The rules at Lettie Mae Jackson's house on Creighton Avenue were simple, rigid and non-negotiable. At school, her grandchildren were to respect their elders. When they left school, they were to finish their homework before heading to the YMCA across the street. When the street lights of Fort Wayne, Ind., came on, they were to come home.
Deshaun Thomas, her grandson, had to keep his room clean. His sister and cousin were responsible for the rest of the house. And if Lettie Jackson returned from Speedway Bingo to discover any insinuation of disorder or indifference to these chores, the consequence was unambiguous, the same as it might be for mouthing off to a neighbor or bringing home poor grades.
"We'd get a whooping," Thomas said, smiling. "Straight up. We'd get a whooping, or lined up in the corner with one leg up for 30 minutes to an hour. It's discipline, man. You weren't listening."
As his grandmother will tell you, Thomas always has been a good listener. It's now, as the dynamic, centrifugal force for fourth-ranked Ohio State, that the 6-foot-7 preseason All-America is making himself heard. Where he previously complimented veterans or stars, everything now revolves around Thomas, who is averaging 24 points and 7.3 rebounds and infusing his voice into critical moments to make this team his as a showdown with Duke looms.
"I've continued to see the growth in him, and it's funny, because you see it more as a person," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "So many times people forget the correlation between how mature a kid is off the court, and how it helps him on the court. Deshaun is living proof of that. He sits down, holds conversations, wants to know what's going on. He's more involved with his teammates after practice or before practice, getting them in shooting competitions, whatever it is. Just more tuned-in to everything that's going on around him."
The departure of Jared Sullinger and William Buford and the 3,000-plus career points between them slung the mantel on Thomas' shoulders whether he wanted it or not. So he spent the summer heeding his diet to create what Matta described as a "different body than he had last year." Thomas fine-tuned his ball-handling, he zeroed in on defensive reliability, he mirrored the ethic he saw from recent Buckeyes standouts like Evan Turner and Sullinger to see how one becomes a next-plane player. "It's one thing to say you are, it's another thing to be it," Matta said.
It was said, and it was done. Already dissatisfied with his team's rebounding through the de facto season opener against Albany (the true, on-an-aircraft opener against Marquette was postponed), Matta watched as Thomas missed a short rebound during practice. The Buckeyes coach, to put it politely, challenged his team. He then pulled Thomas aside.
Thomas has 26 boards in three games since. "Every coach does that, singling out the player who's that leader and that star that people look up to," Thomas said. "I think it's a compliment, for me, for a guy to pull me out knowing that this is your team. It's no harm, it's no shame, it's just a compliment of me being a leader and growing as a person."
"He's growing as an all-around basketball player," said Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft, who was Thomas' roommate last year. "If you looked at him when he came in and where he is now, he's a completely different player. Making extra passes, making big plays on defense, grabbing defensive rebounds, things like that. He's starting to understand the little things, how big of an impact those can have."
It's show and tell, too. On Nov. 18, Washington was chipping into the Buckeyes' lead and Thomas gathered teammates during a free throw for a refresher course on taking care of the ball and re-inflating the advantage. Ohio State won by 11. Last year, if it was up to Thomas to inject his voice, tumbleweeds may have passed through that huddle. "I'm not that guy who is going to be quiet anymore," Thomas said. "I'm that guy who is willing to share my thoughts with the team and tell them what I think."
Any willing, do-as-he's-told element of Thomas' makeup traces to his grandmother, who took Thomas in as a toddler when his mother, as Lettie Jackson put it, "got on drugs real bad." Jackson raised six kids of her own and two sets of grandchildren. The direction she set was arrow-straight.
Rory Jackson, one of Thomas' older cousins, was a troublemaker at school, with teachers constantly calling to report his mischief. One day, Lettie Jackson dropped Rory off at a youth center. Rory assured those running the place that his grandmother would be back to pick him up. And she did return. A week later. "When he got home," Lettie Jackson said, "I never did have a problem with him again."
It was this hard line that Thomas followed until he was 14 and his mother returned to his life full-time. "I told people around the neighborhood, if my kids disrespected them, to spank them and tell me when I get home," Lettie Jackson said. "And I'd spank them again."
"I respected Grandma for that and I loved her, because if I didn't have her at the time, where would I be?" Thomas said. "She kept me motivated and staying strong, knowing that good things are going to happen for me. Without her, where would I be at? I'd probably be a jerk, or something like that."
Thomas went on to Bishop Luers High, where Matta credits principal Mary Kiefer for continuing vigilance with Thomas -- "I really believe that paid a big dividend without him even knowing," Matta said -- and Thomas emerged with a fully functioning compass. It has helped especially this year, when the preseason accolades flooded in and Thomas suddenly acquired more friends and would-be hangers on than he could imagine.
Before the season, someone with a passing acquaintance asked to work with Thomas, to hang with him, to listen to him rap. "I'm like, come on now, you weren't with me all my life," Thomas said. "Now all of a sudden you want to come into my life? It's like that sometimes. I just keep my circle tight."
It's been that way since Thomas returned from school, went to his room or the kitchen table to finish homework, then crossed the street to the YMCA to play basketball every evening and then walked right back home when he was done. Now it's just Ohio State and his teammates, keeping a tight perimeter, Thomas in the middle of everything and on a straight and narrow path.
"We don't ever leave outside of the circle," Thomas said. "There are going to be tough times during the season that we're going to need to be together. They're not going to pull us apart from each other."