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Archdeacon: Remembering Ike Thornton Sr. — from trash can to three generations of hoops success

Ike thornton Sr. (center) watches as his son, Ike Thornton Jr. (left), conducts a Trotwood Madison basketball practice in March, 2006. STAFF FILE PHOTO
Ike thornton Sr. (center) watches as his son, Ike Thornton Jr. (left), conducts a Trotwood Madison basketball practice in March, 2006. STAFF FILE PHOTO

His basketball career began in a trash can.

“I was born in Hunktown on Edison Street, but we moved to DeSota Bass when I was about 9,” Ike Thornton – whose funeral is Thursday – once told me.

“The yards there were separated by bushes and they put out big iron wastebaskets, maybe four feet high, to put trash in. We’d pull one of those baskets in front of the bushes and that became our hoop. The sidewalk was out of bounds.

“We didn’t have a real basketball so we used anything that would bounce. We’d throw it in the trash can, brush it off after we got it back out and start playing again.”

He said their game eventually moved to the outdoor dirt court at a community center on Bolander Avenue, where he said the half-moon backboard and rim was 12 feet off the ground.

Ike went on to Dunbar High School and after his 1958 graduation, spent a short time at Bluefield State in West Virginia. He left before basketball season began. His wife to be was back in Dayton, pregnant with their first child.

He got a factory job to support the family and soon found his way back to basketball, playing in the fabled Dayton industrial leagues at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.

That’s where he made his name, playing with teams like Jones Brothers Mortuary, where he was joined by guys like Bing Davis – now the famed artist but then a hoops standout from Wilbur Wright High and DePauw University – and especially the legendary Roger Brown, the New York City hoops star who was exiled from the University of Dayton and played in the industrial leagues here six years before going on to the Indiana Pacers and eventually the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Ike played longer than all of us,” Davis said Tuesday “He kept finding teams to play for and once even went down to South America to play.”

Ike’s son — Isaac Jr. or Ikey as his family refers to him — witnessed his dad’s love of the game first hand.

“I came along right at the end of the Coliseum era and I was fascinated,” he once explained. “I was just a little guy and I thought it was always cool to be around Daddy because everyone knew him.

“In my eye he could do everything. He was Superman. He’d take me to the gyms and I went on bus rides to the games. That was my introduction to basketball.”

Looking back now, he can see some reality through those rose-colored glasses.

“My dad was never taught to play, no one took an interest in him as a kid,” Ike Jr. said Monday evening from San Antonio, where he’s now a high school coach.

“He was 6-foot-5, big and physical, but no one taught him all the skills. And once he saw I loved the game, he wanted better for me. He sent me to as many camps as he could so that I’d learn the fundamentals.”

Ike Thornton, Roger Brown and Bing Davis, the stars of the Industrial League team: Jones Brothers Mortuary. Photo courtesy of UD Athletics
Ike Thornton, Roger Brown and Bing Davis, the stars of the Industrial League team: Jones Brothers Mortuary. Photo courtesy of UD Athletics

Ike wanted his son to go places and have opportunities he had not.

Thursday morning at 11 , when they have 80-year-old Ike Thornton’s funeral service at the House of Wheat on N. Gettysburg Ave. – part of the eulogy could include how his hoops dream came true.

Ike Jr.’s basketball took him to Roth High, where he was one of the stars on the 1981 state championship team. He then played at the University of Texas San Antonio and after that became a high school coach.

He took a Trotwood Madison to its first state tournament Final Four appearance in 2006.

After that he moved back to San Antonio, where his wife Kimberly – who had worked a UD – got a job at St. Mary’s University, a Marianist sister college. He’s now he coach at Smithson Valley High and before that coached his sons at Sam Houston High.,

Today two of his and Kimberly’s four children are carrying on the Thornton basketball tradition.

Isaac III, who was a four-year letterman at San Jose State and then worked with the Dallas Mavericks, is a grad assistant coach at Northern Arizona University.

And Myles, a 6-foot-6 power forward, played at the University of Incarnation Word in San Antonio and now is on the training staff at Southern Methodist University.

‘It seemed like he knew everybody’

“When I was young, as far back as I can remember, it was really special riding around Dayton in the car with my dad,” Ike Jr. recalled.

“He’d just be waving at people and blowing the horn, It seemed like he knew everybody and everybody knew him.:

As Ike Jr. got older he wanted to join in his father’s games, but he said his dad said he had to wait until he graduated from high school: “He thought the games were too rough.”

Ike Jr. laughed because he eventually learned first-hand when he as on the opposing team from his dad:

“It was later in his career and at that stage he was…aaaah… physical.. I’d call him a hack.”

As he told me before: “When we played, I learned pretty quickly it was better to pull up on the blocks and shoot the short jumper instead of trying drive on him. It was safer out there.”

Ike mellowed in later years and while his daughter Daphne said he showed real love to his kids – she, her sister Robin and Ike Jr. were from his first marriage; Carole is from his second – he took special interest in his son’s coaching career.

After working factory jobs his whole life – first at Inland, then Monarch Marking Systems – Ike semi-retired and continued to work as a part-time security guard at Sinclair Community College until three months ago.

When Ike Jr. was coaching at Trotwood, Ike was often at practice, sitting in chair near the edge of the court, watching and making mental notes.

He and Ike Jr. talked daily, even after his son moved to Texas 14 years ago.

“We still talked by phone five times a week about basketball, the family, everything,” Ike Jr. said quietly.

A good man

Bing Davis sad Ike was close to Roger Brown, as well as Azariah and Arlena Smith, the late West Dayton couple who took Brown into their home after UD parted with him following a spectacular freshman season with the Flyers.

Ike was especially pleased when the story of Brown and the Smiths was told in loving detail in a documentary – “Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story” – by noted filmmaker Ted Green, seven years ago.

The film debuted at the Neon Moves movies and Ike was beaming that night.

In the foreground is Ike Thornton, a teammate and friend of Roger Brown. In the background, Arlena Smith holds a portrait of Brown in his playing days in the 60's. STAFF FILE PHOTO
In the foreground is Ike Thornton, a teammate and friend of Roger Brown. In the background, Arlena Smith holds a portrait of Brown in his playing days in the 60's. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

He was a little more subdued, but maybe even more pleased this past November when the University of Dayton held a dinner and talk by author Wil Haygood to kick off the school’s new Roger Brown Residency in social justice, writing and sport.

“I’m glad he’s finally getting his due,” Ike told me that night. “He was a really good man.”

Today, the same can be said for him.

“He loved his family and he really believed in doing the work to get the results,” Daphne said of her dad.

And out in San Antonio that’s just what has taken place.

Six years ago, Ike Jr. took over the unsuccessful hoops program at Smithson Valley High.

It was a struggle at first and three years ago his team went 1-27.

While he said Ike he talked to his dad talked every day, Ike wouldn’t come out and sit on the sidelines: “He said he didn’t like to watch bad basketball.”

That all changed this year. Smithson Valley won 20 games and made the playoffs for the first time in Ike Jr.’s tenure.

Ike was finally going to come out, but he got ill on Christmas Day and ended up in the hospital. He had COPD and then was hit by pneumonia. He died Feb. 23.

“He never got out here,” Ike Jr. said. “He would have enjoyed seeing how this turned out.”

Then again, Ike already knew the story.

From trash can to three generations of hoops success, he had lived it himself.