-high mark. The only way to score was to hit the crack with the basketball, which eliminated any chance of normal jump shots being the answer. The best players were the best at driving, from one-on-one to three-on-three to one-against-all. If you could palm the ball onto the crack, you were the man among the Northwest Apartment kids.
That was basketball and for the greater part of five years living at the apartments, that modified version of basketball is what Sindarius Thornwell came to know.
“I learned how to play basketball like that,” Thornwell said.
Thornwell played day and night until his mother called him back to do homework, eat dinner or go to bed. He learned to maneuver around stronger peers, scoring over or through bigger guys in the games. He wasn’t the best at first, as he was around 8 years old when he started playing at the mailboxes. But he got better.
“It took time,” Thornwell said. “I was always one of the youngest playing. As I got older and started getting bigger than everybody, I was.”
These days, Thornwell is the best player on a far bigger stage after another journey that took time. He was named the SEC player of the year in his senior season at South Carolina and has been instrumental in leading the Gamecocks to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2004.
Thornwell has done it largely playing like he learned to on the mailboxes, driving with reckless abandon and wild determination to get to the hoop, taking on any and all comers — to succeed, by any means necessary.
“I always felt like I was the underdog,” Thornwell said. “I always felt like I was the one overlooked. From high school to college, I always felt like no matter what I did, it wasn’t enough. If I come out and have 30 and the next person has 30 then that person’s 30, I always felt like they gave that person more praise than me. I always had that as a point to prove type mentality. That’s how I play every night — that I’ve always got something to prove.”
He has a mindset of toughness and a sense of grit that comes from a close-knit family that molded him on and off the court. He’s a product of the discipline of a single mother, Sharicka Thornwell, who sought to keep him off the streets, and the uncle, Dajuan Thornwell, who taught him basketball and was with him every step of the way. The maternal grandmother and great-grandmother he lived with from sixth grade until 11th grade shaped him with a compassion for people and selfless nature.
Thornwell is a big kid at heart, talkative off the court and constantly the source of jokes and laughter in the South Carolina locker room. He’s progressively accepted leadership, becoming an even deeper people person along the way as he has become the face of a basketball program.
His on-court achievements are the result of a wonderful medley of hard work, willingness to listen, acceptance of coaching and a relentless desire to reach higher.
“I always knew he had it in him,” Sharicka Thornwell said. “I always knew that, but he just needed that push. I knew that he could be better than what he is.”
From the first time Frank Martin met Thornwell, he sensed a certain “quiet arrogance” about him. Newly hired as the South Carolina basketball coach, Martin knew he had to have Thornwell as part of his efforts to rebuild a program long defined by losing seasons and lackluster results.
Martin got an assist from Dajuan Thornwell, who bought into what Martin was preaching. He got an even bigger assist from Thornwell missing his family as he played his senior season away from Lancaster at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. He wanted his family to be able to see him play, to be able to drive home and have his grandmother’s cooking and have the feeling of home.
“I think I called my brother before I committed,” Thornwell said. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’”
He saw the perfect blend of Martin “starting something fresh” and his love for the state of South Carolina, leading him to a program without a recent history of success in favor of highly regarded programs. Thornwell quickly embraced what Martin calls “the burden of winning,” which South Carolina didn’t do much of in his first two years on campus.
Still, Thornwell stood in front of the camera as losses mounted and answered questions, handling his business and never running from it.
“A lot of guys, they want to win and they want to ride on the parade and they want to smile in the cameras,” Martin said. “But when you don’t win, they kind of run and hide. He has never done that.”
South Carolina won 14 games in Thornwell’s freshman season and 17 in his sophomore season. His scoring average was in the double-digits, but he wasn’t right. His explosiveness was lacking and his shooting dipped dramatically.
He was playing and practicing through knee pain, willing to suffer and unwilling to sit out and let his team suffer.
“The main thing I had to overcome was my knees getting healthy and being 100 percent, which I never thought I would be,” Thornwell said. “I never thought I would reach 100 percent. When I got my surgery, they told me there would be no guarantee that I would reach 100 percent. It would help. Praying and working and getting back 100 percent was one of the hardest things for me.”
He had surgery after his sophomore season to fix knee tendinitis, going through months of painful injections that left him screaming and in tears. From April to August, Thornwell endured the injections and could not run or really do anything basketball-related.
“That was one of the hardest things for me,” he said. “Not being able to be on the court and doing anything basketball related.”
Thornwell said his uncle was there through it with him, with pep talks and encouragement and he soon was back ready to play his junior season. But just as everything seemed to be lining up, Thornwell was hit with a bigger blow.
Dajuan Thornwell was the loudest person in the gym at every game Thornwell played in, from AAU games as a teenager to nights at Colonial Life Arena wearing garnet and black.
He was more father figure than uncle, setting a picture of Thornwell as his profile picture on Twitter. He was Thornwell’s first coach, teaching him how to dribble with his left hand, running him through drills and workouts every day as soon as he got out of school. He helped him develop a jump shot and was “the most consistent person with me,” Thornwell said.
“That’s the guy that was his backbone,” Martin said. “That’s who taught him how to play ball. That’s who always believed in him. His uncle was loud and confident about Sindarius, where Sindarius had that quiet arrogance. His uncle let the world and everyone know in the gym that my nephew is better than any of you. He lost that and he had to embrace all the lessons that his uncle taught him so he can continue to go in the gym and know he is the best player without his uncle broadcasting it to everybody.”
Said Thornwell: “Michael Jordan could be on the court and he was still on my side. He would trash talk Michael Jordan, saying I was better than him. It didn’t matter. He was the one person that got me to believe in the person I am today.”
Dajuan Thornwell passed away in Sept. 2015, passing away during surgery and ending a beautiful relationship between the pair before many of the days Thornwell hoped to share with his uncle. He never thought that he would lose his rock while he was in college. He thought his uncle would see him graduate college, have a family and become a man.
“His death, it hurt me a lot,” Thornwell said. “With him not being here with me physically all the time, our conversations and the time that we spent with each other. Selfishly, I wanted him to be here with me, to see me playing like this. He had been there with me every step of my life.”
Thornwell, healthy at last, was left to embrace all the lessons his uncle taught him on his own. That voice that boomed from behind the South Carolina bench wasn’t there anymore and Thornwell found himself looking over for it early that season. But even with the combination of his surgery and loss of a father figure, Thornwell took step after step in handling the adversity and impressed those around him with his strength.
“It surprised me because I probably would have broken down,” Sharicka Thornwell said. “He has focused. He is determined to be something in life. He has that determination that he wants to not let my brother that passed down. They worked so hard. They worked so hard to get him where he is now. “
As fate would have it, Thornwell took on the role of being a loud presence coming from the South Carolina bench as a senior. The Gamecocks started off 9-0 before he suspended for an undisclosed violation of athletic department policy. Martin let him know the situation in a smooth conversation and his mother told him to “learn from it and move on.”
He missed six games, watching South Carolina go 3-3 with the frustration of not playing, but finding ways to stay positive and lead the team from the bench. In practices and on game nights, Thornwell tried to be the “loudest cheerleader in the gym” for his team and he kept practicing with the same intensity.
He knew he would be coming back for the start of SEC play, so he set his sights on the conference season.
“All I could do was help them and prepare for the day when I could come back,” Thornwell said. “And for the day I could come back, to make sure I didn’t drop and to make sure that I was still playing good.”
Martin had seen what came next before. During his years at Kansas State, Martin had a parallel experience when he had to suspend star guard Jacob Pullen in Dec. 2010. When Pullen returned, he “absolutely put on a clinic in the Big 12,” Martin said.
Thornwell came back similarly, shot out of a cannon into SEC play, his mind locked on dominating on the court and winning games.
“I think it was just wanting to be back so bad,” Thornwell said. “I felt like when we lost those three games, those three games were my fault. … When I came back, I had my mind set on whatever my team needs, I’m not going to let them down. I can’t have a bad night. I can’t afford to take a play off. If things are going downhill, it’s my job to pick them back up.”
He never let up after that, leading the SEC in scoring (22.1 points per game), steals (2.4 per game) and was sixth in rebounding (7.5 per game) in conference play. He’s has improved his shooting more than five percent better from 3-point range and from the field in his final season, shooting up the all-time scoring list at South Carolina.
Martin praised Thornwell’s desire to listen and learn from coaching, which he displayed at every level of basketball much to the delight of his coaches.
Last Tuesday, Thornwell hopped in his car to return to Columbia after a trip back to Lancaster like he has many times, but knowing it could be a day he worked toward for years. When he got back to Colonial Life Arena, Martin informed Thornwell —surrounded by his teammates in the weight room — that he had won SEC player of the year.
Back in Lancaster, Sharicka Thornwell checked her phone in the early afternoon and went screaming around the house, celebrating wildly the news that capped what she already was proud of in her son.
“It has really been fun to watch him play and get his teammates involved and he wants to win,” she said. “Just becoming a better person and a better player and being a leader. … I am just so overwhelmed inside. I’m just happy for him. Just to see him becoming the man that he is. I’m just happy.
“It’s like a puzzle and you’re trying to fit the pieces in the puzzle. It seems like everything is coming together for him.”
The past few months are what Thornwell always envisioned his college career would look like. He’s playing at a high level every night, making a team better – just being Sindarius Thornwell on the basketball court in a season that means the world to him.
“I always could see myself playing like this,” he said. “Me playing like this, I’ve been playing like this my whole life. What I’m doing now is what I’ve been doing all my life. I’m not doing anything different that I haven’t done before. It’s just all a matter of how focused I am and how healthy and also my teammates.”
Thornwell and his teammates open the NCAA Tournament on Friday night in Greenville, becoming the first Gamecock basketball players to suit up in the tournament in 13 years. Whatever comes next can add to his legacy and that of the rest of the senior class, but Martin already has his mind made up on what defines Thornwell regardless of what March may bring.
“He is a winner,” Martin said. “He didn’t join a winner and continue to win. He joined a place that had no success for a long time and took on the burden of winning. He embraced it and never ran away from it and changed the whole culture and the whole expectation where it matters – in the locker room. …
“He has brought that to the table and that quiet arrogance has given us the confidence that whoever it may be, that we had a chance to win the game.”
Thornwell hopes his legacy is built on the pride he has for the state of South Carolina, which he tries to bring to the court constantly with the intensity he plays with. Tangibly, the evidence of Thornwell’s career will be displayed in Colonial Life Arena for decades to come: He’s the first SEC player of the year from South Carolina, part of a team that has won 57 games in the past two seasons and the fifth-leading scorer in school history.
On senior day in late February, Thornwell was celebrated along with the rest of his class. Dozens of family members and friends were in attendance, including cousins and friends that grew up at the Northwest Apartments.
The conversation drifted back to the days playing at the mailboxes, just like it does from time to time on social media. There always was the belief someone from the mailbox days had to make it in basketball.
And with many seeing Thornwell play in person for the first time that night, he led the Gamecocks to a win and scored 22 points, driving through the defense and scoring over bigger defenders with the tenacity found back in Lancaster.
“They were like, ‘Man, you came a long way from the mailbox,’ ” Thornwell said.