Older Illini fans can vividly recall two eras of greatness in the last thirty years of the basketball program--1982-1990 and 1997-2006. Forgotten is the timeframe in between when Illinois was placed on a probation that relegated the team to 'middle-of-the-pack' status in the Big Ten. However it's a period of time that shouldn't be forgotten as some of the players on those squads paved the way for Lon Kruger and Bill Self.
TCR had the opportunity to catch up with Illini great Deon Thomas recently to discuss his life before basketball, his career, and his current position on the University of Illinois-Chicago coaching staff.
According to Thomas, basketball wasn't always the No. 1 goal in his life. Early on, he dreamt of entering law school and becoming a Supreme Court justice. However at the urging of his brother, Deon took up basketball in 8th grade and the rest was history. He attended Simeon Career Academy on the heels of the Ben Wilson tragedy and it eventually inspired him to wear the famed No. 25 once he got to Champaign. To this day, Thomas and many others believe that Wilson would've enrolled at Illinois had he lived long enough to do so.
Once he got to Champaign, Thomas "cherished every moment." The program's all-time leading scorer reminisced about 10-cent wing night at the White Horse Inn and breakfast at Aunt Sonya's. The only thing he regretted during his time with the program was the team's lack of success in the NCAA Tournament.
After his collegiate career, a long and successful professional run overseas ensued. Thomas was referred to as a 'player coach' by his peers during the later stages of his career, but he never had an inkling to actually get into the profession. However, a chance meeting with former a teammate at a Starbucks led to his first coaching position at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, IL. After five seasons, he was hired by UIC as a full-time assistant in 2014. Steve McClain has already decided to retain him after he was named the Flames' 11th head coach in late March.
When asked if he would ever pursue the opportunity to run his own program, Thomas state he would "love to be a head coach one day, no specific place, but of course it would be a dream to be at your alma mater."
Thomas had the chance to play UIC during each of his four seasons as a member of the Illini and he thinks, "it would be great for the two programs if they scheduled an annual contest." Most Illini fans view this scenario as a lose-lose proposition, but, like or not, games against in-state competition would generate more attention than contests against Kennesaw State or Chattanooga. Thomas agrees and he also feels that strong rivalries could form since a lot of the players played with or against each other in high school.
It's a well documented fact that the state of Illinois has been shut out of the NCAA Tournament for two consecutive years--all while the homegrown talent is succeeding elsewhere. Thomas "wishes [he] had a clear cut idea of why players are leaving state. There are good coaches and good players--we have to find a way to mesh both together."
As far as Illinois is concerned, Thomas feels that things will get better and that the program is in a good place. He doesn't have much free time during the season, but if he's available while the Illini are playing you can count on him tuning in to cheer on his alma mater.
TCR would like to thank Thomas for taking the time out of his day for this interview; it was a great pleasure to catch up with him. He's on the rise in the coaching ranks and perhaps one day he'll be on the sidelines at the State Farm Center.