Inside his desk in the Dallas Floyd Recreation Center, Lonnie Thompson keeps a laminated clipping of a 2004 Lebanon Democrat photo of his son, Darius, playing a game of one-on-one during halftime of a Cumberland basketball game almost a decade ago.
In the photo taken by former longtime Democrat chief photographer Bill Cook, Darius is getting past Houston [Hootie] Denney on his way to the basket.
Hootie’s big sister, Lacy, was a manager for Thompson’s Bulldogs during that magical 2003-04 season which saw Cumberland reach the NAIA Sweet 16 in Kansas City. It is considered the greatest team of the school’s four-year era, since the mid-1980s
While Leroy Hickerson and Alonzo Evans were giving CU students and Lebanon residents a reason to come out to the Floyd Center during winter nights and afternoons with their high-flying acrobatics, Darius was spending almost as much time at the gym trying to imitate his Bulldog heroes.
Darius is all grown up now to a height of 6 feet, 5 inches and is a promising point guard for the Tennessee Vols.
That makes Lonnie Thompson, then as now Cumberland’s men’s basketball coach, both a college basketball coach and college basketball parent.
Lonnie Thompson was a 6-2 1/2 forward for Middle Tennessee State 30 years ago. His older daughter, Devin, starred for Smyrna High and played for East Tennessee State.
But having a son shoot three inches past his dad and develop point guard skills to the point of being able to play in the Southeastern Conference, even Dad didn’t see that coming.
“Darius basically grew up in this gym,” Lonnie said in his office before his Bulldogs took on St. Catharine on Thursday night. “Nobody saw this coming with Darius. I didn’t even see this as a daddy and a coach. My thing was I was pleased he could get a scholarship with a Belmont. I thought that was a place he could fit in. Last year, I really pushed for Darius to go to Butler. That’s where I wanted him to go. I thought that was going to be the perfect place for him.
“At that time, we didn’t see no SEC or ACC people coming in here. He just kept developing and then last year there was such a dire need, last year and this year, for point guards, kids that understand the game. I had told coaches last year that when Darius’ body catches up with his mind, he’s going to be a heck of a player…Darius wasn’t that athletic, but he had a good basketball mind. He was a typical coach’s son. When I used to break tapes down, he said, ‘Dad, watch me, he’d say the things he heard me say about my team. Plus, he had been a gym rat.”
Darius was in third grade during the ’03-04 season and Dad took him on a couple of road trips. He didn’t get to go to Kansas City because spring break didn’t fall that week.
Lonnie said he never harbored thoughts of his son playing for him at Cumberland.
“I knew, like most kids, his goal was to play at the Division I level,” Lonnie said. “Had I been an assistant coach or a head coach at a D-I level, he would probably have come play for me. But he wanted to play at the highest level like all kids want to play at the highest level.
“I was happy for Darius because he set a goal for himself and he stuck with it.”
Lonnie said Darius didn’t get sidetracked by girls during his high school career at Murfreesboro Blackman.
“He had a little girlfriend, but he didn’t let it change him,” Lonnie said. “To play at that level, you really got to be really. Your skills have to be up to par and you have to be committed.”
Lonnie Thompson’s job requires hours and hours of bus travel to different states, not unlike his son’s [except many of Darius’ trips are by plane]. Games also tend to conflict with each other, or do they?
“I’ve seen him play quite a bit this year,” Lonnie said, looking at his personal calendar of the Bulldogs’ and Vols’ games. “It kind of worked out in my favor this year. They play most of their home games during the weekdays. They travel on weekends. I won’t be able to catch but two weekend games – at Kentucky and at Missouri. But most of their weeknight games are played on a Tuesday-Wednesday night. We play on Thursday. I-40, we see a lot of games.”
Interestingly, Lonnie didn’t get to see as many of Devin’s games at ETSU.
“At that time in the Atlantic Sun, most of their games were played in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina,” Lonnie said. “So I didn’t get a chance to see her play a lot. But Darius stayed in this area, at Vanderbilt and two hours at UT. And the blessing of all, after this year, the SEC tournament is going to be, the next 10 years, in Nashville.”
It’s hard for parents not to coach from the grandstand. It’s the bane of almost all coaches. Being in the business for nearly three decades, Lonnie said he watches Darius’ games from a coach’s perspective.
Either in person or on video, Lonnie has watched his son start make one start in 12 games, averaging 18.3 minutes per night. Darius averages 3.6 points and 1.9 rebounds. He is second on the Vols with 29 assists, is fourth with 10 turnovers but leads UT with 16 steals.
“The other night against Virginia, he didn’t play that well, didn’t play that long, he picked up two quick fouls,” Lonnie said. “I said, ‘Darius, you put your team in a bad situation. The kid that you back up [Jordan McRae] had to play three-fourths of the game’.
“My wife gets on me. I said, ‘Felicia, I’m a coach’. I’m proud of him, but at the same time, he knows he’s going to get it from me.”
But since he’s in the same profession, he’s careful not to tread on the territory of UT coach Cuonzo Martin. He stays quiet during the games and waits until the family returns home to correct Darius.
“You can’t have five coaches,” Lonnie said. “Whoever he’s playing for, she’s playing for, they got to listen to the coach.
“I know my [players’] parents probably disagree with some of the things I do. Every coach has a different way to teaching things… I say, ‘Whatever the coach says, do that’. I get on you about certain things, but I’m not going to coach you opposite what you coaches coach you. Cuonzo and I talk a lot about situations and right now, the biggest concern we both have is Darius has to get more aggressive on the offensive end.
“Right now, he comes down the court, and I know he’s playing with all upperclassmen. I told him, ‘There’s going to come a time in the SEC when they’re going to take away something from the other people and you got to be ready to step up and make a shot’. Right now, he’s not even looking at the rim. He’s just looking to pass the ball.”
Ten years after watching Hickerson and Evans take the Bulldogs to the NAIA Championships, Darius may still be a year or two from feeling ready to break down SEC defenses.
But when he does, Hootie Denney will know how opposing SEC guards feel.