John Thomas is currently No. 3 in UConn history rebounding statistics. His
senior year he was No. 4 in the nation for rebounding. He received a scholar
athlete award his senior year and he’s a member of the UConn Basketball All Century Ballot.
I met John in October of 2003 and he shared with me what it was like
making his decision to come to Connecticut from Louisiana and what his
career path has been.
was a junior in high school he knew basketball was going to become a
bigger part of his life. When he was a kid he didn’t play a whole lot of
sports other than baseball. Then he started to grow very tall and the
coaches at his high school sort of made him play basketball. They told him
he had the height and he was athletic. As a freshman, he tried out for the
team and got cut, not because he wasn’t good enough but because at that
time, it seemed like the coach of the freshman team selected his friends
for the team. The freshman team’s record was 0 wins and 25 losses. “The
next year I tried out and made the school team,” he said. The record that
year was 18 wins and 1 loss and John thinks that is still the best record
to date. John began to practice more, played a lot during the summer and
as a junior, he average 20 points and 25 rebounds per game. His team went
to the state playoffs, he made All District, All State and that’s when he
really knew that he had a chance to be a college basketball player.
received many offers from colleges in the south, in all over 50 schools
were looking at him. UConn had found out about him through three football
players that played for UConn from John’s hometown. “They told the coach,
Dee Rowe that I was a good player, pretty tall and that he should come see
me play. Coach Rowe or anyone else did not come to see me play but at the
end of the year, they looked at my statistics and they wanted me.”
up in Louisiana; the south during the 60’s when there was a lot of
segregation between the blacks and the whites. For example, there were
separate YMCA’s, blacks weren’t allowed in certain restaurants or had to
sit at the back of the restaurant. They went to school together but at the
end of the day, the blacks went their way and the whites went theirs; they
each had their own separate part of town, there was an imaginary line that
you couldn’t go over. John thought the whole country was like this until
he came to Connecticut for his recruiting visit.
time, Assistant Coach Valvano brought me to a restaurant to eat,” he said.
“I looked at him like he was crazy. I told him I couldn’t go in there. I
said, coach blacks are not allowed in there.” Coach Valvano said, “Are you
kidding me?” and I said “NO!” Coach Valvano said “In Connecticut it’s not
that way. You can go where you want to go, sit where you want to sit and
no one’s going to bother you.” “We went into the restaurant and he was
right. No one bothered me, no problems. I could go anywhere and no
problems so that was what sold me on going to UConn. The school was nice
and the fact that I had an opportunity to get an education through a
scholarship. I had a chance to come join the team and have a chance to
play. This was going to be like living in a different world”.
moved to UConn it was during the summer, no one was around and that is the
worst time to come. You’re on your own, away from home, no students or
coaches were around. He was homesick. He packed his bags and was going to
hitchhike to the airport and someone saw him and called the coach. Coach
Dee Rowe was at Cape Cod at the time, but he came back to CT to help John
out. Coach Rowe introduced John to some executives and told him that maybe
someday John would have a job like this guy or maybe a job like this
though Louisiana was bad, I was still homesick. I called a school down
south and told them I was going to transfer. They were happy. I called my
mom and told her. She said, ‘You’re not leaving CT. I told the coach that
you were going to play for him for four years and that’s what you’re going
to do.’ I stayed at UConn for the first year, went home during the summer
and told my mother I still didn’t like it, it was a big adjustment. She
told me I was going back to CT.”
high school John had been an honor student. After his first semester at
college, he had a 1.9 GPA, that’s less than a C average. His sisters and
brothers teased him so bad about being so smart and moving to CT and
becoming a dummy. “I then made up my mind that I would have to start
applying myself. I did, and my GPA went to a 3.5 then a 3.2 the next two
semesters. I majored in business and made the dean’s list my last four
semesters at UConn.
playing at UConn his family only saw him play once on TV when he was a
senior when the team had made it to the National Collegiate Athletic
Association Sweet 16 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His mom came to see
him play once in New York when he was a sophomore. That was a drawback of
going to a school so far from home. You’re family can’t see you play but
there were many newspaper articles about him in the hometown newspaper.
getting his degree from UConn John thought about the upcoming National Basketball Association draft. He thought he had a good chance
of being drafted, but you never know. There are about 5,000 guys and only
20 teams. He was offered an opportunity to go overseas to play basketball
in Venezuela, South America. He went, and while there, he got a call from
Coach Dee Rowe telling him that he had been drafted by the Chicago Bulls.
“I came back to go to the tryouts but I didn’t end up making the team. It
was a disappointment. That is why I always tell people to make sure they
get their degrees so they can have something to fall back on. You may be
good enough and still not make it or you may make it and then get
ended up liking CT and made his home here. He said people knew him in CT.
He went into the business world and got a full time job at a bank as an
auditor. At the same time he also played basketball in the Eastern
Basketball Association for a year. The following summer he went to the
Denver Nuggets camp and tried out for the team but didn’t make it. He was
offered another opportunity to go back oversees to play in Israel. He
didn’t want to go because he felt Israel always seemed to be at war. He
was offered three times the pay he was making as an auditor. It sounded
good to him but he loved his life more than the money. After that he
stopped chasing basketball as a career, but continued and still continues
to play in town leagues.
left his job at the bank, he worked at Aetna, a Hartford, CT insurance
company, for ten years as a financial analyst, then ten years at a
consulting firm as an actuarial analyst and he currently works at The
Travelers a Hartford, CT insurance company, in the Finance Department.
John has always held a part time job as well. He’s been working at a
library in Bloomfield, CT for the past five years working with kids as a
security person in charge so the kids don’t take over the library as a
place to hang around. It’s fun, he knows all the kids and their families
and he’s well liked by everyone.
two children, a son, Isaiah, age 10 and a daughter, Jade, age 7. He says
his daughter is not athletic, she’s more interested in dolls at this time
but his son has tried soccer and baseball but has discovered that
basketball is his sport. John works on basketball fundamentals with him a
very highly of his Coach, Dee Rowe. He said that even after all these
years, about 25, Dee is still a nice guy and will try to help everyone.
Coach Rowe taught him teamwork and how to get along with people, even when
things are not going well. With John’s family so far away, Coach Rowe was
like a fatherly figure to him.
me that having gone to UConn, he learned organizational skills and how to
be disciplined. The basketball season is very long, you miss a lot of
class work and exams that you have to makeup. Being on the road so much
you have to stay organized.
the community treated players like you were on a pedestal. “I kept it in
perspective because I knew someday basketball would be all over so I was
always nice to people and tried to stay level headed. If someone asked me
for an autograph, I always stopped and signed.”
goes back home to Louisiana to visit. One of his best friends is a
basketball coach at the high school and always asks John to talk to the
kids about being a basketball player. John said, “I always talk to the
kids about being an athlete but first being a student.” He also speaks to
the kids at the YMCA in Louisiana and it brings back memories of when he
was a kid playing at that YMCA.
memorable highlight as a basketball player at UConn was both the best
memory and the worst memory. The game was against Rutgers at Rutgers in
the NCAA tournament. John reached his 1,000th rebound. He was given a
basketball with his name and the year on it and he still has it. UConn
lost that game so as a senior it was John’s final game at UConn. His most
memorable moment at UConn off the court was getting his degree. He had
told his mother he would graduate and he did.
about how the current team has changed from his team, John said, “Today
UConn has more talented players from every part of the country. Coach
Calhoun is a tough coach. You do things his way or you don’t play compared
to some coaches who play their stars no matter what.” John thinks UConn
should win the NCAA Tournament in 2004. He said they have the
talent, the bench and the coach.