There have been more voices every season, and that shouldn’t change. Colonial Life Arena holds 18,000 and attendance has increased in each of the last three years.
There won’t be one. Sindarius Thornwell could always hear that voice.
Now he can only hear it in his heart.
“I feel like he left me at a good time. He did everything he could with me,” Thornwell said. “I still think about him, I watch videos that we have together, but I’m at a good point.”
Thornwell’s uncle and father figure, Dajuan “Big Kuntry” Thornwell, died on Sept. 17 at age 42. The obituary listed several survivors, and Sindarius Thornwell’s name carried the tag, “reared as son.”
Kuntry was always around. They didn’t live together, but they may as well have from the hours that were logged at each other’s side. Kuntry showed Thornwell how to pass, how to shoot, how to win. Sindarius listened, learned and grew into one of the best prep players in South Carolina, then a star at USC.
Kuntry’s gone. Thornwell had enough on his shoulders, recovering from a procedure that injected bone marrow into each knee to alleviate the tendinitis that dropped his shooting percentage 46 points as a sophomore. Physically, he feels fine.
Emotionally, the junior guard is still recovering.
“His uncle was his rock,” coach Frank Martin said. “That’s who kept him out of trouble, that’s who taught him to play basketball, that’s who used to take him every day at 5:30 in the morning before school since he was 8, 9 years old to a gym so he could shoot balls, to dribble with his left hand.
“He’s going to have difficult moments moving forward, when he looks behind that bench and he don’t see ol’ Kuntry sitting back there.”
That voice would always reach out to Thornwell when he was playing, telling him to cut now, to take it up with his right hand. No matter how many cheers and screams surrounded it, his uncle’s instructions always landed.
In a season Thornwell is labeling as the team’s potential breakthrough, to go through it without Kuntry seeing everything they worked for be achieved is hollow. Thornwell could play in the NCAA tournament or be named SEC Player of the Year and it would still be bittersweet.
“But like I told him, that spirit Kuntry lived his life with, that he invested into our program and into Sindarius, that spirit’s going to continue to live in through him and me,” Martin said. “As we build our program and Sindarius continues to grow up into the man he’s destined to be.”
Thornwell won’t have any reminders during games, no messages written on tape or fingers pointed skyward after a clutch basket. “Just go out and play, and give it my all,” he said. “That’s all he wanted.”
His teammates and coach have comforted him and tried to make the next day as normal as possible. That’s what life is now – a series of next days until it doesn’t hurt as much.
Martin, a father to all of his players, said his relationship with Thornwell has grown. He thanked Kuntry for being the first South Carolinian to trust him with a child, and has counseled Thornwell through the difficult times. Unfortunately, Martin told him, life isn’t fair. Life is reality.
There’s nothing wrong with Thornwell’s play so far. His knees feel fine and like his first two years, he never pulls himself out of practice. Martin doesn’t name official team captains, preferring to let the team decide who it looks to, yet there isn’t much doubt who this team will follow.
“I try not to label myself,” Thornwell said. “Outside looking in, I would say, yeah, I feel like I know what coach wants, I understand our concepts on offense and defense. I feel like I’m one of the leaders with the older guys, the seniors.”
With more talent around him this year, Thornwell won’t have to take as many shots. He has a lot of help, although opponents will surely know if there’s a last-shot situation, the Gamecocks will design a play for Thornwell — who averaged 11.1 points and 4.9 rebounds last year.
“He’s grown up a lot in the two years he’s been here,” Martin said. “I don’t think (leaders) are pre-determined from day 1. Those are just jobs where they kind of raise their hands and embrace. You don’t become a leader until you’re in the fire.”
The season’s blaze will start in four weeks. Thornwell is controlling another.
“He was my first coach when I was 7 years old, in rec league. He was my life,” he said. “We did everything together. He came to all my games, helped me through anything I needed help with.”
The feelings of loss are receding. It still isn’t easy. Practicing and playing the sport Kuntry taught him to love always helps.
It’s funny, Martin said, Thornwell’s uncle always told him to work on his left-hand dribble. Through three years, Thornwell has always heard Martin telling him to work on his left-hand dribble.
These days, it’s not a critique.
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