Broward News

Bank Shot: International Basketball Star Launches Coaching Career in South Florida

Fifteen years and a thousand miles stand between Deon Thomas and his all-too-brief memories of basketball stardom. Or at least, the memories based in America, which are all from college. Thomas' professional basketball success took place across the Atlantic. One of the greatest players to ever wear the orange jersey of the Illinois Fighting Illini, a recently retired Thomas today enjoys relative anonymity at his home in Pembroke Pines. While coaching the J.V. team at the University School on Fort Lauderdale's west side, Thomas has rediscovered his love for a game that hasn't always loved him back.

Thomas played basketball with a clenched jaw, scowling after an emphatic dunk. His was an aggressive, unyielding style that is the mark of the game's best. And yet to see this six-foot-nine man on an outdoor basketball court, coaching children, wearing that broad, patient smile, one could mistake Thomas for a gentle giant.

He was always humble, engaging off the court. Thomas himself admits wondering whether his personality was a bad match for a coaching profession that seemed to reward a different personality type. "It's a business," Thomas says of his first impressions of coaching. "There's this idea you have to be 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."

Yesterday's post described Thomas' tragic, treacherous encounter with Bruce Pearl, the current Tennessee coach who was recruiting Thomas for Iowa and who after losing Thomas to Illinois accused the recruit and rival coaches of corruption -- charges that were groundless but still managed to scandalize the university and ruin Thomas' chances for team success.

It was only a small consolation to Thomas that, from a strictly individual standpoint, he made good on the enormous expectations that greeted him at Illinois. He graduated in 1994 as the storied program's all-time leading scorer, a distinction he owns to this day.

So for all the adversity, Thomas was still on track to be picked in the first round of the NBA Draft, meaning he could fulfill his lifelong ambition of playing against the game's best.

But despite dominating fellow prospects in camps attended by pro scouts, Thomas fell down the draft board. He was scooped up with the first pick in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, who that year had also picked a point guard from California named Jason Kidd.

Thomas' availability was considered a great stroke of luck by experts, as well as Mavericks Coach Dick Motta. "We had him projected a little higher in the first round," 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."

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.

Only 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," says Thomas. "After playing so well in camps, I didn't understand why." (Motta who is retired and now operates a bed-and-breakfast in Idaho, did not return calls.)

By 1994, European leagues were full of NBA scouts, and to Thomas that looked better than a year on the bench. "I talked to my agent and he said, 'We'll get you a job in Europe, and you can play right now,'" Thomas recalls. "I wish he would have told me to stay."

Thomas signed with a Spanish team and had a solid rookie year, averaging more than 16 points and seven rebounds. It would have surely led to an NBA contract -- if only the league owners hadn't imposed a lockout in the summer of 1995, effectively closing the market.

As Thomas waited for the lockout's end, another Spanish team dangled a lucrative contract. He signed it. So when the lockout ended before the NBA season, it was too late for Thomas.

He would spend his entire athletic prime across the Atlantic -- the highlight reel at the top of this post consists entirely of his Euroleague play. Several times he was an All-Star with Spanish teams before joining an Israeli team with which he won two European championships.

"I would have had a great NBA career," says Thomas, a wistful look in his eye. But he has his own definition of the word. When I ask Thomas to name the kind of "great" player he'd have been, he mentions Bruce Bowen, a defensive pest and a clutch shooter who is not a star; rather, he's been a good role player on a great team.

As an Illini fan who watched Thomas play in college, I think he'd have been better. After all, playing power forward in the European leagues he held his own in clashes with current NBA stars like Pau Gasol, the Spaniard who's now with the Lakers. Thomas has approximately the same height as Antawn Jamison, the power forward for the Washington Wizards, and a similar post game in college. Jamison is currently guaranteed a contract that will pay him $40 million over the next three years. In Thomas' second year -- his best as a pro -- he averaged more than 20 points per game and nearly eight rebounds, identical to Jamison's career averages.

But whatever Thomas' basketball regrets, he's grateful for how his international career led to meeting his future wife, in Israel. For most of their marriage, she has moved around Europe, as has Thomas' daughter, Gabrielle. "It's a blessing to have someone support you in your job," says Thomas.

When he finally retired last June, it was time to move to his wife's preferred location -- South Florida, where she'd gone to school. The prospect of a quiet retirement did not appeal to Thomas, who at age 38 still looks like lean enough to score a double-double. Through a mutual friend, he was introduced to Andre Torres, the varsity coach at the University School, who was looking for a JV coach. During his playing career, Thomas had never thought much about coaching, but he didn't think twice before taking the job.

"I enjoyed the teaching part of it," says Thomas, but he had to re-learn nuances that had long since become second nature. "You look at the game differently. As a player, it's all about reaction. If you stop to think, you've already missed the play." What was instinctual on the court was cerebral from the sidelines. But it's every bit as competitive, and that's where Thomas gets his fix.

He wanted more of this. He would be rookie again, but no matter. Even that challenge seems inviting. Thomas acknowledges there's much more to coaching then showing up for the game -- the fund-raising, the budget-making, the scouting, and yes, the recruiting -- an often sordid business he knows all too much about.

Enough that he knows what to avoid. For the day he becomes a college basketball assistant, Thomas is perfecting a high-road recruiting pitch. "I'm there to help them learn what the university can do for (the player)," says Thomas. "I'm there to develop their abilities."

His new ambition led Thomas to seek meetings with college coaches during the NCAA Tournament in mid-March, but that has yet to lead to a job. I ask Thomas whether he'd return to his alma mater to coach. He breaks into a big smile. "Right now they're all full," says Thomas of Illinois' coaching staff. "A friend asked me about my dream job. That would be a dream job."

Thomas is patient. This summer he hopes to coach at camps. He'll be watching closely for coaching opportunities in South Florida high schools. Still modest almost to a fault, Thomas says with no trace of irony, "I think I have a leg up because of my playing experience."

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Thomas Francis