Updated: Mar 1, 2021
Jaquese ‘JQ’ Smith, The Sports For Champions| 3:25 pm EST
February 15, 2020
Atlanta, GA- Grassroots basketball has become more saturated than ever before. We all can guarantee that each year, there are new teams formed throughout the 50 states. There are some organizations that succeed in their lane and then there are others that fall through the cracks.
How does an AAU team survive and thrive in the amateur sports space? Talented players, dedicated volunteers and experienced coaches are imperative for a successful organization. But the foundation is what holds the above pieces together. I had an opportunity to interview Donnell “Mookie” Dobbins, program director for both Under Armour (UA) sponsored Team Thrill and Jr. NBA Baltimore. Let’s Get to Know Coach Mookie…
JQ: Coach, thank you for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon. I’m excited to hear how your journey all began and what’s next for you and your program.
Mookie: Yes, thank you for having me.
JQ: First, it’s important to let everyone know your background in sports. How did you get started?
Mookie: I started playing as a young kid. I played on the Division 1 level at UTEP (University OF Texas El Paso). After college, I had an opportunity to play overseas; but didn’t explore those options. So instead, after seeing my oldest son taking interest in basketball, I got into coaching.
JQ: How did you get started in grassroots basketball?
Mookie: I remember one day when I was sitting in the gym, there were a group of kids that I would always see playing ball. I started helping them with their skills and from there, I formed my first recreation center basketball team. We were first called B More’s Finest playing in the UA circuit before changing the name to Team Thrill. I was running the elementary and middle school teams and someone else was running the high school portion. The high school team lost the deal with UA but immediately, I got a called from a UA rep and they wanted me to take over the full program. Will Barton (NBA) had always envisioned having an AAU program so we connected. He wanted to collaborate with me so we ended up naming the program Team Thrill (“Will the Thrill”- Will Barton’s nickname).
JQ: What skills and qualifications do you feel that an AAU program director needs to have to successfully run a program?
Mookie: First of all, you need to be passionate about what you do and creating opportunities for young people. If you’re not passionate about that, then you don’t have a chance. It’s a challenging field from the standpoint of being away from your family and being consistent at a high level. Background knowledge of basketball would also help a lot. Building relationships with media outlets, coaches, and individuals who can help get these kids exposure are all pertinent to successfully running a program.
JQ: Grassroots basketball has changed over the years. Things are being done differently. What things have you observed over the last few years in amateur sports?
Mookie: I think the biggest difference that I’ve seen over the years is the number of teams that are being created. When I played, in order to play on a travel team, you had to be amongst the elite players. You couldn’t just make up an AAU team and play in an event; it was more of a select type thing. Our city only had two teams that would travel. The formation of the shoe circuit is completely different from when we played AAU. Now, you have the shoe companies such as Nike, Under Armour and Adidas. You have these three circuits that are the main recruiting circuits; especially for high and mid major athletes. College coaches would attend these first before going anywhere else.
JQ: Did your childhood and upbringing impact or influence you into wanting to help your community specifically for the younger kids?
Mookie: Yea, for sure. I know with me growing up, my parents were not very active in my life. My coaches kind of filled that void. So, I know what it means to have someone to invest and believe in you and nurture your talent. In return, I played that role for a lot of young athletes. We have a girls’ team for the second year. So now, I’m helping both young male and female athletes. My daughter actually plays for the program too.
JQ: How many total teams do Team Thrill have?
Mookie: Right now, we have 9 girl teams and 16 boy teams. So, we have about 25+ teams altogether.
JQ: Can you describe Will Barton’s influence with the program. Is he hand’s on? In a prior interview with another media outlet, you stated that he’s involved year-round.
Mookie: Yea, even in his NBA season, he’s connected with the program. We spoke about two days ago about the things that he wanted to do this summer. Of course, the Kobe Bryant tragedy was a huge influence on him, wanting to do more, as it pertained to being around with the younger kids more often. Kobe being a mentor to Will, they spoke heavily on how to become more involved with the young players. Will immediately reached out to me and said that he wants to be more hands on this summer. He wants to run a few practices and coach a team. He’s also supportive from a financial and motivational standpoint.
JQ: That is great. I’m sure the kids from the program appreciates it and understands that his involvement speaks volume about him and his character. What makes Team Thrill standout from other AAU programs?
Mookie: We’re unique in a sense of the culture that we created. We’re very family oriented. When we travel, most times, all age groups travel as a unit. Our program is one of the best teams in the country because all of our age group teams are talented. Another reason why we’re different is because of our style of play. We play gritty and get asked from other programs, how do we get our teams to play this way.
JQ: Not only are you in the grassroots basketball space but you’re also tied in other Baltimore community related projects.
Mookie: I’m very active in the community. We do a lot of community give back projects, such as, feeding the homeless and toy drives during the holidays. I work in the Baltimore City public-school system and also run the Jr. NBA Baltimore. As you can see, just about everything I do is around the youth. I’m just trying to cultivate my community and shine some light on my city and give the young people an opportunity for them to be successful. And let them know that there is more than just Baltimore city; there’s a whole world out there.
JQ: Coach Mookie it was a pleasure speaking to you and we look forward to sharing your interview with everyone.
Mookie: No problem. Thank you.
Follow Donnell “Mookie” Dobbins IG & Twitter @coach_mookie
Follow Team Thrill @TeamThrillUAA
Follow JQ Twitter & IG @jqsportspr