“We were laughed at. People said that there wasn’t a chance that we would ever make it and here we are today, five years down the road, and now we’re at a spot where these kids will be able to go to [big showcases],” said Jason Thomas, head coach of a local AAU basketball team, the North Carolina Eagles.
The Eagles are composed of a group of eighth and ninth grade students from the Pittsboro/Chapel Hill area, including seven Northwood freshmen. Those include Ti Pinnix, Talik Farrar, Jalen Smith, Dalton Thomas, Devin Lassiter, Justus Thompson and Daquan Brooks.
In 2008, Jason Thomas had this idea to create a team that could help local kids develop into not only better basketball players, but better citizens.
“There are a lot of single parents around here that don’t have the opportunity to send their kids off to different cities and areas to play a game they love because of money,” said Thomas. “So my wife and I wanted to start an organization that would be able to help these kids that couldn’t do those things.”
Thomas noted that before this team, there were a couple of players who had been suspended multiple times and had not been performing to their true potential in the classroom. After being on the Eagles for five years, these students are now excelling in the classroom, and all seven of the players from Northwood said they strive to play in college.
“If it weren’t for the Eagles, I probably wouldn’t be in school. I probably would be making bad grades and doing bad stuff,” said Lassiter.
Pinnix, who started for Northwood’s varsity team this past season, shared a similar view.
“If it weren’t for the Eagles, there is no telling where I would be or what I would be doing,” said Pinnix.
The Eagles have enjoyed a Cinderella run over the past years. After only five years together, the team is extremely accomplished, winning the USSSA Division III national championship in 2010.
“They were 12 years old, and we were a team that everybody laughed at because we came from Chatham County and didn’t have the talent to go up against these main teams. We took a group of guys [to Greensboro] that were determined to show the world that they are something to believe in, and we won that national championship and it was huge,” said Thomas. “We played against top-ranked teams and we won it.”
Farrar shared similar views as Thomas and emphasized how big this win was for the Eagles.
“It was a good feeling because we worked hard all season,” said Farrar. “Throughout the season we were pushing towards a national championship and once we got there, we fought for it and we did what we had to do.”
But according to Thomas, the purpose of the team is not just to improve the boys’ basketball skills.
“We understand that if you want to go somewhere with this sport, you have to have the grades, and you have to put forth the effort in the classroom,” said Thomas.
Dalton Thomas, the son of Jason Thomas, added another positive aspect of life with the Eagles.
“It gives me something to look forward to on the weekends instead of just sitting around,” he said.
This season, which started earlier this month, brought about a major change. The Eagles have moved up to AAU Division I basketball and will be traveling to play in showcases in Detroit and Las Vegas. For several players, this will be their first time on a plane.
Not only are the players continuing to succeed, but they have formed a family-like bond.
“It’s basically like a big brotherhood. We don’t see each other as teammates, we see each other as brothers, on and off the court,” said Farrar.
Jason Thomas agreed with Farrar in the fact that he feels that this team is just like a family.
“We teach family. A lot of kids are in gangs because they want to belong to something, and their gang now is the North Carolina Eagles. They are striving to be better,” said Jason Thomas. “I am really blessed, we work hard, we have to work hard to raise money, but we put everything we have into helping these kids.”
But Thomas feels that help extends beyond the court.
“It’s a lot more than just coaching,” he said. “That’s going to be my biggest reward, to watch these kids that people would think would never graduate high school, walk across that stage smiling, going to college somewhere.”
–By Emily Brooks