My First Raps Memory: How a journeyman big became my first favourite player
Butch Carter broke my heart the night of my first live Raptors game.
From the second I opened the envelope holding the tickets on Christmas morning 1999, to the train ride downtown to watch Toronto host the Bucks a few weeks later on January 14th, my warped seven-year-old brain was fixated on seeing one player, and one player only.
Before you go and make assumptions, let me stop you. It wasn’t Vince Carter, although that would change by night’s end. Tracy McGrady regrettably didn’t much fascinate me until after he dipped for Orlando. And despite my grandfather’s best efforts to spook me with tales of Ray Allen’s sharpshooting ways, I wasn’t fearing any opposing boogeymen that wintery Friday night.
Nope, as we bounded down the Lakeshore East line that day, the only person I could think about was journeyman big man and noted 2.7-point career averager, John Thomas.
Kids are weird.
Living and dying with the ebbs and flows of a sports team is one of the wackier things any of us do. Opting into fandom comes with the understanding that each year is much more likely to end in despair than in champagne-swigging joy. As Raps fans learned a year ago, the payoff is worth the pain, but the odds are long, man. The sheen of a championship trophy is a near imperceptible glimmer at the end of the tunnel of sports toil. Still, no matter how little sense it makes, fandom becomes muscle memory; we’re pot-committed, unable to bail, and frankly uninterested in doing so even if we could.
The wildest thing about the fan bargain is that for many of us, it’s made when our brains are only a touch more developed than a grapefruit. This means we’re pretty easily coerced. Oftentimes it’s convenient geography that lures us in. Maybe it’s a fun logo that grabs our wandering eyes. In the 1990s, a lot of folks made life-defining sports decisions because they thought the colour teal was cool.
For me, it was a game ticket that told me who I liked from day one. This ticket to be exact:
That image, seemingly of Thomas dunking with one foot still on the ground(?), was enough to capture my imagination, and move an unassuming reserve big to the top of my sports heroes list. My thinking at the time: If he’s on the ticket, he must be darn good. Sure, the usual cast of Raptors all-timers have since jostled their way ahead of him over the years, but neither Vince nor Bosh nor Kyle Lowry can lay claim to being my first favourite player. That title forever belongs to John Thomas.
I’d wondered recently how many times Thomas, who made six stops and played 208 games over five NBA seasons between 1997 and 2006 (he spent 2000-2004 playing in the Dominican Republic and China), had been told he was someone’s favourite player during his life in basketball. So, I asked him.
“In the NBA capacity, just because I moved around so much … not many!” said Thomas through a heavy chuckle over the phone this week.
“It’s amazing what a picture on a ticket will do to a young child.”
It’s also amazing how that picture on a ticket could set a kid up for his first real sports heartbreak. I can’t claim I was plugged into the intricacies of Butch Carter’s rotation patterns in my early basketball-enjoying days. I didn’t care that Kevin Willis, Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis brought 37 years of pro experience to Toronto’s front court. I wanted to see Thomas play ahead of them all. As it became clear that night that my number one would stay stuck on zero minutes, glued to the bench until the final buzzer, I was more than a little bummed.
Thankfully, the guy who’d soon grow to be my new favourite Raptor sped up the grieving process right quick that night. Leading the Raptors to a 115-110 win was Vince Carter, who set a then franchise record with 47 points; still the sixth-best single-game mark in 25 years of Raptors ball. Part of Thomas’ charm as a player came from how hard-working he was; the appeal of Vince was that, for him, tuning up the Bucks barely even looked like work.
Thomas watched Carter shoot and windmill his way to nearly 50 from the same vantage point as my grandfather and I that night, albeit with slightly better seats. He admitted that not even daily exposure to Vinsanity could totally numb him to the things he’d casually pull off in games.
“Yeah, I think we all were,” Thomas said when asked if he or his teammates would find themselves awestruck by Carter. “We’re the ones that saw it the most, too. At the end of the day you’ve got a job to do, and it’s to go out and beat a team. And when you do something with flare how he did it, I mean, you’re just like …” he trailed off.
“I remember seeing when he dunked on (Dikembe) Mutumbo in Atlanta,” Thomas recalled. “I was literally right behind him. And when you saw how he climbed Mount Mutumbo ... I was like “damn!” But then you had to get back on transition ‘cause it’s the next play … At the end of the day you’re trying to just win, but when you go back and you look and you think about just how half-man, half-amazing he was …”
Playing with Carter meant Thomas was part of the first Raptors teams to gain a legit foothold in Toronto. Last season’s title run brought with it a tsunami of basketball love which spread across the city and country, but the first few Carter years were the inciting offshore tremor. Because of the role those teams played in reshaping the city’s sports scene, Thomas says he felt the love from Toronto more than any of his other stops in the pros.
“I knew that Toronto was special,” said Thomas. “Coming when I got traded, we finished off that last season in the SkyDome and then that’s when Air Canada Centre was built. And so to sort of kick-off that new building and the excitement around that building, and just the culture we had built within our team -- you know everyone really cared about each other.”
Thomas credits the man who benched him against the Bucks that January evening, Butch Carter, for cultivating a familial vibe within those turn-of-the-century Raptors teams.
“Butch did a great job of really bringing about that family kind of atmosphere, and just did things differently. And you know, Vince and T-Mac, and even the other puzzle pieces with Oak and K-Dub and Antonio and Doug Christie, we had a really good core group of guys that cared about each other … so from that perspective I knew we were special. In playing on various teams, the thing that stuck out for success, is that you had to care about each other first.”
Listening to Thomas speak of those transformative days for the franchise, you can sense his love for the city that gave him more than any of his other NBA homes. Of his 208 career games, 115 were played in Raptor purple. He says he doesn’t remember any of his career-highs, but a quick Basketball-Reference search shows his personal bests in points (13) and rebounds (11) came in Toronto, too.
Even his nickname, “Big Kitchen,” can be traced back to his days spent north of the border. Thomas credits former Raptors video coordinator Danny Aning, who passed away in September 2018, as the creator of the moniker he still signs off emails with today.
“He was our video coordinator,” Thomas said of Aning, “and there was this mini kitchen, sort of a kitchenette in the back (of the locker room). And I was always making sandwiches -- peanut butter and jelly sandwiches -- or doing something else, so he was like, “Damn, every time I see you you’re always in the kitchen! I’m gonna start calling you Big Kitchen!”
Thomas went on to say that once the nickname leaked to the media, the guys on the TV broadcast would hurl around phrases like “everything but the kitchen sink!” whenever he’d get rolling.
Matt Devlin would have a field day with that material nowadays.
Were someone to write some sort of deranged history book about quirky Raptors fan favs, there’d be chapters upon chapters dedicated to Thomas types. This probably goes for most fan bases, but Toronto loves itself a workmanlike back-up big man. Thomas’ quote on the ticket for that January 2000 game reads: “My job is to rebound, play great defence, and score the easy points I can get inside.” That’s the stuff that’ll quickly put the city in the palm of your hand; just ask Reggie Evans, Pops Mensah-Bonsu or Bismack Biyombo.
As cult heroes go, Thomas was ahead of his time. He embodied the grimy spirit all of those dudes ten years before it was cool.
Now 14 years removed from his last NBA game, Thomas is the VP of Basketball Development for his hometown Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as the Lynx of the WNBA. He spends his days trying to forge the fan-player connections that make basketball worth the hefty emotional (and financial) investment. For Thomas, it’s about getting today’s seven-year-olds to fall for the modern-day versions of himself.
“Those are the things that fascinate me now,’cause I didn’t understand that as a player,” said Thomas. “Basketball was something that I did for just a small fraction of my life, but it’s taught me so much about business and connection and the type of relationship that’s necessary in order to garner the transaction.”
Those relationships, even if they are just a one-way street from fan to player, are what give fandom its colour. Stars like Carter circa 2000 are in your face, easy to buy into. You don’t need persuading to get jazzed for 47 points and sweet dunks. It’s subtle touchpoints with the sorts of guys that only real heads know -- those of the John Thomas milieu -- that truly enrich the fan experience.
Twenty years after Thomas served as the first point-of-contact for one fan, this year’s Raptors are serving up all kinds of potential for bizarro fan origin stories. One side effect of all your best players missing time is that the rosters b-sides and deep cuts start getting radio play. It’s thrilling to think that Chris Boucher’s unlikely 19-point, 15-rebound explosion Tuesday in Phoenix might go down as the progenitor of some kid’s Raps obsession. For others, the path might be more indirect. Who’s to say Matt Thomas prancing about the Nutcracker stage in a clown outfit didn’t rope a theatre kid into hoops for good? There’s no right or wrong way to start being a fan. As I can attest, the spark can be as unassuming as a photo on a strip of cardstock.
“Nostalgia is the thing that kind of keeps us human,” said the 44-year-old Thomas. “The various memories that we have throughout the course of our lives are really what we’re striving for as people right? We want to be able to create those good memories, so I’m glad I was able to be a part of that.”