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By Zach Smart, 09/03/20, 12:00PM EDT


The road from Ocala, Florida to Hialeah is nearly five hours and an agonizing, traffic filled ride.

The now defunct Shores Christian Academy, where Florida National coach JJ Thatcher found stability and Cliff Clinkscales, a legendary New York City point guard who happens to be Thatcher’s best friend thrived (Clinkscales’ team-best 21 points and nation-best 12 assists per game led Shores to an NACA prep national title before he signed with DePaul), is also long in the past.

 Thatcher graduated 18 years ago and the school has since closed its doors. Without that experience, however, the eccentric coach may have never been where he is today.

And today, he sits in Yery Bakery in Hialeah and speaks about the lofty expectations surrounding his team.

Clinkscales, regarded as the best dribbler in his age group in America by SLAM MAGAZINE before he even reached the seventh grade, is with his best friend and former Shores teammate on this day as well.

The former DePaul guard once handed out 13 assists to one turnover in his first ever collegiate start against Illinois-Chicago. Now he is helping Thatcher instill some of those same values that were instilled in him to young players from all over the world.

Thatcher has built up Florida National by finding overlooked and obscure talent which could thrive at this level. The recipe has certainly worked thus far, as FNU features a four headed monster of international talent with veteran, battle tested experience.

This quartet of Jeffrey Hernandez, Kenneth Santos, Hirotaka Ohashi and Jose Benitez works in unison and sustains tight bonds off the court.

Santos first helped himself and the school garner some national visibility at HoopMIA JUCO Cookout event in the fall of 2018. The Puerto Rican guard and Doral High product scored 54 points in two games, including a personal 15-0 run and five consecutive treys in one game. He’s been on a tear ever since.

Santos averaged 19 points and seven boards this past season. The rising senior authored shooting sprees in a 31-point game (9-for-13 3FG) against Keiser and several games of 5+ 3-pointers. 

“He’s one of the best shooters in the country–on any level,” said Thatcher.

The Conquistadors stole one in Hernandez, who averaged 20 PPG and scored 24 points during an 89-81 loss to Division 1 NCAA North Florida.

“A lot played a factor for us to get Jeffrey Hernandez,” Thatcher said.

“He played on a team with two back to back state titles (at Miami Christian). He played with Miguel Diaz. He played with Neftali (Alvarez), who had a great rookie year at Fairfield and is now at Mercer.” 

How does Thatcher routinely tap into the international market?

“In my younger years of coaching I knew the international market a little bit,” he said.

“We could take a player here and there. A lot of that came from learning under (UIC assistant) Brock Erickson and (FGCU) assistant Justin Furr.

Thatcher knows both Erickson and Furr pretty well. He actually lived on the cozy confines of Erickson’s couch while he coached under him at State College of Florida. He became tight with Furr during Furr’s time at Barry University in Miami Shores. 

“Obviously, Art Alvarez played a big factor in all of it,” Thatcher explained. “We knew if we wanted to get some of the best players he was the go to or the plug, the guy who has brought so many international players over.”

A heady passer and adept floor reader, Jose Benitez will return as the engineer of a high powered offense that routinely scored over 100 points last season.

His ability to get Santos and Hernandez open looks and also call his own number and score the ball during crucial junctures is pivotal for FNU. 

He’s got help now from Ohashi, who shot 51.9 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point territory while averaging 10.0 PPG. He scored 20 points against No.5 national power Pikeville. 

“This year we picked up Hirotakio,” Thatcher said. “That came from Loren Jackson over at Victory Rock Prep.  We have picked up some good players from him. Hiro just happened to be a very good player. My job is to pick guys who are getting overlooked.”

The adversity of Covid-19 is minimal compared to the adversity Thatcher has faced in his life.

Raised through daunting challenges and tough circumstances, the Philadelphia-born Thatcher was eventually adopted by the time he moved to Florida.

Substance abuse problems plagued both of his parents, who could no longer care for him. All of the pain and turmoil wound up causing Thatcher to use basketball as a tool for survival.

“My coaches took me in while I was at Shores Christian Academy,” Thatcher said.

“I paid my tuition there working various jobs during the summer. Coach Allen Adams was my prep school coach at the time and Shores Christian Academy was one of the top prep schools in the country.” 

It was also where he met Clinkscales, who relocated to Florida after growing up in rough and tumble Jamaica, Queens.


Two city kids coming to Ocala was definitely different. They were surrounded by pastures. The school had just 60 kids. The Florida summers were so scalding hot, they would sweat profusely just walking to the gym.

Clinkscales finally hit his growth spurt, reaching 6-foot-1. He would do 200 pushups every night while his host Mom, Nancy Davidson, would count them out aloud.

It was culture shock but they adapted.

Thatcher turns 36 today. The memorable times he and Clinkscales spent in Ocala, living with surrogate parents were 17-18 years ago.

They helped him understand the time management concepts and also build the leadership characteristics that help him build up a basketball culture here in Hialeah.

“I love it here,” Thatcher said. “They embrace me and I embrace them.”