Back in May, Juice did a two-part series on Deon Thomas, the former high school phenom and University of Illinois star who, after a lengthy career playing pro ball, had retired to Pembroke Pines, where he had been coaching a junior varsity team and running clinics on the weekend. (part 1 here; part 2 here)
Thomas told me he was itching to get back on the hardwood -- this time as a coach. A career choice that seemed ironic considering how he'd been burned by people in that profession during his own playing days. But Thomas said he wanted to do it the right way -- and in July, Lewis & Clark Community College in Alton, Illinois, gave him that opportunity, hiring him as the school's basketball coach and athletic director.
That move caught the interest of some local players Thomas had become acquainted with -- two seniors from Santaluces High School jumped on board. And a third local player, 17-year-old Cristian Henry from North Broward Prep, began to rethink his own college plans.
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Henry, who at 6-foot-8 can look Thomas in the eye, met his future coach more than a year ago after joining a teammate for a workout at the Jewish Community Center in Davie, where Thomas conducted some of his tutorials. "Cristian has a very similar body, size, and playing style," says his mother, Cindi Dixon. It gave her and her husband hope that Thomas could teach Henry the nuances that made Thomas such a star. But mostly, they were thrilled to have found someone who combined good character with coaching talent.
Henry had already made a verbal commitment to Stetson University in Deland, but the Thomas factor proved to be a gamechanger. Despite having no other connection to the western Illinois/suburban St. Louis area, he and his parents mutually agreed that he should follow Thomas to that school. A gifted student who's registered as pre-law, Henry hopes to continue the improvement that began under Thomas' tutelage and to have a freshman season that makes him a recruit for a major college basketball program.
But before the family made that decision, they saw the Juice posts about Thomas. In a letter Dixon wrote to us yesterday, she tells firsthand how Thomas overcame their wariness of college coaches. In the often-sleazy, sordid business of college basketball recruiting, these feel-good stories are much too few and far between, so with Dixon's permission, I thought I'd share her letter with Juice readers.
Thank you so much for your articles on Deon. Very well written tribute to a great person. Our son Cristian Henry is another prep school player from North Broward, who went up with Deon to Lewis and Clark because of Deon's tremendous character and playing ability. Your articles made that decision much easier for our family.
Cristian had several offers, one he accepted to Division I Stetson, to play ball. When this opportunity arose, only weeks before having to be on campus, we had some soul searching to do as our 6'8 power forward is only 17 and is a gifted student. We wanted the right balance for him both academically, developmentally and athletically. Deon embodies those ideals.
Over a year ago, about six months after he began coaching our son privately at the Jewish Center on Saturday mornings, I called Deon to learn more about what he was doing with the players. He assured me then he had some 'things in the works' with regards to college coaching positions and wanted to take Cristin with him when he went. So many coaches over the years, so much uncertainty and empty promises with selfish motives, I thought in the back of my mind, "Ok, yea, here we go again."
When we got the call from him in July, the first thing I remembered was his promise and feeling tremendously fortunate. I'd spent Saturday mornings at my son's workout and had done my research previously and felt very privileged at the opportunity. Cristian has the same physical stature, was 6'8 at 16 years old, and played the same position as Deon. A big man coach for a big man player.
But do we decline an in-state Division I package where we could drive up for games for an out of state Division II junior college? The answer was yes! After several calls, a meeting during Saturday morning work outs, and a great deal of family discussion, at the end of the day there was no choice. Illinois here we come!
At the airport the employees asked the boys if they were flying in for college ball. When Deon's name was mentioned, they were treated like celebrities. A pleasant surprise for the boys! His reputation preceeds him. And his promise to emphasize academics, ethics and responsiblity could come from no greater a person. He has lived up to his word, his playing potential and now, with the first class of coaching recruits, he begins his college coaching legacy!
Thanks again for all of the detail that helped cinch such a life changing decision for our son and our family.