KENNESAW, Ga. — The buzzer sounded, history was made and Norton Hurd IV disappeared.
He sprinted from the bench, across the court and up the stairs of the bleachers at North Cobb High School. Never mind the celebration raging on the court.
Team Thad, the Under Armour-sponsored AAU program Hurd runs and coaches, had just become the first Tennessee-based 17-and-under team to capture a title in one of the three major shoe company leagues when it won the 2019 UAA Finals Sunday afternoon.
Hurd had finally reached the top of the grassroots basketball mountain and couldn’t stop running.
“I ran all the way to the top,” he said.
This was a coronation at least eight years in the making, ever since Hurd and NBA veteran Thaddeus Young created Team Thad.
This moment resonated all the way back in Walker Homes, the south Memphis neighborhood responsible for forging a longtime friendship.
This was an accomplishment that confirmed what had already become clear to those immersed in the cottage industry that develops and markets basketball stars of tomorrow.
Now that Penny Hardaway is coaching in the college ranks, a fast-talking 32-year-old known simply as "Hurd" is the new king of Memphis AAU basketball.
“He can walk in the gym,” Young said, “and some people fear him.”
The college basketball recruiting events that took place across the country last week feel like a secret society that is equal parts slimy and seductive. High-profile coaches, NBA stars, recruits who aspire to be them one day and fans hoping to say they saw the next big thing before anyone else all intermingle.
Nike, Under Armour and Adidas give it all an air of commercialization that allows people to forget this underbelly of the sport has been the subject of an FBI investigation in recent years.
How Hurd found his place within this world and emerged from under the shadow of Hardaway is a fascinating blend of contradictions.
On the one hand, Team Thad is in the midst of churning out a steady stream of future pros and college stars that is as impressive as it is unorthodox: Because none was a McDonald’s All-American and almost all of them were overlooked and unheralded until Hurd got them.
On the other hand, this self-proclaimed underdog isn’t shy about letting you know about his success.
“I want to sound humble, but that’s why I think even if LeBron (James) was in Memphis (coaching AAU basketball) I’m still going to be successful,” Hurd said. “I feel like God gave me an ‘it’ factor in this because a lot of guys call me and ask, ‘Hurd, how do you do this, this and this?’ Nobody never told me. I have learned this stuff on my own. I’ve had a spirit.”
Peel away the layers of this bravado, though, and a more thoughtful answer emerges.
“The truth is I have an ego because my kids are underrated,” Hurd said, “so I have to fight for them.”
Coach Norton Hurd shares a laugh with his fellow coaches and players for Team Thad, his Under Armour sponsored AAU team, during their practice at Memphis Elite Allstars court in Cordova on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (Photo: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)
Walk into the converted Cordova warehouse with two basketball courts that is the new home of Team Thad and up on one wall above the giant speakers blaring rap music is a giant “Walker Homes” sign superimposed over an enlarged Google map of Hurd’s old neighborhood.
There is an icon for Mitchell High School, where Hurd was a role player on the basketball teams for which Young starred. And there is one for Mitchell Community Center, where Hurd honed his craft.
They are reminders. Of the poverty-stricken area that molded him. Of the single-parent household with seven children from which he came. Of why he began coaching at Raleigh-Egypt Middle School and why Young ultimately entrusted his friend to run this organization.
“If Norton Hurd the child had the support of Norton Hurd the coach, I could’ve made it,” Hurd said one day last week. “I didn’t have anybody who said, ‘I’m going to believe in you.’”
This is what makes Hurd’s bluster endearing. This is why, even as Hardaway’s Nike-sponsored Team Penny program brought in five-star recruits from around the region, Team Thad still produced players like Jeremiah Martin, O.G. Anunoby, Chris Chiozza and LaGerald Vick.
This is how, working in a Nike city, Hurd eventually took the mantle from Hardaway over the past 16 months as the biggest name in Memphis grassroots basketball.
In Hurd’s mind, Hardaway’s elevation to Memphis basketball coach restored the natural order. It also allowed the two coaches to speak more often, now that they weren’t competing for players and prestige within the city. Hardaway has even signed two Team Thad players — guards Tyler Harris and Damion Baugh — since taking over the Tigers.
The transition didn’t just occur smoothly, though.
This year, for instance, Hurd’s two best players are Whitehaven star Matthew Murrell and Olive Branch’s Cameron Matthews. Both came to Team Thad after playing for Team Penny, which changed its name to Bluff City Legends when Hardaway became the Memphis coach.
Rising Senior Cameron Matthews of Olive Branch leads a fast break during practice for Coach Norton Hurd’s Team Thad, an Under Armour sponsored AAU team, from the Memphis Elite Allstars court in Cordova on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (Photo: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)
“It’s been a lot of tension on both sides,” Young conceded.
But he noted, “The rivalry portion came from more alongside the people outside of our circles. Pushing it, pushing it, just pushing it.”
And yet Murrell emerged as a top-100 recruit over the past year and will play at IMG Academy as a senior. Murrell’s mother, Gladys Robinson, explained the impact Hurd had like this: “When you build a relationship, you can get the best out of someone.”
Matthews, meanwhile, cites Hurd’s relentless salesmanship as the reason he received a couple of SEC scholarship offers since joining Team Thad.
“He has a mouthpiece,” said Kylan Chandler, the father of top-40 2021 recruit Kennedy Chandler, who has never played for Team Thad. “Hurd markets his kids and actually grinds.”
Hurd’s mouth has long been his trademark feature.
He can be hilarious, insightful, offensive and vulgar. All at once.
“He don’t care,” Baugh said. “He’ll say whatever comes to his head.”
“It’s good to not have a filter,” Anunoby added. “He’ll tell you the truth.”
It’s how he convinced Under Armour to make him the youngest program director in the country with a shoe deal seven years ago. It’s why, upon agreeing to participate in this story, Hurd’s initial condition was, “You can’t write everything I say.”
Because that mouth can also work against him at times. Like this past week.
Team Thad CEO/coach Norton Hurd watches on as top-50 recruit Matthew Murrell attempts a shot at the UAA Finals. (Photo: Jason Munz/The Commercial Appeal)
Earlier in the spring, Minnesota-based Team Sizzle pulled its players from the court in a game against Team Thad.
If you listened to Team Sizzle, which features two five-star recruits, it was due to the officiating. If you listened to Team Thad’s Twitter account, Team Sizzle “quit.”
Both Young and Hurd eventually chimed in on social media, with Hurd writing, “They coaching staff chose to quit and walk off we did nothing wrong.”
The rematch occurred last Thursday, with Hardaway, Kentucky’s John Calipari and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo among the coaches watching. Team Thad suffered its only loss of UAA Finals pool play and the game ended with Hurd having to be held back from one of the refs.
This was a stereotypical scene at a grassroots basketball event.
Here’s what isn't: Winning an AAU basketball game by holding an opponent without a field goal during the fourth quarter while your star player sits on the bench.
But that’s exactly what Team Thad did the next day, erasing an 11-point deficit by sheer will.
“I like everybody on the team,” Hurd tells his players afterwards. “You know who I like the most? Whoever’s the most productive.”
Coach Norton Hurd leads Team Thad, his Under Armour sponsored AAU team, from the Memphis Elite Allstars court in Cordova on Tuesday, July 9, 2019. (Photo: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)
This is why teenagers swear by him. This is why college coaches love recruiting Team Thad players. This is why Hurd doesn’t need five-star recruits. This is why his ascension to the top of the Memphis grassroots scene is both unlikely and unlikely to end soon.
“Hurd has established himself as the guy that’s going to be around for a long time,” said former Memphis basketball player Trey Draper, a Walker Homes native who now coaches at IMG Academy. “He’s taken where we come from, always being guys that felt like we were overlooked, and he’s turned that into something powerful with Team Thad.”
And so, once the final buzzer sounded Sunday, Hurd ran up the bleachers and didn’t stop until he got to the top and realized a UAA championship belt awaited him back on the court.
The next day, he would send along a picture of him sleeping with it in his hotel bed.
But initially he simply raised the belt above his head like a triumphant heavyweight boxer, a determined stare fixed on his face.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto