With Baton Rouge roots and a propensity to hit clutch shots, Marcus Thornton and Coach Smart dish on their Louisiana link following a win over their hometown Hornets.
Long before Coach Keith Smart diagrammed his first play for Marcus Thornton in a Sacramento Kings huddle, the pair of Baton Rouge, La., natives shared a hometown connection.
“I knew him as a little boy because we’re from the same place,” says Smart. “His parents go to the same church that my parents go to, so I’ve known Thornton since he was a baby boy.”
No. 23 attended the same high school, Tara, in Louisiana’s Capital City, as Smart’s younger brother, and the two families have maintained a strong friendship.
“My family is really close to his family – he knows everybody and I know everybody in his family,” says Thornton.
While Smart, 47, did not have a chance to mentor Thornton, 24, because of their difference in age, he spent some time with him during the summers and says he watched the 6-foot-4 guard “grow at LSU.”
Thornton, the Kings leading scorer at 18.8 points per game, recalls meeting his future NBA coach for the first time at a recreational center in New Orleans.
“We both grew up at this basketball place called Sports Academy, so I remember when I was younger just going to play over there, and he was over there coaching,” says Thornton.
No. 23 credits Smart, as well as fellow coaches in his hometown, for helping him develop into the flourishing star he is today.
“It was so long ago – I was like seven, eight, nine or 10 years old – so I can’t remember the exact words (Smart) said, but I know he (gave me advice),” says Thornton. “All the guys at the Sports Academy have been a big help to me and played a big part in me doing what I do now.”
After attending McKinley High in Baton Rouge, Smart transferred from Garden City Community College in Kansas to Indiana University, where he ultimately gained collegiate fame. Named the Most Outstanding Player of the 1987 NCAA Final Four, Smart scored 21 points and hit the game-winning shot versus Syracuse to lead the Hoosiers to the national championship – a contest that was played at the Superdome in New Orleans.
“I’m a basketball-aholic – I’ve watched the shot he made,” says the third-year guard, who was born just over two months after Smart’s heroic performance. “It was great that a guy from Baton Rouge was able to make a shot like that. I know it (felt) great for him and all of Baton Rouge was proud of him.”
Two decades after Smart’s shining moment, Thornton, who spent two years at Kilgore Community College in Texas, similarly returned to Louisiana, where he averaged 20.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game at LSU and was named the 2009 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
Following a one-and-a-half-year stint with the New Orleans Hornets, Thornton was traded to Sacramento last February, where he became an instant fan favorite for his ability – much like Smart – to thrive in late-game situations.
When Thornton inked a multi-year contract extension with the Kings during the offseason, his mother flew to the River City and gave Smart a warm greeting.
“She came up when he signed,” says Smart. “Right away she came and gave me a hug, because his mother and my mother know each other very well.”
Thornton reveals he will forever treasure the moving celebration.
“That moment will be remembered for a lifetime,” he says. “She told him, ‘Thank you – thanks for everything you did.’
“I really can’t put that moment into words, because that was big for me. I’m just so humbled and just so blessed that it happened to me, and I thank the Sacramento Kings organization for that.”
Having the chance to learn from a coach who shares a similar background has also proven to be a worthwhile experience for the third-year guard.
“To be able to play for a guy who is from my backyard is great – I can’t say enough about him,” he says. “It makes it very easy to go out there and play for him because he knows the game and he stays teaching, night in and night out.“
Not surprisingly, when the Kings travel to New Orleans, Smart and Thornton have a difficult time fulfilling the multitude of ticket requests from their respective families and friends.
“Me and him were fighting over tickets,” says Thornton. “Last time he went ahead and bought them, so next time I’m going to go ahead and buy mine and let him get the freebies.”
The Kings coach, however, has a bit of extra leverage over the sharpshooting guard.
“I tell him, ‘I have minutes,’” jokes Smart. “’I’ll give you more minutes if you let me get a few extra tickets.’”
– Despite their longtime friendship, Smart does not allow Thornton’s family to influence his lineup decisions.
“My phone is only open to reporters and beat writers,” he says with a chuckle.
– In four previous matchups against his former team, Thornton has averaged 21.8 points – his second-highest average against any opponent – to go along with 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 37.1 minutes per contest.
– While Thornton has boasted about his Southern cooking skills, he sheepishly admits he hasn’t actually prepared the food he previously suggested.
“I didn’t want to tell everybody that, but now you made me tell everybody,” he says with a grin. “I do a lot of talking just to get people riled up.”