Billy Thomas – Welcome to Cleveland

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Billy Thomas is ready for the Playoffs:

I want to be there when the games matter most. I want the chance to be the guy. (Source: The Kansas City Star January 29, 1998)

The feeling is mutual. After a 2nd 10-day callup bringing Billy from the D-League’s Colorado 14ers to Cleveland, the Cavs extended an offer that includes the 2008 Playoffs and the 2008-2009 season.

Although not even Billy can recite the sequence of events leading up to his most recent callup from the Cavs by heart, his teachers and classmates at Pier Avenue Elementary School in Shreveport, Louisiana, can attest to the journey’s beginning:

“I may have been the first fourth-grader to perfect the finger roll,” Thomas said. “But mostly, I would wander outside, far away from the basket, and I’d shoot. I’d just lay back and launch the ball. I always enjoyed shooting from a long way away.” (Source: The Kansas City Star January 29, 1998)

Plastic bread baskets tacked to trees, Billy and his friends were Michael Jordan and Doctor J. Even then, Billy took up positions 20 or 25 feet behind the basket.

A Shreveport AAU teammate, writing in his blog after seeing Billy on NBA’s Inside Stuff, talks about the early years:

Billy grew up in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Shreveport. Billy was one of the nicest guys on the team. Always smiling, soft spoken, and one of the best pure shooters I’ve ever seen.

Billy worked extremely hard to get out of his family’s financial and domestic woes. Instead of going home and falling into the trouble that many promising Shreveport athletes do, Billy would spend his time at the Lighthouse, a sort of Boys Club for underprivileged youth in the inner city.

Cut to Madison Square Garden, November 1997. NIT semifinals; Arizona State in the lead by a single point. Time is running out for Kansas. Raef LaFrentz and a young Paul Pierce are out of moves. Alone in a deep corner of the Garden stands Billy Thomas, staring at a bread basket the size of Shreveport. Swish. (Source: Mike Vaccaro, The Kansas City Star, January 29, 1998)

Not many NBA players are able to say they were both unrecruited and undrafted before and after college. For all of his talent and hard work, Billy was not a serious recruit his senior year of high school:

While scouting another player, University of Kansas head coach Roy Williams kept noticing Thomas making long jump shots. Thomas had not been a highly recruited player, but Williams saw something special in him and offered Thomas a scholarship.

In his college career, Thomas set a KU record making 269 3-point field goals (that record was later broken by Jeff Boschee). He also holds the school record for 3-point field goals made in a conference game, connecting on eight of them in a game against Texas on January 10, 1998.

Seven years passed and, after playing in and for:

Argentina – Regatas San Nicolas (1999) – where he was spit on

The Philippines – Tanduay Rhum Masters (2001)

Italy – Pallacanestro Trieste (2003-04)

Serbia - Red Star Belgrade (2006-07) – target of debris thrown by fans in Serbia (specifically, the fans of Partizan Belgrade, Nenad Krstic’s old team and Red Star’s rival) and suspended for one year. Billy says he didn’t always receive his paycheck, among other issues; Serbia says Billy went home for Christmas and never came back.

Greece – Olimpia GE Larissa (2007)

Cincinnati Stuff (IBL 2000-2001)

Dakota Wizards (2004)

Sioux City Skyforce (CBA – 2006)

Greenville Groove (2003-04)

Colorado 14ers (NBDL 2007)

Kansas Cagerz (USBL) – Several different stints; Billy would become the first USBL player to make the NBA

Summer Leagues

Utah Jazz (2001)

Pacers (2002)

Nets (2003)

Wizards (2004)

Spurs (2005)

Bucks (2007)

Billy made up his mind:

. . . [he] was giving up on the NBA, the only thing he had ever dreamed about, to go back to Italy. He felt he could at least make decent money playing there, which he was not doing while playing in the Continental Basketball Association.

But a funny thing happened to Thomas on his way from Bismarck, N.D., to Gary, Ind., for the Jan. 19 All-Star Game.

As Thomas’s flight from Minneapolis to Chicago was about to depart, his agent, Derrick Powell, called Thomas on his cellphone to tell him that the Nets wanted to sign him to a 10-day contract.

Just as the phone call came, the doors to Thomas’s plane closed, and he had to shut off his phone for the duration of the flight.

”That was the longest hour and 20 minutes of my life,” said Thomas. (Source: The New York Times January 28, 2005)

Reunited with Jacque Vaughn, long-time friend and KU teammate, Billy finally saw the inside of an NBA locker room from a player’s perspective, beginning his NBA career with a 10-day New Jersey Nets contract in January of 2005.

Playing against Golden State one week later, Billy and Vaughn fell easily into their pre-pro roles, Vaughn looking for Billy in the corners and Billy knocking down the threes. Playing only 18 minutes, Billy hit 5 of 6 shot attempts, including 2 successful 3-pointers, and the Nets took the game 113-99. Billy was beyond ecstatic:

I’m on Cloud 9, 10 and 11 . . . I didn’t come here expecting to play. This has just been icing on the cake. (Source: The New York Times January 28, 2005)

Signed to a second 10-day contract, Billy distilled a lifetime of basketball into a few sentences:

Now I’ve learned to be a … professional, be the best teammate I can be, coming in and helping in whatever fashion. Even if it’s 48 minutes cheering, I want to be the best at that.

When his Nets-mates affectionately dubbed Billy “Off The Street,” they had no idea how close to home the nickname hit. Lawrence Frank threw out the phrase while congratulating the team on a 2004-2005 season win at Golden State and, wanting to be all inclusive, even mentioned Billy, who recently “just [bleeping] came in off the street.”

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Joe Posnanski, writing for the Kansas City Star after a brutal end of the season, final-game-of-Billy’s-KU career loss:

He [Billy] slept on friends’ couches in Shreveport because he had nowhere else to go. He came to Kansas on a fluke; coach Roy Williams had been recruiting someone else and saw Thomas on video. Thomas calls Williams his father. For four years, Thomas heard a little more at Allen Fieldhouse, signed autographs a little longer, cried a little harder after the losses. Kansas basketball is his family. (Source: The Kansas City Star March 16, 1998)

In only his 11th game with the Nets, Billy played for 37 minutes, scoring 18 points. John Dellapina, covering the Nets for the NY Daily Post in early 2005, asked Billy how he was feeling after the game and submitted this report:

. . . the time it took for him to get to the NBA made it impossible for 37 minutes to tire him out. What, after all, is a lot of minutes against the Lakers when you’ve gone from the International Basketball League to Argentina to the Philippines to the USBL to the National Development League to Italy to the CBA? (Source: NY Daily News, February 11, 2005)

NBA’s Inside Stuff documented Billy’s first 20 days with the Nets. The same Shreveport AAU teammate mentioned earlier had the thrill of his life , an extended lunch hour and, hopefully, a job still waiting for him, after it aired:

At lunch today, I scampered home to finish off some day old Johnnys pizza I had stashed in the fridge. I turned on ESPN to find the latest NBA Inside Stuff. Now normally I would have watched just long enough to see how hot Summer Sanders looked in this week’s episode, but I soon found out I would stay a little longer, as Summer was doing the entire show about a player’s stress and agony during the NBA 10 day contract. And it was featuring former Port City baller and AAU teammate of mine Billy Thomas.

. . . Billy played well over that time, adding nice long range shooting and scoring ability off the bench. He was great tv to watch…nice, unassuming, humble, and hungry. He did his best . . . to convince head coach Lawrence Frank to give him a chance.

At the end of the 20 days, Inside Stuff showed the meeting between Frank and Billy to discuss his future. Frank offered him a contract for the rest of the season…the smile on Billy’s face was priceless…you could see the relief and joy instantly, he had finally made it, at the age of 29, to the NBA.

The story of his life –Billy’s contract is not renewed; back to Colorado only to be called up in January of 2005. Billy flies east again only this time heads a little further south; the Washington Wizards have come calling. Billy plays in 17 games on a 10-day contract and once again, packs his bags and heads west.

Colorado’s 14ers were, of course, happy to see Billy again. He settles in and 27 games (27 starts) later, Christmas Eve, 2007 to be exact, the Nets come calling once again. Billy signs a ten-day contract, moves to NJ, plays in four games and is sent back to the hills.

Mountains, actually. A 14er is a mountain that exceeds 14,000 feet above mean sea level. And it works really well as a metaphor. The mountain, of course, is Billy’s climb to the NBA; the word “mean” is what I think of his being sent back to Colorado and the D-League at this point in his career.

I can only imagine what Billy was thinking. Excited about the prospects of a future call up? Disappointed, perhaps bitter, at being sent back?

Six weeks later, the future callup is no longer in the future. Only this time it’s the Cavs. The infamous Big Trade leaves a hole in the Cavs lineup the size of a 14er and we’re desperate for standins. Billy rushes to Ohio, always ready at a moment’s notice. He arrives in Cleveland, puts on a uniform and plays that same night.

True to form, Billy swishes triple threes for 9 points in 19 minutes. Amazingly, the understaffed Cavs win and on March 3rd extend Billy another 10 days.

Colorado welcomes him with open arms on March 20th. Billy’s life, however is about to take an unexpected and well deserved turn. Two weeks later, on April 16th, the Cavs sign Billy for the rest of the season and the Playoffs and the following season.

Rest easy, Billy. You’ve made it. Remember this scene, senior year at KU?

I look around this room, see all these people, they are my family, and I let them down. Life’s unfair. I don’t understand the reason why this happened. I got to play four years at Kansas. I got to play for Coach Williams, the greatest coach ever. I take the blame. I missed the shots. Now, I have to figure out how to live with myself.

Consider the chapter closed. Coach Williams would be proud. I know we are. Welcome to Cleveland.

Did you know?

  • All-CBA Newcomer of the Year: Billy Thomas (194-G/F-75), Dakota Wizards
  • Thomas left Kansas as the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter
  • CBA League Leader – Point Field Goal Percentage – 1. Billy Thomas, Dakota
  • Loyola College Prep Flyer scoring leader (1992-94)
  • After an unfortunate and ugly bar stabbing involving J.R. Giddens, a KU basketball player who was stabbed outside a Lawrence nightclub, Billy spoke to the KU team, along with Drew Gooden, after the annual alumni game at Bill Self’s basketball camp, about responsibility and the KU tradition.
  • When JBeanie, Cavs blogger, saw Billy enter the Cavs game on April 17th, 2008, he felt like he had just seen Santa putting his presents under the tree.
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