Thornton finds range at St. John's

Basketball: Former Dunbar star Marvis "Bootsy" Thornton's well-traveled if bumpy road has led to a prominent role for the ninth-ranked Red Storm.

January 30, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The first time Erick Barkley saw Bootsy Thornton play was in a game at a summer camp while they were both in high school. The point guard from New York was quite impressed with the shooting guard from Baltimore.

"He scored 40," Barkley, now a St. John's freshman, said yesterday before practice.

Some things haven't changed in the past few years. Barkley is still impressed and Thornton, now a junior at St. John's, is still putting up big numbers. Only this time he's doing it on national television.

Thornton introduced himself officially last week, when he put up 40 against second-ranked Duke in a 92-88 overtime loss at Madison Square Garden. To prove it wasn't a fluke, he scored 21 in Wednesday's 75-72 comeback win at Syracuse.

Today, the focus again will be on Thornton with the attention being paid by Connecticut's defense when the top-ranked Huskies meet the No. 9 Red Storm at the Garden.

It has been a long road to this kind of spotlight for Thornton, who while playing at Dunbar High School was overshadowed by the likes of Shawnta Rogers at Lake Clifton and later spent two years at Tallahassee Community College.

"I never got any respect [in high school] and we never got respect as a team," Thornton said with more of a smile on his face than a chip on his shoulder. "So I really had no pressure on me coming out."

After falling short of NCAA freshman eligibility standards, Thornton planned on following his best friend, Tommy Polley, to Florida State after two years at Tallahassee. But the Seminoles' coach, Pat Kennedy, left for DePaul and new coach Steve Robinson planned to bring Adrian Crawford with him from Tulsa.

Thornton committed to Virginia Commonwealth, then learned that Sonny Smith was planning to retire. After leading his team to the semifinals of the national junior college tournament, and finishing second to Lee Nailon for Player of the Year, Thornton was contacted by Kentucky, Arizona, Cincinnati and St. John's.

"I wanted to go someplace close to home, but not so close, where my mother can see me play," said Thornton.

So he wound up at St. John's, redshirting last season because former coach Fran Fraschilla didn't want Thornton to waste a year's eligibility sitting behind Felipe Lopez. As Thornton prepared for his first season of Division I basketball, Fraschilla and St. John's had a messy divorce.

Enter Mike Jarvis, who was familiar with Thornton from his days recruiting Rogers and Mike King to George Washington.

"There aren't many tall kids in Baltimore, so he had to play more inside," recalled Jarvis.

Tallahassee coach Mike Gillespie said that Thornton came down there as mostly an inside player and left with a pretty good perimeter game. Since he had broken all kinds of scoring records there, everyone else had figured Thornton was going to start shooting wildly the moment he hit the court.

Instead, Thornton tried to fit in by giving the ball up. When he took shots, they didn't go in.

"It was extremely frustrating," said Thornton, who had missed some preseason workouts after having a mass of fatty tissue removed from his chest. "I knew what I could be doing, but the shots weren't falling. Coach said maybe I was using the layoff as an excuse."

After averaging nearly 13 points through the team's first five games, including 18 against highly ranked Purdue in the Preseason NIT, Thornton hit only six of 17 shots during a three-game stretch against Hofstra, St. Francis and Boston College.

During the team's Big East opener against the Eagles, Jarvis benched Thornton because of his defense.

"I talked to my mother, my junior college coach," said Thornton. "I thought regardless of what happened, I knew I could play better."

It didn't take long for Thornton to accomplish that. He scored 23 points against Pittsburgh, and has not been out of double figures since. With his last two games, Thornton, 6 feet 4, has become the team's leading scorer (16.2 a game). He also has pulled down 12 rebounds in each of his last two games.

But it was the performance against Duke that made a few folks -- Mike Krzyzewski in particular -- pay attention. Thornton made 14 of 24 shots, including a school-record seven threes in 11 attempts, one of which banked in from the corner.

"Individually, we have not had a kid have success against us like Thornton in years," said Krzyzewski, who was sidelined the year Joe Smith put up a similar number against the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium during the 1994-95 season. "He was amazing."

Joked Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins, "I haven't seen a lefty shoot like that since me."

Longtime St. John's fans haven't seen a lefty shoot like Thornton since a fellow named Chris Mullin used to play here. Since the Duke game, Thornton has heard from a number of friends back home, including former Dunbar teammate Rodney Elliott, who called from Europe.

Thornton, whose given name is Marvis, has also had to explain countless times where his nickname comes from. Darleen Grimes gave her son the name at about 3 months old because she liked a singer in George Clinton's "Funkadelic" band named Bootsy Collins. "I never heard her call me Marvis," said Bootsy.

He is never far from his Baltimore roots, whether it means speaking to friends such as Polley, New Jersey Nets guard Sam Cassell and Antonio Freeman of the Green Bay Packers or by wearing an Orioles jersey and cap to the postgame news conference last week after his performance against Duke.

"I had to buy this at home," he said, "There's not too much Oriole stuff around here."

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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