Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fletcher Articles

For The Shreveport Times
Up From The Bottoms
By: Tim Fletcher

This is the story of a man from The Bottoms who made it to the top.

Shreveport native, Billy Thomas is the best in the Missouri Class 3 High School basketball coaching business and he has the paperwork to back it up.  After guiding The Barstow School to the Class 3 State Title earlier this month in his fifth year at the helm, Thomas was notified Friday morning that he had won the Coach of the Year award.

Former Loyola Flyers head basketball coach Brock Kantrow remembers the day he witnessed soft butter in sneakers.   It was when Billy Thomas stepped into Loyola’s band-box of a gymnasium off Jordan Street as a skinny 8th grader and rained jumper, after jumper, after jumper…after jumper.  With four twine-ticklers in four attempts, Kantrow turned to Thomas and said, “Okay. We’re good.”

That exhibition turned into the launching pad for Thomas’ basketball odyssey.

There was assistance along the way…from extremely different cultures and personalities. But everyone had the same goal in mind: Protect Billy Thomas. Enlighten Billy Thomas. Provide Billy Thomas a better world from the one he grew up in.

His journey actually started on a slab of concrete with twin aluminum spires and rusty rims off Fannin Street in Ledbetter Heights; moved to Loyola; wound over the hallowed hardwood of Phog Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas; slowly made its way to the NBA and currently idles at The Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri.

“I was telling my players and parents right after we won the championship, ‘this ranks up there with any accomplishment I’ve had.’“, Thomas said.

Thomas grew up in an area of Shreveport known for crime and poverty, especially during the tumultuous 80’s and 90’s, when violence was the common denominator shared block to block. 

“We were extremely close to gunfire every night,” Thomas recalled. “Especially in summertime.  A lot of violence but the kids were protected for the most part. Seriously, it was survival mode.  Most of the guys did what they had to do to survive.”

Thomas survived, but never succumbed to what Kantrow called, ‘the dark side.’  The men who ruled the neighborhood back then with an iron fist made sure Thomas never followed their path. 

Chip Naus, a local attorney and Loyola (then Jesuit) graduate, met Thomas through his volunteer work at “The Lighthouse,” a community center that offers after-school tutoring and mentoring to children in economically distressed areas of Shreveport and Bossier City.

“I remember a lot of the kids in his community that he was friends with, they were selling drugs,” Naus said. “That was their easiest way to income. There were a lot more selling drugs than working at McDonalds. But they didn’t want Billy selling, they wanted him to make it out. A friend of his, Alfred “Goat” Brown, even helped support Billy financially.”

“Goat”, one of the infamous Bottom Boyz spent 17 years, 1 month and 18 days in federal prison for his role with the notorious Ledbetter area gang.  Released and doing well in Shreveport with his wife and children, the “Goat” recalls, with a chuckle in his voice, a scrawny Billy Thomas attempting to hang with the older guys on the playground basketball court.

“We didn’t play around with him on the court. We told him, ‘You don’t get nothing soft down here.’  There was no friendship on that court. ‘You love basketball? Let’s see how much you love it!’ He would come in and battle,” Brown said.

Thomas remembers those skirmishes well. “I was the youngest guy allowed to play with them. I couldn’t call a foul even though they pushed and shoved me around.”  He was 15 years old when he started proving his worth on the court to his neighborhood peers. “The guys I played against were 24, 25… some were 35 years old.”

Goat said, “We would argue during a dice game or on the basketball court but the love would return right after that.  Everybody loved the people down there. I could have lived anywhere in the city, hung out in any neighborhood.  I chose to always stay in The Bottoms.”

Thomas, whose mother and sisters still live in town, attended the school of hard knocks in his neighborhood but Naus and Melissa Flournoy, who ran The Lighthouse at the time, had other ideas for Thomas and his friends in the neighborhood in terms of their real education.  

“I was a part of the Lighthouse before I was known to be a decent basketball player,” Thomas said. The center provided a port in the sometimes stormy life for children in The Bottoms. “We had things at The Lighthouse that we didn’t have at home. Quiet and peaceful time to play basketball and go swimming, to do arts and crafts; to feel the warmth and love from the volunteers; having quiet and peaceful times compared to life outside those doors. What you didn’t have at home, they had inside.”

While Thomas benefitted from the kindness of strangers who have since become lifetime friends, his connections at home were forming a protective bubble as well.

“I took care of him like he was my kid,” Goat said of Thomas, eighteen years his junior. “We’d go shopping and I’d tell Billy, ‘Whatever you need, get it. You ain’t never going to sell no drugs. I don’t want you involved in none of that.”

Flournoy had high praise for the man whose criminal activities belied his personal endeavors. “Goat looked out for Billy in the streets. Goat wasn’t going to let anybody hurt him. Goat made sure Billy didn’t do anything wrong. He has a good heart and is a good man who took care of a lot of kids and helped more people in that neighborhood than I did. He made sure a lot of people of had food on the table”

In order to fully escape the clutches of crime, though, those close to Thomas felt he needed a clean start in high school.  A number of his neighborhood friends had already knuckled under the pressure to deal drugs and resorted to a life that inevitably sent them to prison or an early grave.

Thomas said, “I thought I was going to high school with my friends, but they were looking for other options for me. It had nothing to do with the school I was going to attend, they just wanted me to go to a school with people who thought about having a future.”

By twist of fate, that school ended up being Loyola.

During his 8th grade year, Thomas needed a ride to the Linwood Middle School sports banquet, so Flournoy served as his chauffeur.  Upon arrival, she struck up a conversation with Linda Day, the schools’ principal along with the grandmother of Allamont Bates, Thomas’ good friend at Linwood.  Bates’ grandmother wanted him to attend Loyola, which led to a discussion of keeping the boys together at the private school with a hefty tuition.  With financial assistance from Naus and friends, Thomas was able to join Bates at Loyola.

The day Flournoy took him to get a school uniform, Thomas hid in the store, only coaxed out by some of the older guys in the neighborhood who convinced him to go with her. “I can’t believe he told you that story,” Flournoy said.  “He was so embarrassed.”

Upon arrival for his first day at Loyola, Thomas discovered the school was nothing like what his imagination had painted. “The students were nice, they were kind. Sports was also the great equalizer for me. What I lacked materialistically, I made up for it on the field.”

Thomas starred on the football field but served as an attendance magnet in basketball. He averaged over 24 points per game in four years as a Flyer but was unsure about his collegiate future during his senior year.  Two events sharpened his senses and cleared the cobwebs.

“It’s my senior year and I’m sitting in my car and I hear a rock hit it. I think it’s a rock. I get out, look around. I don’t see a rock, don’t find a rock. I drive off…when I get home, I look back and there is a bullet hole in my door. As I’m sitting in my car, my car got shot.  I knew then… there had to be a greater plan for me.”

In December of Thomas’ senior year, the Flyers battled a Fair Park team featuring Shawn Houston and Reggie Poole.  The dominant Indians duo drew recruiters from around the country and on the night of this matchup in the-then CNB-Times Classic, Kansas assistant coach, Matt Doherty was on hand to gauge their talent.  By games’ end, Thomas with 43 points, became the center of Doherty’s attention.

“He came down after the game and asked me, ‘Who is that kid?’”, Kantrow said.

Kansas’ head coach at the time, Roy Williams, procured a game-tape of the Loyola-Fair Park game. Thomas said, “The videotape goes to Williams in the Kansas office. He saw the ball go up and in but the video didn’t show the shooter. He sees it go in once, twice, three times without seeing the shooter, who was so far outside, he wasn’t in the frame. That’s when Williams said, ‘We need to figure out who that kid is and recruit him.’”

All it took was one visit to campus for Thomas to be convinced.  He was destined to be a Jayhawk.
During his freshman year at Kansas, on Flournoy’s birthday, the raid that netted over four dozen arrests of the Bottom Boyz took place. Only a delayed flight from Kansas City kept Thomas from returning to Shreveport on the day when so many of his friends and acquaintances were rounded up.

The Goat, tucked away in a federal prison in Maryland, stayed in touch with Thomas. “I could call him. I called him all the time, before games and give him a good pep talk. ‘Don’t be afraid to shoot the big shot!’”

He heeded that advice and then some. By the time Thomas left Kansas after the 1997-98 season, he was the Jayhawks leading three-point shooter in school history.  17 years later, Thomas’ 269 three-pointers made during his Jayhawk career is good enough for second best all-time.

A stellar collegiate career didn’t carve out a clean path to the NBA for Thomas.  Instead, he toiled away in the United States Basketball League; then off to Argentina before returning stateside for a stint in the International Basketball League. He reconnected with his USBL roots before a three year foray in the NBA Development League.  Another go-round with the Kansas Cagerz in the USBL followed and preceded a year abroad playing in Italy. Two years with the Dakota Wizards in the CBA earned Thomas all-star status and a championship. It’s also where his basketball career came to a fork in the road.

“I was on a flight to the CBA All-Star game,” Thomas said. “The night before, the thought was going through my mind, ‘Maybe it’s time to hang it up. I’ve been the best player in two minor leagues. I won championships. Maybe it’s not in the cards for me to get to the NBA. I had made my decision; after the CBA All-Star game, I was going to give up the NBA dream. I flew from Bismarck, to Minneapolis to Chicago. My agent got in touch with me in Minneapolis and told me the New Jersey Nets had called me up.”

The sneakers would stay off the hanger and remain in use.

Thomas NBA career spanned parts of four seasons, two with the Nets, one in Washington, D.C. and finally a few games with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  Thomas played in 53 regular season NBA games and scored 144 points. He also participated in 8 playoff games.

Kantrow said, “How he got to college is an amazing story. How he got to the NBA is a great story. He played minor league basketball for eight years he was a 28 year old rookie in the NBA for the Nets. Most people would have given up, but he persevered. Same thing with his High School coaching career. He is starting at a little high school, similar to Loyola, that he has built up to where they won a state championship.”

Thomas and his wife Raquel have been married seven years and have a six year old son, Zion and four year old daughter, Leyland.  How they wound up as a coaching family at The Barstow School also took a fortunate coincidence. 

Working as a private basketball instructor in the Kansas City area, one of Thomas’ clients played for Barstow.  There was an opening for the head coaching position at the school after Jeff Boschee had stepped away. By the way, Boschee is the Kansas player who knocked Thomas off the perch as Kansas’ all three-point leader. Five years later, Thomas has two title game appearances and one state championship.

At some point, most likely in the near future, Thomas will call in his one, really, big chip: his old coach, Roy Williams, now the head coach at North Carolina.

When Thomas feels he is prepared to coach at the collegiate level, “That’s the call I make.  We texted last week, we keep up with each other. When you really need it, you make the call.” 

For now, Thomas will enjoy the state championship. A visit to his hometown is on the docket soon.  When he arrives, his family will reunite with his mom, Eddie Mae Thomas and his two sisters.  He plans on seeing some of his Loyola buddies as well. And yes, a trip to The Bottoms is also on tap. 

If given the chance, Thomas will be more than happy to share his message with the new residents in his old neighborhood, especially those who need a ray of hope.

“It can be done. If I can do it? It can be done,” says the man who is living proof that starting from The Bottoms to reach the top is a dream worth living.