In early August, David DeWeese was preparing his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for hurricane season.
As the Wildwood Catholic coach began to secure his WaveRunner to the lift outside his home, he received a phone call from West Virginia men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins and associate coach Larry Harrison.
Huggins and Harrison were in Spain at the time for the Mountaineers’ exhibition games, but that didn’t stop them from contacting DeWeese about hosting senior forward Taj Thweatt for an official visit.
“Their goal was to try and get him down there before he visited any other schools,” DeWeese said. “They really believed that once he saw what West Virginia had to offer that he would recognize that was the spot for him.”
And that’s how it played out.
After Thweatt’s visit in the beginning of September, he orally committed to play for the Mountaineers.
Thweatt, The Inquirer’s 2018-19 South Jersey player of the year, averaged 20.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-6 three-star forward, according to Rivals and 247Sports, helped lead Wildwood Catholic to the Non-Public South Group B final, where the Crusaders lost to nationally ranked Ranney School.
“This is the type of league that I want to play in,” Thweatt said. “Every game is a big game. It’s the Big 12.”
The Mountaineers didn’t offer Thweatt a scholarship until August, but he said they were interested and stayed in contact with him throughout the recruiting process.
Thweatt had West Virginia, Temple, Florida, and Penn State as his top four schools under consideration. But once he watched a video about the history of the Mountaineers’ basketball program with the coaching staff at the basketball practice facility, he was sold.
“Cutting teams off was hard, but that’s always a hard thing to do,” Thweatt said. “I’m hoping the coaches respect me, and I just thought West Virginia was the right place.”
“I fit well in their program with my athleticism,” he added. “I’m able to defend, and I can guard a couple of positions … mostly the three and the four.”
Alonte Blackwell, Thweatt’s brother, shed a tear when his younger sibling announced his commitment to West Virginia because of all that he’s been through.
Thweatt moved around a lot when he was younger and experienced problems at home throughout high school. He does not live with his parents now.
At the beginning of his junior year, Thweatt almost moved in with Blackwell in Philadelphia to finish high school.
Instead, he moved in with Haroula Rotondi, who became his caretaker and gained legal custody of him in January, so that he could stay at Wildwood Catholic.
“I’m a true believer in God,” Blackwell said. “The Lord put [Rotondi] in his life to help steer him and get him on the right track.”
Rotondi knew Thweatt from the neighborhood and her daughter, Marianna Papazoglou, who plays for the Wildwood Catholic’s girls’ basketball team. Papazoglou, a junior guard, is receiving interest from Loyola (Md.), Lafayette, Penn, Princeton, and Columbia, among others, at the college level.
Because of Rotondi’s experience with her daughter juggling academics and athletics, she was able to help Thweatt organize a daily routine. She gave him a job as a food runner at the Original Hot Spot, her family’s restaurant on the Wildwood boardwalk.
Rotondi and Papazoglou also helped Thweatt improve his grades and prepare for the SATs.
When Thweatt moved in with Rotondi at the start of his junior year, his grades weren’t up to par. She was worried about his having to go to a prep school or junior college before heading to one of the universities that offered him a scholarship to play basketball.
But Thweatt stepped up in the classroom. He improved his grades and took the SATs during his junior year.
“When the guidance counselor called me and told me he passed his SATs … I was hysterically crying,” Rotondi said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Rotondi and her family didn’t only help Thweatt succeed off the hardwood, they introduced him to basketball trainers Wayne Nelson, T-John Casiello, and Mike Shaughnessy. The group has helped Papazoglou throughout her career.
Nelson is the boys’ basketball coach at Winslow Township. He played Division II basketball at Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y., and overseas.
Casiello, a former Crusaders guard who played at the University of the Sciences, runs his own training business called Casiello Basketball. He also had playing stints overseas in Spain and Ireland.
Shaughnessy is an assistant coach on the men’s basketball team at Stockton University and manages his own training company, LabWork, to work with players in South Jersey, including Mainland’s Kylee Watson, who committed to Oregon earlier this year.
Rotondi said the work with the trainers and Papazoglou has motivated Thweatt to work even harder. He has improved every year since he got a taste of playing as a freshman.
As a sophomore, his game was still limited to the paint. So, after the season, Thweatt asked DeWeese. “How do I get off the block?” DeWeese listed the tools to improve, and every year Thweatt has returned with a more polished game on the perimeter, especially his confidence to shoot three-pointers.
In Thweatt’s junior year, he made 27 three-pointers, good for 36 percent. As a sophomore, he took fewer than 10 shots from beyond the arc.
“You have to give him all of the credit in the world,” DeWeese said. “He worked very, very hard. He absorbed the things we’ve been teaching him.”
Before Thweatt picked up those accolades at Wildwood Catholic, he didn’t have a lot of confidence to play basketball. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until eighth grade at Middle Township Middle School.
Thweatt’s friends, such as Temple recruit and Crusaders teammate Jahlil White, encouraged him to try out for the team, and so did Blackwell, who played at Girard College. Blackwell said he planned to play at East Stroudsburg University until he unexpectedly had a child. Thweatt looked up to his brother and used to watch his games in high school.
“If I was playing when I was younger I’d be more skilled and more dangerous,” Thweatt said.
Blackwell always saw potential in Thweatt from their days of playing at their grandmother’s house in West Philadelphia. The two used to play in the hallway of the house with a foam ball.
Of course, Blackwell used to dominate his brother.
“I used to make sure I never let him beat me because I had to be king of the house,” Blackwell said.
Things have changed a lot since those days.
Thweatt will have one last chance to win a state championship with the Crusaders before he heads to West Virginia. Blackwell now has a family to raise.
But one thing has remained the same. Blackwell still claims he can beat his brother in a head-to-head game, even though Thweatt has blossomed into a nationally recruited basketball player.