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Thomas’ Basketball Journey Brings Him to ‘Culmination’ Year at Rockhurst

Head coach Billy Thomas gives instructions during the freshman portion of the first day of basketball tryouts on Oct. 30, 2023. After finishing second at districts last season, expectations are high in this year, Thomas’ third year. “This year will be the culmination of [the first two years], because the players have fought injuries and they have bought into our culture. We’re looking forward to this year being the best year yet.”

Year 3 of the Billy Thomas era is underway at Rockhurst. Tryouts began Oct. 30, about a month before the team’s first game.

Thomas’ journey to this point is one of opportunity, humility and determination.

He grew up in Louisiana, and attended high school at Loyola College Prep, a Jesuit school, which is similar to Rockhurst in its rich history and academic standard. Thomas grew up modeling his game as a shooting guard after Michael Jordan.

While playing basketball at Loyola, legendary basketball coach Roy Williams, head coach of the Jayhawks at the time, came to see one of his opponents play.

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“We played a team called Fair Park, and KU was recruiting one of their guys,” Thomas said, “but I had 42 points and 8 three’s that game. I was shooting it from so far out that, on the film, Coach Williams couldn’t get my shot and the hoop in the same frame. After that, they started inquiring about me.”

Coach Williams recruited Thomas, and, eventually, Thomas chose to attend KU over many schools, including Georgetown, Stanford, Hawaii, Wake Forest, LSU, Mississippi State and Notre Dame.

“I always wanted to go to LSU. I went to their summer practices, was voted one of the best campers two summers in a row, and their coach Dale Brown told me he was coming to watch me play my senior year. And I said to myself, if he comes to watch me play, I’m going to LSU. But as the season goes on, he never comes to see me play.”

The decision became easier when KU entered the mix in the late signing period, and the Jayhawks showed their true colors.

“After I didn’t sign in the early signing period, those schools were still in, but then KU came in, and that’s when LSU decided to come back in,” Thomas said. “But at that point, my heart was already broken. When KU started recruiting me, my high school coach, who has been a great mentor all my life, pushed me to look into KU.”

After finishing up high school, Thomas enrolled and began practicing with KU. He quickly learned what it would take to be great. Coach Williams pushed Thomas to be the best he could be, even if it meant pushing him harder than he wanted to be pushed. 

“Coach Williams spoke at my high school end-of-season banquet, and he said to take the hardest game I ever played, multiply it by ten, and that’s what one of our practices are like. And I laughed him off thinking that this old man doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Thomas said. “I had to get used to the intensity of it, because everyone was the best player on their high school team. I was used to playing at my own pace being the best player on my team. The intensity is nothing like the high school game. You have to compete every single possession.”

Thomas played a part in arguably the greatest KU basketball team ever, the 1996-97 squad, featuring future first-round picks such as Jacque Vaughn, Raef LaFrentz, and Scot Pollard as well as future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce.

“It taught me how to be a good teammate. I’ve always prided myself on being a good teammate. KU and the NBA were the only times in my life where I wasn’t the best player on the team, so it was important for me to be the best teammate I could be and set the standard for the other guys.”

After four successful seasons as a Jayhawk, including never losing a home game in his KU career, Thomas went undrafted in the 1998 NBA Draft. He opted to play overseas and in developmental leagues after college.

“The hope and dream was to get drafted, but I missed some games late in my senior year due to a deep thigh bruise, So I didn’t get to finish my senior year out nor go to any pre-draft workouts. It was disappointing to not get drafted, but that didn’t stop me from getting to the league. I kept working.”

After playing 6 seasons in European leagues and the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), Thomas got his first shot in the NBA, playing for the New Jersey Nets. He was on a plane to the CBA All-Star Game when his agent called him with the news.

“After I got that call from my agent saying I’ve been called up to the Nets, I had to turn my phone off, sit back, and enjoy the plane ride. That had to be the longest one hour and thirty minutes of my life.”

Thomas averaged 14.2 minutes per game in 25 games while shooting 36% from the field, 30% from 3, and 78% from the free throw line.

Thomas retired from professional basketball in 2010 and settled down in Kansas City with his family. He chose to settle in Kansas over other places he’s lived, because of the closeness to KU, which continued to take care of him long after his playing days on campus were over.

“If I ever needed a place to workout, workout clothes, treatment, or anything else the university provided that for us.”

He says he got into coaching, because of something Coach Roy Williams told him during his recruitment as well as a natural ability for it that he discovered while playing.

“In my last few years of playing, I always found myself helping the younger guys. I always found myself being an extension of the coach on the floor. I was always fortunate to have a good understanding of the game,” Thomas said. “Even on my recruitment trip to KU, Coach Williams and I are talking, and he says during our conversation, ‘Son, you will make a pretty good coach someday.’ Those words stuck with me, because he saw that in me when I was 18 years old, and so it felt like a natural progression for me when I was done playing.”

Thomas joined Rockhurst at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. His first two teams posted records of 16-10 and 11-14, respectively. Despite finishing under .500 last year, the team gelled when it counted, going on a run through districts en route to a runner-up finish.

“I’m proud of our first two seasons, firstly, because of the way the 2022 group took to me and the coaching staff, and the 2023 group and all the adversity they went through to play for a district championship. This year will be the culmination of that, because the players have fought injuries, and they have bought into our culture. We’re looking forward to this year being the best year yet.”

Thomas teaches to compete every play. It’s a mindset that has been built in his Rockhurst players since he took the helm of the program.

“Since I can’t physically go out and play anymore, which is how I used to compete, I compete with the other coach through my guys. I like preaching to my players to be ultra competitors, so when my players beat a team, I get to beat their coach.”

Thomas and the Hawklets will get the chance to pick up their first win Nov. 28 when they host Ruskin, a team  that finished 20-9 last year and won their district, but that Rockhurst beat by two early in the season.

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About the Contributor
Eli Rourke, Staff Reporter
I’m a senior member of the Prep News Staff. I joined Prep News at the recommendation of fellow staff reporter, Mitch Forbes. I attended elementary school at Cure of Ars in Leawood, Kansas. This is my first year as a Prep News Staff Member. I joined Prep News because I want to know more about my community and maybe inform Rockhurst students about the happenings in and around the building. Outside of writing for the newspaper, I am a member of the basketball team, a Freshman Retreat Co-Chair, and an NHS Officer. I’m currently undecided on where I want to attend college. However, I am interested in studying finance.
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