ATLANTA – The whistle shrieks and, suddenly, sneakers screech to a halt across the hardwood basketball court earlier this week inside a Cordova training facility.
Ten young teenagers circle around a group of coaches for a few final instructions as the team wrapped up its final practice in Memphis. In a few hours, a caravan of three mini-vans will transport ‘Team Thad’ on the five-hour drive to its next weekend tournament in suburban Atlanta.
Amid the frenetic, vagabond existence of AAU summer basketball, these sort of weekly treks around the region and country are as routine for these coaches, players and family members as reaching for phones and scrolling through the latest updates on social media apps.
However, this next journey isn’t quite business as usual for these 13- and 14-year-olds. And their coaches want to make sure they drive home that point before they drive east across I-22 and I-20 to their destination.
“This is going to be the best of the best we’re about to face,” an assistant shouts from inside the circle. “But I’m not worried about them. You know why? Because we are one of the best of the best, too. But we have to be disciplined. We have to stay focused. And we have to bring that with us.”
That mindset has gotten them all this far, and has them believing they can extend the remarkable run. Team Thad is the Memphis Grizzlies Youth Basketball affiliate that has advanced to this weekend’s Jr. NBA Global Championship Southeast Regional Finals in Georgia.
Part of the youth basketball program run by Memphis native and NBA veteran Thad Young, Team Thad qualified for the Southeast Regional Finals by going undefeated in the Grizzlies’ first ever Jr. NBA Championship Local Qualifier in April. It has already been a unique ride for both Team Thad and the Grizzlies’ Jr. NBA venture. According to the NBA, Memphis was among a select number of teams to host a Jr. NBA Local Qualifier, and was the only franchise to do so inside a league arena when the Grizzlies used both the FedExForum court and main practice facility to hold games two months ago.
“This one is just like that one (at FedExForum), where we played together as a team and won,” said Team Thad point guard Andre Watson, a 9th-grader entering Bartlett High. “What makes this team special is the talent we have. We don’t get nervous. It’s just about doing the best we can, have fun playing the games and going to the malls. We’ll be ready.”
Team Thad emerged as the most dominant team in that local field in April, and now moves on to Regionals to play at least four games for a shot to advance to Sunday’s championship round. There are eight national regions within the United States and eight Jr. NBA global regions across the world, including Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Africa, Europe/Middle East, China, Asia Pacific and India.
The U.S. Regional champions in both the girls and boys divisions advance to the 16-team Jr. NBA Global Championship Finals in August at Walt Disney World Resorts’ ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The Grizzlies have seen rapid growth in its partnership with Jr. NBA programs the past two years. During the league’s Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration events in January, the Grizzlies set a franchise record for its Jr. NBA 3-on-3 Youth Basketball Tournament, with more than 90 girls and boys teams through the region participating in the games and development sessions.
What makes this team special is the talent we have. We don’t get nervous. It’s just about doing the best we can, have fun playing the games and going to the malls. We’ll be ready.Andre Watson
The April tournament in Memphis was an extension of that growth, and Team Thad heads to Atlanta having trained both on and off the basketball court in the Jr. NBA’s core values of Determination, Teamwork and Respect.
“Team Thad’s involvement presents an exciting opportunity to showcase the talents of our Grizzlies Youth Basketball affiliates and the entire city of Memphis,” said Antonio Perez, Grizzlies director of youth basketball programming. “While we anticipate a higher level of competition at Regionals, it’s no accident Team Thad went undefeated in our Local Qualifier. They’re well-coached and their players show an exciting combination of skill, athleticism and discipline. We’re confident in their ability to compete on this grander stage and we’re rooting for their advancement to the Global Finals.”
After winning the local qualifier in April, Team Thad also represented well in the Chicago Classic AAU tournament last month over Memorial Day weekend. The squad’s continuity was established long ago and is strengthened each day.
During a two-hour practice Thursday night, Coach JeMarcus Thaxton pointed to a roster that boasts prolific three-point shooting guards and versatile bigs, including 14-year-olds as tall as 6-foot-6. But the bonding goes beyond basketball, and many of the teachable moments during the workout were about life.
“A lot of times our biggest connections happen when we eat together, when we try to allow them to play around with each other, like some trips when we go swimming,” Thaxton said. “It’s not just about how well they play on the floor, but it’s also about how well they are together off the floor. We’re asking them about their report cards, how school is going and things of that nature. We take them to the malls, allow them to walk around and see how different cities are. It’s a very unique group of kids.”
Anthony Medlock, a forward who will be attending Arlington High, believes Team Thad’s recent success on the court is a byproduct of the lessons learned in times when they are away from basketball. Winning tournaments is great, but nothing quite tops the fun the team had that time when they went to a trampoline park. Despite being elite-level teenage prospects, they’re still kids who love to have fun while learning the core values of Jr. NBA programs.
“We have a good starting five, a deep group and we have strength in numbers,” Medlock said. “Everybody can shoot, pass the ball, dribble and push the tempo. Some of us have been playing together since about fourth grade. We have a good team chemistry because we go places and we bond with each other. When we go out and hang out at like trampoline parks, that’s building something, too.”
That is another reason why Thaxton’s coaching staff doesn’t take any moment for granted. Every time the whistle blows and the sneakers squeal to a halt, there is another pearl of wisdom shared.
“We use basketball to teach the game of life,” Thaxton said. “You’re not always going to be up and you’re not always going to be the winner. There are going to be times you have to put your head down and work a little harder. You might not be getting that A or B in a class, and it requires you to take a step away from some things to focus on school. So it is like life, you’ve got to get in there and fight, continue to work hard and stay disciplined. That’s what we preach a lot.”
Everybody can shoot, pass the ball, dribble and push the tempo. Some of us have been playing together since about fourth grade. We have a good team chemistry because we go places and we bond with each other.Anthony Medlock
Success for Team Thad typically comes down to three things.
“Do what you’re supposed to do, do what you’re asked to do and everything else will fall into place.” Thaxton vowed. “It’s about basketball. But it’s also about a lot more than basketball.”
Winning the local qualifier on the Grizzlies’ home court offered only a hint of what Team Thad is capable of accomplishing. It provided confidence to pursue the ultimate goal of bringing a Jr. NBA Global championship back to Memphis.
“That was a dream come true, because all of us have always wanted to play on the Grizzlies court,” Medlock said. “Man, that was cool. Now, it’s a bigger stage (at Regionals). We still have to go out there and play hard to get this championship, and then keep going. We’re looking forward to the exposure. Everybody knows how good Team Thad is. We just want to keep making a name for ourselves.”
The Regional Finals will be streamed on both FloHoops and Eleven Sports USA, and fans can follow Grind City Media’s Michael Wallace (@MyMikeCheck) and Grizzlies Youth Basketball (@MemGrizzYouth) for Team Thad’s results and other tournament content. To learn more about the Jr. NBA Global Championship, visit www.jrnbagc.nba.com.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.