Only 28 years old, Will Barton figures to have plenty more years left in his NBA career.
But the Denver Nuggets shooting guard and Baltimore native got a taste of life on the sideline while watching the Baltimore-based youth basketball club bearing his nickname compete at the Under Armour Association tournament last month.
“It was exciting,” he said of the youth basketball organization he backs financially. “It made me want to get into coaching. The games are so competitive, and just seeing the kids out there giving it their all and trying to win, it just brought back old memories for me.”
Team Thrill, which over the past four years has been playing under the nickname a coach bestowed on Barton when he was just 6 years old, has been making its namesake proud.
The 15-and-under team captured the UAA tournament championship, the 13U squad won the Nike Peach Jam Invitational and the Under Armour Futures crown, and the 9U team won the American Athletic Union title. The 8U squad lost in the AAU title game by two points, the 10U team finished third at the AAU nationals and the 17U squad placed fourth at the UAA tournament.
Virginia Tech assistant coach Chester Frazier, who successfully landed Team Thrill’s John Ojiako, a 6-foot-10 power forward, said the program has emerged on every college coach’s radar as one to monitor.
“I think they’ve shown well,” said Frazier, a former guard at Lake Clifton. “They did a good job for themselves [at the UAA tournament] in front of a lot of coaches. I think they’re definitely a program that’s on the map. If you look at Baltimore basketball and back in the day when they had Cecil Kirk and Oliver and Mount Royal, Team Thrill is becoming one of the premier programs in Baltimore City.”
Barton, who played at City and Lake Clifton, is quick to funnel credit for the club’s accomplishments to Team Thrill program director and 17U head coach Donnell Dobbins. A former guard at Forest Park who was named to The Sun’s All-Baltimore City/Baltimore County first team in 1999, Dobbins led Bmore’s Finest for four years before teaming with Barton.
Dobbins, 37, said the coaching staff’s top priority is helping the players improve their fundamentals.
“The development piece is the piece that we’re really obsessed with — watching the kids grow both on and off the court,” said Dobbins, who is also a human resource representative for the human capital office of the Baltimore City public schools system, the basketball coordinator for Baltimore City Recreation and Parks department and the director of Jr. NBA Baltimore. He also has a family that includes his girlfriend and six children ranging in ages from 9 to 19.
“Most of our kids have been in our program since they were 6 and 7 years old," Dobbins said. "So when you see the transformation of a student-athlete, it makes you want to do the same for the next generation. So that’s kind of what our passion is. We collectively feel like if you develop the kids, the wins will come. So we just focus more on the development, and the success takes care of itself.”
James Bishop, a point guard who played on the 17U team and a Mount Saint Joseph graduate, said the coaches stressed the importance of being a floor general.
“I’m already a hard worker, but going to a program that loves the grind just as much as you is a plus,” the 6-2, 170-pound Bishop, who will begin to play at LSU this season, wrote via text. “We always focused on my weaknesses and set new goals and challenges each year. They also helped me off-court, finding me tutoring in subjects I needed help in.”
Barton said the club’s success has been at times overwhelming.
“It’s not just one team, and it’s not just one age group. It’s almost all of them that are winning championships or getting to the Final Four or Elite Eight,” he said. “So I’m always proud of that. But I’m even more proud when I get calls of how hard they compete and how well they play and how they carry themselves and for them to earn scholarships to be able to go to college. That’s probably the biggest satisfaction I get from them.”
His NBA career naturally consumes a significant part of his attention, but Barton said he tries to stay in touch with the players via texts and social media. Frazier, the Virginia Tech assistant coach, said that communication is an example of how Barton is not just a symbolic face for Team Thrill.
“It always helps to have an NBA guy, but he supports them like no other,” Frazier said. “He’s at the games, and I’m sure he mentors a lot of those young guys. So he’s big-time for that program.”
Dobbins said he enjoyed having Barton on the sideline at the UAA tournament as much as Barton enjoyed watching the players.
“He was literally with us every day in Atlanta with the high school kids,” Dobbins said. “He sat on the bench, he coached with me, he game-planned with me. So he’s very hands-on with the program. He’s not just someone who supports the program financially. He does that in a big way, but he also is very influential as it pertains to being right there in the trenches with us and letting the kids know that he’s part of the program and that he was once one of them and that dreams do come true.
"He’s a starting shooting guard in the NBA, and he came from Baltimore. So just reinforcing that to the kids has been the extra push and extra motivation to them to want to be successful.”
Julian Reese, a 6-9, 205-pound rising junior power forward at St. Frances, said playing for Team Thrill opened the door for offers from Maryland, LSU, Virginia Tech, VCU and Rutgers.
“I just know that Team Thrill was mostly the reason that I got them,” said Reese, who played on the 16U squad and recently moved into Rivals150 national prospect rankings. “I believe that.”
Barton called the scholarship opportunities for the players “the most gratifying part of it all.” But he hopes the players continue to form greater aspirations.
“Being from the same city, they might have seen me play in high school, and now that I’m in the NBA, they see me having success, and they want the same,” he said. “I always want them to try for that, but I don’t want them to be the next me. I want them to try to be even better than me.”
CORRECTION: This article incorrectly identified point guard James Bishop’s status. He has already graduated from Mount Saint Joseph and will be a freshman at LSU this winter.