For Justin Burrell and Anthony Thompson, playing as Lilliputians in a game dominated by giants was easy. It was when they came face-to-face with an equally diminutive opponent — each other — that things got tough.
“There were days when he came in, and he was young and his legs were fresh and he was a problem for me,” says Burrell, a senior captain and point guard at Holy Cross who is very generously listed at 5’9”, of the first time he and Thompson, two years his junior, set foot on the same court in the summer of 2013.
“It was tough, coming in as a freshman, he showed me he knew a lot more on the court than I did,” adds Thompson, Burrell’s equally diminutive teammate. “He definitely went right at me.”
“Those two went right at each other from the start,” remembers head coach Milan Brown, “and there were some times we had to kind of switch them off each other because we were worried about how much they were going at each other.”
At the time, Burrell was a rising junior, a starter since day one, just stepping across the threshold that separates supporting cast member — his job as a facilitator for the first two years of his career — from featured billing and a starring role. Only, before he played a single second in the spotlight, he turned around to find himself face-to-face with his heir-apparent and future replacement in Thompson.
It was a situation that could have gotten ugly quick.
“It’s always tough as a coach, because you have to always be building for the future because you only have guys for four years and the world doesn’t stop for them,” says Brown. “And you never know how they are going to take it when you recruit the next guy in line. And I think it’s even tougher with point guards, and the smaller point guards especially, because they usually have that chip on their shoulder mentally that drives them from being doubted their whole career.”
Such a scenario seemed as if it might play out during the first pick up game of that first summer when Burrell and Thompson “almost killed each other,” laughs former Holy Cross star Dave Dudzinski.
“I was worried they might come to blows,” echoes Brown with a laugh.
Except, instead of a fistfight, something else erupted following that first heated showdown: a brotherhood.
The opening battle
“I went right at him, and he’s this young kid, and not only did he keep his cool, but he came right back at me,” says Burrell of the first time the two squared off on the hardwood. “I had to respect him immensely.”
And that respect was mutual.
“He went at me every practice, but he was teaching me things I needed to learn,” says Thompson.
From that day on, according to both, Burrell and Thompson have been inseparable on and off the court, bonding over shared experiences as pint-sized playmakers from what’s known as the DMV — the hotbed of mid-Atlantic hoops that runs from Bowie, Maryland, through Upper Marlboro, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Northern Virginia — and similar interests off the court.
“We hang out all the time,”says Thompson, who hails from Glenn Dale, an unincorporated, racially diverse community of almost 14,000 residents in southern Maryland. “We’re both from the DMV, so we have a lot of similarities in music and hang out in the same places. Once I got here we knew the same people.”
“Having him on the team was great, because we’re from the same area, we’ve got the same taste in music, same interests, it’s like having a little brother on the team,” says Burrell, who was born in Maryland but raised in Dumfries, a tiny town of less than 5,000 in northern Virginia.
Burrell, who played high school ball at Potomac High School before a prep year at Fishburne Military School, and Thompson, who spent his high school days suiting up for the Bullis School, didn’t know each other until they became teammates. But both shared the same mindset on the court, and experiences off it, crediting their families, especially their fathers, with their development as players and people.
“We both have that mentality,” say Thompson, “that we’ve been doubted our whole careers because of our size, and every time we’re on the court we’re out there to prove people wrong,.”
“It’s funny,” says Burrell, “because we know so many of the same people, I feel like we should have crossed paths before a million times but we never did.”
As for who is actually shorter between Burrell and Thompson, who is listed one inch taller than his mentor.
“I’ll give myself 5’8”,” laughs Burrell. “I think he’s listed a little bit taller than I am, but when we line up to see who’s taller, it’s actually like literally dead even.”
Going from a starring role in high school to coming off the bench to start his freshman year was a tough transition, but according to Thompson, it was Burrell, the player serving as his initial road block to seeing the court, who was his biggest mentor and supporter.
“It was hard getting adjusted to playing with the older guys, because I felt like I had to take a back seat, but the coaches kept telling me to be a better leader, and JB was pushing me to be a leader,” says Thompson, who eventually broke into the starting lineup beside Burrell halfway through his freshman year.
But according to Burrell, it was anything but a one-way street of support between the two.
“I’m not going to sit here and have it seem like it was a one-way street, I’m not going to hear that, because he made me better as well,” Burrell insists. “He came at me every day in practice and he never allowed me to get comfortable or complacent as an old vet,” he laughs.
According to Burrell, playing alongside his successor in Thompson has helped him in turn mature.
“You have to understand that it’s college basketball so they are going to recruit somebody because they have to continue what they’ve established in the past,” Burrell says. “I looked at it as they were confident in the style of play that I have, where they went and recruited another point who was similar to me in size and stature and style of play, so I was happy about that.”
And according to Brown, having Thompson and Burrell pushing each other in practice pushed the entire Crusaders roster.
“Whenever you have two guys competing with each other like that,” Brown said, “it definitely starts to rub off on people. When two guys are going that hard, you can’t take a day off.”
Stepping on the court side by side
Thompson spent the beginning of the 2013-2014 season as Burrell’s understudy off the bench, before stepping into the starting lineup when his mentor missed three games at the end of November and beginning of December with an injury. Upon his return, Burrell began seeing more court time beside Thompson, and the Crusaders began to click, pushing the ball in transition on offense and pressuring it on defense.
“When they made the change to play both of us at the same time, that relationship we built when we were competing against each other carried over,” he says. “I felt like we became a lot faster. I think that catered to our style of play. Defensively, I think it helped us out a lot.”
By the start of conference play, Brown had permanently moved Thompson into the lineup next to Burrell, and the Crusaders found a new gear, finishing the season 14-6 after a 6-7 start and advancing to the second round of the CIT Tournament.
“It’s fun playing together, getting to run with somebody who’s just as fast as me,” says Thompson. “We know we can get up on the court and play full court defense, and then when we get the ball just get out and go.”
On Nov. 16, Burrell and Thompson hit the hallowed hardwood at the TD Boston Garden like a hurricane, relentlessly attacking the vaunted backcourt of then 25th ranked Harvard and forcing star Crimson point guard Siyani Chambers into nine turnovers while holding him to a single point in a 58-57 upset.
And just like that, one game into the year, Holy Cross was the undisputed Patriot League favorite and a front-runner to reach the Big Dance for the first time since 2007.
Sadly, basketball rarely follows the feel good script.
After a hot start to the season, the Crusaders cooled off, struggling to generate consistent offense without the low-post presence of Dudzinski from the previous season. Thompson suffered a torn labrum and valiantly gutted it out for most of the season before finally being forced to shut it down after 11 minutes of action on Feb. 8, his season ending numbers of 5.9 points and 2.0 assists per game a shell of his freshman year performance (9.4 ppg and 2.5 apg).
Burrell has left his heart and soul on the court every time he has set foot on it, refusing to buy in to the Crusaders’ 12-15 record and seventh place in the standings or give up on his dreams of making the NCAAs.
“As a senior it’s realizing the reality in that this is my last year playing college basketball, my last chance to make the NCAA tournament, and I have to leave it all on the floor,” he says.
Burrell’s efforts have left a lasting impact on Thompson, one he will carry with him for the rest of his career when he returns to health.
“You can really see that this is his last chance, that he really wants it,” says Thompson. “Every day he’s out there working hard and I feel like I’m playing for him.”
And no matter how the season plays out, it’s apparent that the lasting imprint Burrell has left on Thompson, has been returned in kind.
“I’m really glad we got to play together,” says Burrell, “I’m a better player and a better person for it.”