By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
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By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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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 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.
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 his 9-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, and her friend Leah Harris. With these children, the man wears a broad, patient smile. On Sunday afternoons, he gives free lessons to four 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 profession that seemed to reward aggressors.
"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 program.
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.)
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.
"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."