John Thomas Interview (Part 1): Thomas Discusses His Minnesota Career, Being Mentored By Patrick Ewing and Playing with Tracy McGrady & Vince Carter & More
Jeffrey Kee: Talk about your upbringing a little bit. Did you come from a basketball environment?
John Thomas: To some extent I did. My father played professionally overseas, but he never pushed me to play. I had dabbled in basketball in junior high, but I always ended up quitting. I never really found a passion for it. It wasn’t until I was 15 years old when I really starting taking a liking to the game. It was mainly because my peers really encouraged me to get out there and play. I wasn’t very good, but they kept saying “John, it doesn’t matter. You’re big.” At the time, I was about 6’7. The running joke amongst my friends was that I couldn’t run and chew gum at the same time. I couldn’t dunk. I was one of those players that had a lot of insecurities. I was always concerned with how big my opponents were and things like that.
Where I grew up, in the inner city of Minneapolis, I started practicing my skills at the local community center. I told them I wanted to use their gym and in exchange, I would sweep their floors. I worked on my handles, practiced my shot and played 21. I played against a lot of adults and against them is where I honed my skills. When the gym closed and the lights went off, I would go outside and continue to play. Even still, I wasn’t great. People told me all the time that I didn’t have what it took to play at the next level, but ultimately I was able to use that as motivation. The more I worked, the more I would fall in love with the game.
JK: After starring at Roosevelt High School (Minneapolis, MN) you signed on to play for Coach Clem Haskins and the Minnesota Gophers. When you first arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1993, were you thinking about the NBA at all?
JT: The NBA was the furthest thing from my mind because, at the time, I felt like I had so much catching up to do. There were so many other players that were more skilled than I was. I was very unsure of who I was, what type of player I was and who I wanted to be. I also didn’t have 100 percent backing from my high school head coach. In a meeting with my father, my coach mentioned that he believed I’d never become a great player, but then again that was just more motivation for me. Because of this, I never thought about the NBA. I just took things step by step. I was always known as that blue collared worker; someone who was going to do all of the dirty work. Even though I had been blessed with a 6’9 frame, I knew that I had a lot of work to do before I could even start thinking about the NBA.
JK: As a senior in 97’, you helped lead the Golden Gophers to their first Final Four appearance in school history. What do you remember most from that famed tournament run?
JT: I just remember how close we were as a team and how tough we were. We were playing in the Big Ten. We had a very physical team with a huge front line that would battle the entire game. I also remember how resolute we were. I can’t tell you how many close games we played; so many times we were down and had to fight our way back. We had fans on the edge of their seats throughout the entire tournament. It was just one huge thrill ride to be a part of.
JK: What was the reception like from the fans when you got back to campus?
JT: It was absolutely unbelievable; definitely one of the most memorable experiences of my life because of the sincere love and adulation the fans had for us. Playing in “The Barn” [Williams Arena] is unlike any other arena that I’ve ever played in. I’ve played in Staples Center in front of movie stars and at Madison Square Garden in New York, but there’s nothing like “The Barn.” Even our preseason games were always sold out. Mobs and mobs of people followed us on our tournament run to the Final Four. When we landed at the airport, buses of people were there waiting for us. As players, we put in so much effort and soul to get to the Final Four, so the fan support was something we really appreciated. They helped make it one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
JK: Looking back, would you say the Final Four run was the best moment of your career?
JT: It’s tough to say because I’ve experienced so much since then. It’s definitely up there; certainly top 5. I’ve had so many memorable experiences, both positive and negative, that have been character defining moments. Looking back on my career, I reflect on a lot on the tough experiences as well, and how they built my character. Those tough moments are actually more memorable to me because the adversity I went through made me so much stronger.
JK: I read that after your senior year, you didn’t even know if you’d get drafted, let alone be selected in the first round. When did you realize you were NBA material?
JT: That’s right. Up until then I had no idea I was good enough to play in the NBA. It wasn’t until my senior year, after we had lost to Kentucky in the Final Four; Coach Haskins told me that it was time for me to go make some money and be a pro now. That’s the first time I really started thinking about the NBA. I realized that I needed to develop a better touch around the basket and needed to improve my midrange jumper. I think I went and worked out for 18 different teams, so physically, I had to get in better shape. My mindset at the time was to work my ass off and whatever happens, happens.
JK: You wound up being selected 25th overall by the New York Knicks; a team that had won 57 games the previous year. Ultimately, though, you were traded to the Celtics before ever playing a game for them. What was it like being traded so early into your career?
JT: I’m a very loyal person. The relationships that I keep are something that really defines me. I had put my heart, my soul and all of my energy into being a New York Knick. I was proud to be one. I felt like it was a great situation for me because there wasn’t any pressure. [Assistant coaches] Brendan Malone and Tom Thibodeau worked me to the bone every day and I loved every moment. I’ve always been someone who’s worked my tail off. When I got traded, that was my rude awakening to the fact that the NBA isn’t about loyalty or allegiance; the NBA is a business and you can literally be traded or cut at any time. I was told that I had 72 hours to pack my belongings and move to Boston. At the time, I was thinking about buying a house in New York. I had started gelling with my coaches. As a player, I began finding my footing on the court. I thought that being a first-round pick, I had the stability not to worry about being traded, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter. The Knicks saw me as a piece in a trade that would benefit their organization, so that’s what ended up happening.
JK: Did you have any idea that you were on the trading block?
JT: I had no idea whatsoever which is why the trade was so shocking to me. I pulled my groin towards the end of training camp, but I’m not sure if that made a difference. I think I would have gotten traded regardless. Jeff Van Gundy came to my hotel room, knocked on the door and asked if he could talk to me for a minute. I thought he was going to talk to me about my performance or maybe my injury. Those were the initial thoughts that came to my mind. Instead, he asked me to sit down and turn the TV off, then told me that I had been traded to the Celtics. But I have always respected Jeff for how he handled the situation; he was very professional about it. Obviously, he’s a great commentator. Jeff’s a guy who I really hope gets back into the coaching ranks. The NBA needs more leaders like him.
JK: So after Van Gundy gave you the news, what happened next?
JT: Ironically, when I got traded from New York to Boston, we were actually playing the Celtics for our last preseason game, so all I had to do was switch locker rooms. I was in my hotel, and the Knicks told me that someone from the Celtics staff was coming to get me. They came to get me before the game and took me to the Celtics locker room. Mentally, I was in a fog because everything had happened so fast.
JK: In your short tenure with the Knicks, what do you cherish most from that period of time in your career?
JT: The veteran presence on that team is something that I’ll never forget. Patrick Ewing took me under his wing and dubbed me as “his rookie.” During training camp, I remember walking the streets of Charleston, South Carolina with him as he and I talked about various things; our careers and life. Patrick was a really humble, down to earth kind of guy. Then there was Charles Oakley who was like the father figure on the team; Buck Williams and Larry Johnson. Larry was one of my favorites. I remember one time, I was walking down the hall to get my physical and he yells out, “Big fella! What’s up man?” and gave me this giant bear hug. He told me congratulations, welcomed me to the team and said he couldn’t wait to work with me. As a rookie, all of this was brand new to me. I didn’t know what to expect from the league, so having these guys around was huge for me.
JK: A lot of times, in the NBA, off the court mentorship is just as important as it is on the court. Aside from helping you become a better basketball player, how did these guys impact you off the hardwood?
JT: Certain guys provided me with the ins and outs of what it took to be a professional. Patrick Ewing would tell me stories about his life, what to expect in training camp and what he did to prepare himself before games. There is so much more I wish I could have asked before I got traded; like how to take care of your money and how to deal with not playing as a rookie. Overall, I’ll say that I had good relationships, but not true mentorship. Mentorship requires the mentor to understand that the mentee has no clue due to lack of experience. In the NBA, incoming players are at a complete disadvantage if they don’t have veteran teammates looking out for their best interest. Family, friends, agents and team staff try to help, but only the NBA vet has the proper context to give the right advice. I always longed for a “big brother” to look out for me and show me the ropes because I really didn’t understand what it took to be successful in the NBA.
JK: As opposed to the Knicks, the Celtics were actually a relatively young team. You,Chauncey Billups and Ron Mercer were all rookies. Antoine Walker was in his second year. Coach Rick Pitino had just returned to the NBA. What was that experience like?
JT: Playing for the Celtics was a huge adjustment. Our very first game of the season was nationally televised on TNT against the Chicago Bulls. Coach Pitino sent me into the game. I’m out there on the court with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. The Bulls had just won the championship the previous year, so they were really, really good. On one play, I blocked Jordan’s shot, which sent me into this daze where I couldn’t even focus. Just a few years before that I was playing with Jordan in a video game, so blocking his shot was so surreal. Because I was so excited, I got tired quickly. Coach Pitino pulled me out of the game and called over to Shaun Brown [the Celtics strength and conditioning coach]and said, “I need 20 pounds off of John Thomas by tomorrow.”
Remember, I was a very physical player, who loved to pound under the rim; sort of like a Charles Oakley. Being a former college coach, Pitino loved to press in the backcourt, so playing for the Celtics was a very defining moment in my career because Pitino wanted to transform me into this skinny guy. I was forced to run on the treadmill before and after practices to burn weight. Because of that, my time in Boston, outside of the relationships I formed with the players, wasn’t a very enjoyable one. When I got traded to Toronto, I was thankful because Coach Butch Carter understood the type of player I was and put me in a position where I was able to flourish.
JK: It seemed like Pitino wanted to convert you into one of these modern day, speedy big guys. You said he wanted you to shed 20 pounds. Did you lose the weight?
JT: No, I didn’t. I had always played at around 260-265 pounds. I might have trimmed a little extra body weight, but nothing too drastic. I wasn’t out of shape. I had just left college and had to just get used to playing at the NBA pace. The thing Coach Pitino didn’t take into account was that I had just recovered from a groin injury. Coming off of the injury, of course, I wasn’t going to be in tip top shape. Also, I was just young and excited to be playing against THE BULLS. Nerves were getting the best of me, not my conditioning.
JK: Going back to you blocking Michael Jordan’s shot. Did you trash talk him afterwards?
JT: No way! Too much respect for him to do that. I was guarding him off of a switch from a pick and roll. He made a move, I blocked him and from there my mind went blank because I was so excited.
JK: Four months after you were traded to the Celtics, you, Chauncey Billups and Dee Brown were sent off to an even younger Toronto Raptorsteam. Record wise, the team struggled, but you had arguably your best seasons in Toronto. What do you remember most from your three seasons as a Raptor?
JT: First and foremost, playing in Toronto was awesome. It’s like a clearer version of New York. It’s full of culture. It’s full of so many different types of people. Fans were so welcoming. Overall, playing for the Raptors was a great experience for me. In my second year in Toronto, I really started to find my stride in the league and began playing really well. I started 10-12 games, we went on a long winning streak and I felt very comfortable within the offense. It was a time where I thought my career was really heading in the right direction.
JK: What was it like playing with Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady?
JT: Vince and Tracy are both amazing and funny guys. People ask me all the time if I saw highlight dunks in practice. I did sometimes, but not as often as you’d think because Charles Oakley wasn’t having any of that; he wasn’t going to let anyone dunk on him. It was just so much fun being on that team because Vince and Tracy were on the verge of becoming superstars. I used to clown them in the locker room. “T-Mac” wore braces and used to put wax on them, so I used to take his leftover wax and put them on my teeth, mimicking him. It was just a lot of fun being around those guys.
JK: You mentioned that in Toronto, Coach Butch Carter understood your game and was able to use your skills most effectively. You also talked about your respect for Jeff Van Gundy. Which of the two was your favorite to play for?
JT: In a short period of time Van Gundy was, but over the course of my career, my favorite was Butch Carter because I was able to play for him the longest and we were able to establish a very strong relationship. Butch was a player’s coach. He was very smart and understood all of the little details that went into basketball. As a young player, he was able to get the most out of most out of me. I don’t think I was as mentally prepared as I needed to be in order to deal with the NBA because it’s a fast moving business. I needed someone who really understood the game and would take the time to explain not only the ups and downs of playing in the league, but also the daily grind and preparation needed in order to succeed.
JK: In your second season in Toronto, Vince Carter was one of the team’s three rookies. Hazing has always been popular in professional sports. Did you haze him at all and did you receive any of that treatment yourself?
JT: I didn’t get hazed as a rookie because, fortunately, I was surrounded by a group of veterans who were very secure with themselves and didn’t feel the need to prove anything. Like I said, Patrick Ewing claimed me as his quote unquote “rookie” and he never really asked me to do anything out of the ordinary. He saw that I had a great work ethic and that I was easy to get along with. Every once in a while, I had to get newspapers or donuts, but that was really the extent of it.
As a veteran, I didn’t really haze either; although some of the guys around me were doing it. I remember Lorenzen Wright, may he rest in peace, would steal car tires and fill cars will popcorn. Some players would make the rookies get donuts and if they weren’t warm, they’d have to get more. But I don’t believe in messing with people like that. I believed in giving people advice, mentoring them and showing them how to be successful in the league.