For This Deon, Prime Time Is Overdue

Deon Thomas was a Chicago hoops legend. He would become one of the University of Illinois' all-time basketball greats. And for the last decade-plus, he was a globe-trotting, championship-winning professional basketball star.

Now he's a JV coach in the Broward 'burbs.

Specifically, Thomas is the absurdly overqualified coach of the junior varsity team at the University School on the far west side of Fort Lauderdale.

And that's not even the ironic part. It's that Thomas would coach, period, considering how he's been burned by them: one coach who out of spite tried to destroy Thomas' college basketball career; another whose lack of faith derailed Thomas' NBA ambitions. His professional career was spent entirely in Europe.

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.

Two weeks to the day that he stood at center court, tear in his eye as a sold-out Assembly Hall cheered the rise of his No. 25 jersey to the rafters, Deon Thomas is standing on a much quieter basketball court. It's outside the clubhouse of the gated community in Pembroke Pines where Thomas is spending a restless retirement. At the moment, the Illini legend is trying to get the attention of four children who prefer their own pell mell basketball style to the drills favored by their fundamentals-oriented coach.

"No, you have to switch hands -- dribble with your left hand now," says Thomas to a 9-year-old Leah Harris, friends with Thomas' daughter Gabrielle, who's also 9.

I was only a little bit older than these kids when I first heard of Deon Thomas. It was 1988, and I'd become dazzled by an Illinois team nicknamed the "Flying Illini" -- a starting five I can name to this day, each of whom stood about 6-foot-6 and could soar above the rim to finish a fast break.

Thomas was not on that team. He was a senior at Chicago Simeon High School, a 6-foot-9 post player rated among the finest basketball prospects in the nation. With the Flying Illini bound for the Final Four that year, losing on a devastating last second play to eventual champs Michigan, Thomas was to be the cornerstone for Illinois' next champion contender.

Bruce Pearl
Bruce Pearl
Flickr User: dshireyphoto

As late as January of his senior year, however, Thomas was said to be leaning toward enrolling at the University of Iowa. It was a credit to the recruiting efforts of an ambitious, 28-year-old assistant coach named Bruce Pearl, who today is the head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee.

Older but equally ambitious, Jimmy Collins was recruiting Thomas on behalf of Illinois. The assistant who landed Thomas would stand to improve his chances of then landing a job as head coach of a major college basketball program. Collins was eying the job of his boss, long-time Illini coach Lou Henson, who had plans to retire in the next few years.

Collins had help from a recruiter under Thomas' roof: the grandmother who had raised Thomas since his adolescence in an apartment in Chicago's crime-infested inner city. She'd been praying her grandson would play closer to home, at Illinois.

As it looked like that decision was imminent, a frustrated Pearl changed his strategy: If Iowa couldn't have Thomas, then Illinois shouldn't have him, either. So Pearl attached a recording device to a phone and called Thomas for what was allegedly a lengthy chat about Ilinois' underhanded recruiting practices.

The tape from that phone call was never released to the public, but the memo that Pearl wrote to NCAA investigators was reproduced in newspapers, a version of which can be found here. In it, Pearl alleges that Illinois coaches offered Thomas $80,000 cash and brand new Chevy Blazer if he suited up for the Illini.

It was a lie -- Thomas was so eager to prove this that he volunteered to take a lie detector test, which he passed. For all the allegations in Pearl's memo -- which seems convincing for its specificity, if nothing else -- an NCAA investigation failed to confirm Pearl's account. The only specific recruiting violation it turned up was Collins having given Thomas $10 to buy a pizza, which Thomas repaid.

Still, the NCAA ultimately ruled that Illinois displayed a "lack of institutional control" based on evidence that school boosters had loaned cars to other athletes. It found the school guilty of major violations. As penalty, it banned the program from the 1991-92 NCAA Tournament and cut the number of scholarships it could offer over the next three years.

Thomas had sat out the 1989-90 season, which was supposed to be his freshman year, waiting for the NCAA to finish its investigation. In doing so, he missed his chance to play with Illinois stars Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty and Stephen Bardo -- a team that needed a big man like Thomas to make a title run. Those players had graduated by the time Thomas finally suited up. With Thomas, plus a few holdovers from the program's glory days, that 1990-91 team managed 21 victories. 

But in his sophomore year, 1991-92, the team began to show effects of the NCAA penalties. None of most talented high schoolers would come to an Illinois team that was banned from the post-season and was shorthanded with scholarships. That year, a small roster managed only 13 wins, the season's lone highlight being Thomas' 20 points a game and seven rebounds. The following year, the Illini were one-dimensional again -- look at the video below to get a sense for the team's give-it-to-Deon game plan.

Yes, that's Thomas having his way with Michigan's Fab Five. A fellow Chicagoan, Juwan Howard (No. 25 for Michigan, getting his hook shot swatted by Thomas at the 20-second mark in the video above) was one top recruit who might have come to Illinois had it not been for the NCAA investigation. When Thomas graduated in 1994, he left as the storied program's all-time leading scorer.

Which is to say that he made good on the hype. And yet Thomas' career was marred by scandal. Had he been surrounded by other elite players, Thomas' teams would have been championship contenders.

Thomas sued Pearl in the early Nineties, but it was a hard case to make in a courtroom, as evidenced by this ruling by an Appeals Court judge.

Ultimately, the collegiate athletic fraternity doled out its own form of justice on Pearl. After the Thomas case, he was blackballed -- or at least that's the popular opinion. Indeed, how else would someone rated by one prominent basketball publication among the nation's top assistants go from a major Division I program like Iowa to a Division II program like Southern Indiana?

That's where Pearl spent the decade that followed the release of the NCAA's report on Illinois. He proved to be a skilled coach, winning a championship in his third year at the tiny school, but for the rest of that decade, he'd take long bus rides to games in tiny gymnasiums, until in 2001 he finally returned to Division I, at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

Not exactly the big time, but Pearl's team was a Cinderalla story in the 2005 tournament, advancing all the way to the Sweet 16, a feat that landed him the job at the University of Tennessee that same year. (Pearl did not immediately return a message left for him with Tennessee's Sports Information Department.)

By sheer coincidence, Pearl's tenure at UW-Milwaukee put him in the same conference as another prominent character in the Deon Thomas drama. Jimmy Collins had taken a job as the head coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago after he'd been passed over for the head-coaching job he sought following the retirement of Lou Henson. Though school officials never confirmed it, the conventional wisdom is that the Pearl saga cost Collins that job. At the conclusion of games between the two exiled coaches, Collins refused to shake Pearl's hand.

As an Illini fan who knew Thomas' backstory, I was stunned when he told me he wanted to get into coaching. With his humble demeanor, I couldn't imagine Thomas being ruthless in the way that recruiters must be, as his own experience attests.

"I don't think I'll have the same problem -- I'm not Bruce Pearl," Thomas told me. He believes he doesn't have to trade his integrity to make it as a coach. And it seems that two decades removed from that awful encounter, Thomas has adopted a more charitable view of Pearl. "I don't think he's a bad guy. He was just doing what he had to do to get me to go to their university."

Then again, I wonder whether on that recent Sunday afternoon, Thomas was influenced by the proximity of his 9-year-old daughter, who was heaving a basketball at a hoop a few feet away. When the same subject came up in a 2006 interview Thomas said of Pearl, "It's hard to forgive a snake."

For all this adversity, Thomas was still on track to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA. Only that path would also come with unexpected obstacles. More on that, including how Thomas went from basketball retiree to a young basketball coach, in tomorrow's edition of Juice.

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