By 1994, European leagues were full of NBA scouts, and to Thomas, playing abroad 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 sensational rookie year that would have surely led to an NBA contract — if only the league owners hadn't imposed a lockout in the summer of 1995. As Thomas waited for it to end, another Spanish team dangled a lucrative contract. He signed it. When the lockout ended before the NBA season, it was too late for Thomas. He would spend his entire athletic prime across the Atlantic, several times an All-Star in the European leagues before joining an Israeli team with which he won two European championships.
Till he becomes a coach, Deon Thomas will give hoops lessons for free.
"I would have had a great NBA career," says Thomas. He played power forward in the European leagues and held his own in clashes with current NBA stars like Pau Gasol, the Spaniard who's now with the Lakers. Had he stuck it out with the Mavericks, Thomas believes he'd have found a role similar to that of Bruce Bowen, the San Antonio Spur who's a defensive pest and a clutch shooter.
But whatever Thomas' basketball regrets, he's grateful his international career led to meeting his future wife in Israel. She had moved around Europe and the Middle East with Thomas, so when he finally retired last June, it was time to move to her preferred location — South Florida, where she went to school.
Here, Thomas was introduced to Andre Torres, varsity coach at the University School, who was looking for a J.V. coach. "I enjoyed the teaching part of it," says Thomas, but he had to relearn 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.
Still, coaching also involves fundraising, budget-making, and, yes, recruiting — a sometimes-sordid business he knows all too much about. "I don't think I'll have that same problem — I'm not Bruce Pearl," says Thomas, who in past interviews has referred to Pearl as a "snake" but has since adopted a more charitable view. "I don't think he's a bad guy. He was just doing what he had to do to get me to come to the university."
Thomas has already practiced a different recruiting pitch for the moment he becomes a college basketball assistant coach. "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. But Thomas is patient and will be watching closely for opportunities. 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."