Bank Shot

For a former basketball star, a new career starts with the J.V. team. B

Deon Thomas is a Chicago hoops legend. In college, he was one of the University of Illinois' all-time basketball greats. For the past decade-plus, he's been a globe-trotting, championship-winning professional basketball star.

Now, he's a J.V. coach in the Broward 'burbs.

Specifically, Thomas tutors freshmen and sophomores who play for the junior-varsity squad at the University School, on the far west side of Fort Lauderdale. Yes, he's overqualified. But the ironic part is that Thomas would aspire to coach, period, considering how he's been burned by one coach who, out of spite, tried to destroy his college basketball career and another whose lack of faith derailed his NBA ambitions. Thomas' professional career was spent entirely in Europe.

In Pembroke Pines, kids get free lessons from a hoops legend.
C.Stiles
In Pembroke Pines, kids get free lessons from a hoops legend.

But at 38 years old, the former phenom betrays no trace of bitterness. He still has hoop dreams, only now he hopes coaching can take him back to the big time.

Exactly two weeks after Thomas stood at center court, watching teary-eyed as his number 25 jersey was lifted into the rafters of the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall, he's standing on a much quieter court in a gated community in Pembroke Pines, where he has retired with his family.

"No, you have to switch hands — dribble with your left hand now," Thomas tells 9-year-old Leah Harris, who's a friend of his daughter's, Gabrielle, also 9. With these children, the man wears a broad, patient smile. On Sunday afternoons, he gives free lessons to a pack of kids from the neighborhood.

Thomas played basketball with a clenched jaw, scowling after an emphatic dunk. His was an aggressive, unyielding style — the mark of the game's best. And yet, off the court, he was always humble and engaging. Thomas admits wondering whether his personality was a bad match for a Machiavellian profession.

"It's a business," Thomas says of college coaching. "There's this idea you have to be a dirty person, you have to be ruthless. But for me, if I have to speak ill of someone, that's not something I'd do."

Back in 1989, the only question was whether Thomas' road to the NBA would go through the University of Illinois or the University of Iowa. Both of those Big Ten programs identified Thomas, one of the nation's finest high school players, as the recruit they had to have. Theirs was a quarrel that called for the wisdom of Solomon, but both schools would learn the lesson too late.

Recruiting Thomas for Iowa was a 28-year-old assistant coach named Bruce Pearl, who today is head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, a perennial title contender. In January of Thomas' senior year in high school, he was close to giving his commitment to Pearl.

But the recruiter for Illinois, Assistant Coach Jimmy Collins, had the crucial advantage: the support of Thomas' grandmother, who had raised Thomas in Chicago's crime-infested inner city. She prayed that her grandson would play close to home.

Pearl did not take this loss lightly. As Thomas slipped away, Pearl hooked a recording device to his phone and tried to lure the 18-year-old into saying that Illinois had offered him $80,000 and a new Chevy Blazer. Though those tapes were never released to the public, the memo that Pearl wrote to NCAA investigators was pieced together in media accounts. It was lengthy, meticulously detailed, and — in the opinion of NCAA investigators — largely groundless. They found only that Collins gave Thomas $10 with which to buy a pizza, which Thomas paid back. (Pearl did not respond to calls seeking an interview.)

After Pearl's allegations went public, Thomas took a lie-detector test and passed. But the NCAA investigation turned up violations unrelated to Thomas, and the University of Illinois was hit with sanctions. It caused Thomas to sit out his freshman year, when his school had the makings of a championship contender, then play his next four years on a team hampered by limitations that ruined any chance of recruiting top players.

The episode proved costly for all involved. Collins had had a bead on the Illinois head coaching job, but the recruiting scandal is believed to be the reason he was passed over. After Pearl's deeds caused outrage, he could do no better than a job coaching a Division II team at Southern Indiana, and it would be more than a decade before he'd finally work his way back to major college basketball.

Thomas at least made good on the hype, graduating in 1994 as his storied program's all-time leading scorer, a distinction he owns to this day. And despite the adversity, he was scooped up in the NBA Draft — the first pick in the second round — by the Dallas Mavericks.

Mavericks Coach Dick Motta told the Dallas Morning News: "We got a guy with extremely long arms and a tireless worker. I look at his upside. He has energy and courage. He's not a great outside shooter, but he's a worker and a great athlete."

At six-foot-nine, Thomas was a bit short to play the center position he played in college. Rather, it seemed Thomas' soft shooting touch and post moves would make him ideal for the power forward position. Except Motta envisioned Thomas playing another position — small forward. To do so, Thomas would need to improve his ball-handling and outside shooting, and that would take time. "Coach Motta told me I wasn't going to play much because they were switching my position," Thomas says now. "After playing so well in camps, I didn't understand why." (Motta who is retired and now operates a bed-and-breakfast in Southern Idaho, did not respond to calls.)

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