Former NBA player Thomas gives message of perseverance

BENNINGTON — Participants in the fifth annual Southern Vermont College basketball camp got a special treat on Wednesday.

Former NBA player James Thomas was the featured speaker and he imparted a message of faith, belief and hard work for more than 80 campers at the college.

"It's a honor and privilege to be invited to the camp, I'm very grateful for the opportunity to share my story with kids that I'm not around every day," Thomas said. "It's always good for new ears to listen. My knowledge of the game and my story speaks for itself."

Thomas grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., graduating from Schenectady in 1998 after winning a New York state title as a senior.

"It was motivating for me coming up see what I saw. The violence, the amount of people who tell you [that] you can't do anything," Thomas said. "I want these kids to know anything is possible if you put your mind to it and stay focused on what you have to do."

For the next two years, Thomas went to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, a bit of a culture shock.

"I played against guys like Zach Randolph and Drew Gooden coming through AAU, so I was prepared, but when I got to prep school, I knew there would be players better than me," Thomas said. "I was calling my mama every day, not because of basketball, but the discipline, I had to march to breakfast, lunch and dinner."

After his time in Virginia, he played at Texas, and became the program's leading rebounder by the time he graduated in 2004.

He went undrafted, but signed in January 2005 with the Portland Trail Blazers. He was waived, then signed a 10-day contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Next, he bounced to the Atlanta Hawks for the rest of the 2005 season before being waived again. In the next year, he signed contracts to play with Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls.

"I just want to give these kids the knowledge and let them know the importance of never giving up," Thomas said. "It can happen to any one of us, if you stay on the grind, stay focused, keep the faith and just believe in yourself."

Over the next decade, Thomas continued to play professionally overseas, playing in Italy, Israel, Mexico and Venezuela before coming back to the States as a coach for the Maine Red Claws in the D-League.

"It was a challenge to go overseas, it was tough for me, but I had to take the challenge on," said Thomas, whose oldest son was born soon after going overseas. "It was a shock for me, but they taught me how to play the game, in Europe, they teach the right way."

Engelstad met Thomas through former coach and Mount Anthony player AJ Mahar. Thomas played for Engelstad in the first year of The Basketball Tournament.

"James is as good a player in this region that there is," Engelstad said. "He really imparted a lot of wisdom on our campers today, a lot of stuff that he's been through, good and bad and he also gave some high-level drills to take home with them.

"I saw how he was as a professional, as a teammate and as a leader [during TBT] and I knew it was someone I wanted to keep a friendship with. He's what we want our guys to be like."

Thomas started a foundation called the James D. Thomas Jr. foundation, a non-profit that works to empower youth to achieve lifetime success.

"People look at me as a basketball player, but life is bigger than playing in the NBA," Thomas said. "People don't know the ins and outs, you have to work hard for everything you get."

Engelstad said Thomas is a good speaker, but the kids listen when Thomas, who is listed at 6-feet-8, talks.

"He's huge in stature, he looks like an NBA player," Engelstad said. "He demands attention and he's a good coach as well. This is what we dreamed about having here. This is the type of stuff that I'm most proud of, to see it come to fruition is terrific. For James to do this means a lot to myself and our program and the community."


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