On the field of play
A local sports legend nudges local youth toward success.
BY KIMBERLY BAILEY-TUREAUD
If there’s one thing that Henry Thorns does not lack, it’s self-confidence. Allow him tell you — in a trademark self-reference delivered, naturally, in the thirdperson: “Pound for Pound there is no one who was a better all-around athlete than Henry ‘Hen-Hen’ D. Thorns,” he says.
Coming from most people, that might be viewed as an unseemly boast. But to a certain generation of Las Vegas residents raised in the Historic Westside during the 1970s and 1980s, it is the closest thing to gospel truth.
Growing up in an economically distressed community, Thorns viewed athletics as a welcome refuge. Before long, he was a champion long jumper, relay runner, football player, basketball player, soccer player, baseball player, boxer and karate student. Participating in sports helped Thorns build a competitive edge, setting him on course for a lifetime of success.
Not that it was always easy. As a sophomore at UNLV in 1982, Thorns longed to play in the Doolittle Community Center’s summer basketball league, which was ranked third in the nation. “I wanted so badly to be in the Doolittle summer basketball league,” he recalled, “but the guys who were in the league would tell me, ‘You are not tough enough to join the league.’ So I hustled up the money and started a league of my own. I called it The Dogcatchers — because I was a huge [George Clinton] fan, and the song ‘Atomic Dog’ inspired me.”
Observing sports leagues around the Las Vegas valley in the 1980s, Thorns took note of the dwindling number of children playing organized sports in the community he grew up in. “What I noticed is that the children in my community weren’t playing organized ball,” he said. “So I decided to go around the Historic Westside community to recruit local African-American children and teens to participate in a free basketball camp. So many children came out that I was able to start 50 basketball teams, ranging in age from 5 to 18 years.”
Thorns knew that the children in his community wanted to play, but needed encouragement to participate. “We accepted everyone and anyone who wanted to join the camp,” he said. “We didn’t turn anyone away, and we had so many children we decided to also start a football team, a baseball [program] and track and field teams. Imagine: from 1982 to 2015, all the children who have come through our sports program — it’s been 33 years. A lot of them have gone on to college and to the NBA,” including professional basketball star J.C. Watson.
To this day, his legacy is moving forward. Just about any day, you can visit Las Vegas Doolittle Community Center and see Thorns surrounded by a sea of children striving to excel.