Kankakee Community College men’s basketball coach Alex Thorson decided at his school’s career day in second grade that he wanted to be a basketball coach when he grew up.
While most of his classmates with athletic aspirations were deadset at the age of seven on playing professional sports, Thorson not only knew that he wanted to coach, but even where he wanted to coach — the University of Tennesee.
And although KCC isn’t quite the high-profile gig that the Tennesee job is, when Thorson was named as Chris Gardner’s replacement as head men’s basketball coach last year, the 24 year-old Philo, Ill. native realized his childhood dream.
“To this day, I still have no idea why I said Tennessee, but the crazy thing is that dream I had as a second grader is still the same dream that I have to this day,” Thorson said. “Coaching is such an amazing profession because everyday you get to invest into the student-athletes’ lives not only on the basketball court, but off the court as well.”
Thorson, who played at Olivet Nazarene University from 2012-2016 and served as a graduate assistant the next two seasons, wasn’t sure how realistic of a chance he had at landing the job when first asked about it last spring.
But when KCC athletic director Todd Post began looking around the area for potential coaches, he reached out to the late Ralph Hodge, Thorson’s coach at ONU, and Bishop McNamara boys basketball coach Adrian Provost. After talking with them, Post knew Thorson would be tough to turn down.
“We always want to make a great decision when were hiring a coach, so I reached out to people in the community that knew Alex to get some more insight,” Post said. “Alex impressed myself and interview committee through interview process — his passion, the commitment he displayed in going the extra mile to do a great job.
“He’s young and energetic and we felt he was a great fit for the program.”
And when Thorson was named head coach in April, he had his work cut out for him immediately. Although the Cavaliers had advanced to the National Junior College Athletic Association Region IV Div. I Tournament championship game, only one player, Theo Owens, was set to return in the fall.
“That first month and a half, my dad had to hate the phone bill, because I would make calls to AAU, high school and prep school coaches from 1-11 p.m. every single day, (but) we ended up having 15 players signed by July 1 to complete a full roster” Thorson said. “It was definitely pretty hectic, as most players were already signed, but (assistant coach) Matt Neaville and myself hit the road and got some pretty solid players.”
One of those newly-recruited players was freshman Vashawn Sims, a 2018 Rich East graduate. In a day in age where a coach’s biggest recruiting tool is a plethora of promises that may never be delivered, Sims saw that Thorson wasn’t going to make any empty promises, which was something he admired.
“(Thorson) never handed out or guaranteed anything,” Sims said. “I felt everything that would come would be from being a part of the team — I would have to work.”
While it’s not uncommon for players to transfer after a coaching change, Owens, a Chicago native who played his high school ball at powerhouse Curie, bought into Thorson’s vision and decided to stay as the lone sophomore leader.
Not only was Owens a fan of Thorson, but he also said it stood out to him that Thorson would want anyone back from a 2017-18 squad in which Owens was the only player that didn’t fall victim to academic ineligibility.
“(Thorson) was younger and had a will to come in off the bat and help us as much as possible,” Owens said. “Most people wouldn’t want to deal with old players, especially after having to go through the situation I did with my team last year.”
And one doesn’t have to look far to see where Thorson inherited some of the traits his players admire. It was the legendary Hodge, who passed away in Nov., who Thorson learned and blossomed under.
“Before I accepted this position, I remember sitting in coach Hodge’s office and he asked me why I wanted this job,” Thorson said. “I replied to him that, ‘I want to be able to change the life of some kid like you were able to change the life of mine.’
“After I said that, he looked at me and told me to never forget that, and to accept the position.”
But recruiting a full roster was just the start of this season’s challenge. With most of the players not getting to know one another until the summer, there wasn’t much time to get acclimated before the season tipped off in the fall.
“We had guys that were coming in as state champs, state qualifiers, leading scorers on their respective teams and from different backgrounds,” assistant coach Devin Johnson said. “Guys were trying to find their place on the team and unfortunately, it wasn’t always in a positive way.”
But after a six-week winless stretch during December and January, the Cavaliers, youthful on the court and in the coach’s box, they began to find their stride.
The skid was followed up with an 8-2 record over their next 10 games, and while the Cavaliers may not have had the most impressive record at 15-17 to end the season, they ended the season with an appearance in the NJCAA Region IV Div. I Tournament semifinals.
“Our guys stayed, bought in all year long and never gave up — they went from individuals to a family,” Thorson said. “In the beginning, nobody really cared about the guy next to him, but in the end they were brothers ready to go to battle with one another.”
But it wasn’t just Thorson’s leadership that helped the Cavaliers improve as the season went on. Owens said that it was his responsibility to get all of his teammates on the same page and his leadership trickled down to the younger players.
“My leadership had to pick up, mostly on the court,” Owens said. “Coach always told me that little did I know, but my teammates actually fed off what I’d say or do.”
And 11 months after Thorson was brought in, Johnson, who hadn’t met Thorson before Neaville introduced the two over the summer, has seen firsthand what his head coach is capable of.
“There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with the job, and he stepped up to the challenge to not only take the job, but get the program back on track for growth in the future,” Johnson said. “There’s no one in the country who has done what he’s accomplished this year.”
So, what’s next for Thorson and the Cavaliers? In his mind, it’s executing a handful of short-term goals that will translate to long-term success.
“Our short-term goals for our program include building a culture in which (high school) coaches will trust to send their players, knowing that they will succeed in the classroom, socially and in basketball as well,” Thorson said. “This will trickle onto our long-term goal of reaching the national tournament again.”