Word to the Wise: Don't Be Doubting This Thomas - Part II

Part II: Bucks veteran became member of exclusive group

By Truman Reed

Kurt Thomas
Thomas became only the third player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding. Photo: Gary Dineen/NBAE

There are 450 players on National Basketball Association rosters.

For every one of them who has achieved something outstanding in the game, there is generally another who has been there and done that.

There is one NBA veteran, though, who has accomplished something so rare that, among his current contemporaries, he is in a class by himself. He works in Milwaukee. And his name is Kurt Thomas.

During his senior season at Texas Christian University in 1994-95, Thomas became only the third player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding, following in the footsteps of Xavier McDaniel, who was the first to achieve the feat in 1984-85 while playing for Wichita State University, and the late Hank Gathers, who became the second in 1988-89 while competing for Loyola Marymount University.

McDaniel , who put up 27.4 points and 15 rebounds during his senior collegiate season, went on to score 13,606 points over a 12-year NBA career. Gathers, who averaged 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds as a junior, collapsed and died of a heart condition during a game in his senior campaign.

Thomas' national-best numbers -- 28.9 ppg and 14.6 rpg - compare favorably to those of his elite predecessors. He has gone on to collect 8,505 points and 6,750 rebounds over a 15-year NBA career, and his 85 (and counting) career NBA playoff games exceed the equivalent of another entire season.

At the age of 37, Thomas ranks as the third-oldest active player in the NBA. He has carved out his niche as a pro's pro with toughness, strength, a blue-collar, team-first approach to his work and an on-court scowl that was deemed one of the league's fiercest by NBA analyst Doug Collins.

Underneath the imposing exterior, though, is a devoted father of four, a humble, caring man with a big heart who has become one of the league's most renowned givers out of gratitude for for the blessings God has directed his way.

One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has better embodied the name of Texas Christian.

Thomas breaks into a broad grin when asked to retrace his steps into the elite basketball fraternity to which he belongs.

"I never thought that I would put up those types of numbers," Thomas said. "It never crossed my mind. I won't try to fool anyone into thinking I knew I could do that. If it wasn't for that system, if it wasn't for my teammates and my coaching staff and everyone who believed in me, and the fact that the Lord had blessed me with the ability to be able to go out and do what I did, none of it could have happened."

The story of how it happened is probably even more amazing than the fact that it did happen.

When Thomas was chosen 10th in the 1995 NBA Draft, his draft class included no less than 10 former McDonald's All-Americans, such heralded one-time prep luminaries as Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Ed O'Bannon, Alan Henderson and current Bucks teammate Jerry Stackhouse.

During his prep career, Thomas' only connection to McDonald's was as a customer at its franchises in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. And apparently he could have used a few more Big Macs back then.

"I was a real skinny kid," Thomas said. "I broke my ankle in my senior year of high school and only played half of a season. I was only 170 pounds when I came out of high school. A lot of people didn't really think I had the ability to play."

Thomas remembers what it felt like to be on the outside looking in, but he was able to capitalize on that experience.

"I had a lot of high school friends I grew up with who were really shocked that I got a scholarship," he said. "When I was growing up and would go to the gym, there were so many talented guys in Dallas. I wasn't the first one picked, I wasn't the second and I wasn't the third. I was like, the last or second-last guy picked.

"Sometimes I had to sit out a lot and watch the other guys play. So I sat around and watched the other guys, and when I got the opportunity to play, I knew what they could do and what they couldn't do and I would use that to my advantage."

Nearby TCU gave Thomas an opportunity -- one for which he remains extremely grateful.

"My main objective was to get a scholarship to college, get an education and help myself get a job," Thomas said. "That's all it was about for me. College was the best thing that ever happened to me. The NBA's been great, but my college experience was second-to-none."

Thomas was no overnight sensation as a college basketball player, though.

"I remember back in my freshman year of college, I couldn't even bench press 135 pounds," he said. "I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school. In my freshman year, I didn't play much. As my body started to mature and I got stronger, though, my game improved each and every year."

Opportunity began knocking on Thomas' door more often as his college career unfolded, but he wasn't always able to answer.

"In my sophomore year, I finally got to play, but I got injured," he said. "I basically played half my sophomore year. Then in my junior year, I got injured again and ended up redshirting a year."

Thomas persevered, though, and credits those close to him for their encouragement.

"Believing in the Lord and believing that he blessed me with a gift, and having my family around me and being supportive of me were so key," Thomas said. "I didn't go far from home, from Dallas, for college. TCU's just down the road in Fort Worth. I always had that family connection right there with me, which was very important."

"Then, in my junior year, which really was my senior year because I went to college for five years, I was finally able to play. I averaged about 20 points and about 9.7 rebounds."

Thomas' junior season opened a few eyes, including his own.

"After my junior year, when I was finally able to start putting up some decent numbers, I asked one of my college teammates who had played in the NBA, Reggie Smith, if he thought I had a chance to play in the NBA," Thomas recalled. "He said, 'Yeah.'

"A couple of other friends I grew up with in Dallas who had played professional ball really started working on my game and teaching me the little dos and don'ts of the game and I said, 'Hey, we'll give it a try.'"

A major transition that took place before Thomas' senior season figured prominently in the breakout year he would enjoy.

Billy Tubbs, who had built the University of Oklahoma basketball program into a national powerhouse, was hired as the Horned Frogs' head coach.

"Coming in with a new coach (Billy Tubbs), I knew he liked a really up-and-down style of basketball, but I didn't really know if that was going to jell well with my game," Thomas said. "When he came in, it just really clicked. The guys could see that I could really put the ball in the hole, and I always considered myself a pretty good rebounder.

"When it first started, I don't think anyone was really keeping an eye on me. They noticed the numbers, but they didn't make it a big deal about them. But after about three quarters of the way through the season, then people started to pay attention."

Thomas' soaring numbers weren't met with a great deal of fanfare because TCU's program was not in the public eye.

"We didn't have any national TV games," Thomas said. "People started paying more attention to TCU about halfway through my senior season. It was just about timing. We were not a very dominant team. I think we were basically a .500 team.

"But I was able to put the ball in the hole, we had a great coaching staff and I had teammates who really believed in me. We had a lot of fun that year."

Looking back, Thomas can't thank his teammates enough for his prosperity. He knows he never would have joined the exclusive group that McDaniel and Gathers had started without them.

And he was no out-of-control gunner, either. He made 54.8 percent of his field-goal attempts as a senior.

"The main thing was my teammates," he said. "Without my teammates, there's no way I would have been able to accomplish what I did. It really wasn't a goal at first.

"When the opportunity was there, people wanted to know if I could actually do it. My teammates were pulling for me each and every night to go out and put numbers up. Without them and the coaches, I wouldn't have been able to do it."

Thomas was more humbled than anything when his senior season ended and he was atop the national scoring and rebounding charts. He was well aware of what an elite club he had joined.

"I definitely knew about 'The X-man' (McDaniel)," he said. "And you had to know about Hank Gathers and Loyola-Marymount and the numbers they put up. They had a great team. They were winning and going deep into the NCAA Tournament. I was definitely watching Hank until that tragic incident."

National TV audiences didn't get to see Thomas' amazing ascent to stardom, but NBA scouts did. Fifteen pro seasons later, Thomas was asked how often he pauses to count his blessings. "Every day, man," he replied. "Every day."