When Isaiah Thurmond put his mind to it he was able to accomplish his goals.
Thurmond recently signed a letter of intent to continue his basketball career at Carl Sandburg College, a community college in Galesburg.
The 2015 Alton High School grad was a defensive specialist on the court for the Redbirds and transformed himself into an academic specialist in the classroom to achieve his goal of becoming a college basketball player.
“People have been telling me my whole life that I have talent, but I always have to keep school first,” Thurmond said. “I always blew it off, but now I understand because I put myself in a bad situation. When I finally did put the work in and put all my effort in school, I saw it pay off. Now I just want to do more.”
Alton head coach Eric Smith praised Thurmond's maturity as a major factor in improving in the classroom and becoming a team-first player on the floor.
“The nice part about it is it's shown how he's matured, just being able to make that decision that, 'This is what's going to be important to me. This is what I need to do,'” Smith said. “A lot of kids talk a big game, but have a little bit of trouble with the follow through and he didn't. He was taking prep classes, he really made a commitment that he wanted to get his academics squared away to where they should be for him.
“He could have been the best basketball player in the world, but if academically he's not prepared it's going to limit his options. Just getting to a point where he got everything taken care of, he's going to go into a situation where he's going to be able to play and be good both physically and academically. It's a good situation for him.”
Thurmond thinks the junior college in Galesburg, named for poet Carl Sandburg who was born there, is a great fit for him to continue his athletic and academic career.
“I'm really excited because at first I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to play college ball because I had some bad grades,” Thurmond said. “I just want to make the best of this opportunity. I like the coach (Ryan Twaddle), he's been there since the second half of last season and the school was nice.”
While Thurmond's recommitment to the classroom was key in his journey, so was his evolution on the basketball court. During his senior season his offensive stats were quite pedestrian, averaging 5.2 points per game, 3.6 rebounds per game and 1.0 assist per game, but it was his defensive effort that flourished.
Thurmond often drew the tough defensive assignment and committed himself to being the best defender he could be after being a potent scorer in the underclass programs.
“I was a scorer, but I sacrificed and gave everything I had on the defensive end because we had players who could handle scoring, like Darrius (Edwards), Bryan (Hudson) and Carlos (Anderson),” Thurmond said.
His relationship with assistant coach Andre McMurray helped him define himself as a defender.
“Coach Andre helped me out with that a lot,” Thurmond said of his defense. “As a player I've always loved defense, taking confidence away from a player. I just wanted to buy into that role for my teammates, because we had scorers but we needed that defensive energy too. It felt good because it worked out a lot. We went far, we just couldn't finish unfortunately.”
Smith added of Thurmond's relationship with McMurray, “That's one thing coach McMurray took a lot of time and fostered that approach in him. As the relationship in those two built I think it showed in his play. He played with toughness and grit and did a lot of things we needed to be successful.”
The Redbirds enjoyed a nice playoff run, reaching the Class 4A Pekin Sectional championship game where they lost to eventual state runner-up Normal Community 48-36. The Birds finished the season at 27-5, matching the school record in wins from '04-05, '05-06 and '06-07 under Lee Bennett.
Thurmond gives a lot of credit to Smith for his maturity level on and off the court in '14-15, too.
“I learned a lot from coach (Smith),” Thurmond said. “I learned that everybody has to have a role and play their part for a team to be successful. (In 2013-14) everybody didn't buy into their role so we got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. This year everybody bought into their roles.
“(Smith) taught me to buy into my role and do what I needed to do off the court, be respectful, take care of things in the classroom and he taught me that there is more to life than basketball.”
As good as the Redbirds were on the court in '14-15, it's what his four starting seniors accomplished by continuing careers past high school that has Smith most stoked. While Thurmond goes onto Sandburg, Anderson is signed at SIUE, Edwards will play for Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) and Hudson is deciding between a baseball scholarship to Mizzou or signing with the Chicago Cubs who picked him in the third round of the MLB Amateur Draft. Hudson had offers to play collegiate basketball also.
“We've got some kids in some tough situations that may not have gone onto college, been able to afford it or had any interest in doing it if it wasn't for basketball,” Smith said. “Basketball has afforded those kids either the means or the opportunity to be able to continue their education and get some of the things they are going to need for their futures. It's just a really good feeling to see your kids grow up and get some of those opportunities.”
Thurmond is intelligent enough to see the impact on the Alton basketball program from the signings, too. He wants to remind the up and coming Redbirds how hard work pays off and not let them become complacent.
“I think the younger kids can do what we did, but we just need to go back and talk to them and keep those relationships that we had with them to let them know they have to buy into their roles like we did last season,” Thurmond said. “Maurice (Edwards) and Marcus (Latham), they have some talented players coming up, but everybody has to buy into their role, share the ball and play as a team.”
Being part of the team is what made Thurmond relish in his success at AHS. He'll miss plenty about being a Redbird.
“I'm going to miss everything,” said Thurmond. “I'm going to miss the fans. The fans were great. We had the best fans in the world I think. I'm going to miss my teammates that I grew up with since the third grade and just the atmosphere. It was great.”
Thurmond plans to major in journalism in college with an emphasis on creative writing.