How Does Deon Thomas Remember Lou Henson? “He saved my life”
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The way Illinois’ all-time leading scorer remembers his head coach isn’t at all complicated even when what Lou Henson provided Deon Thomas can’t be simply explained.
Upon hearing of his head coach’s death last week, Thomas had a very simple thought about what Henson recruiting him to Illinois meant for not only his life but the life of several generations of the Thomas family.
“He changed my life,” Thomas said of Henson, his head coach throughout all four years at Illinois, during a Bardo’s Breakdown Zoom segment on Facebook hosted by former Illini guard/current Big Ten Network analyst Stephen Bardo. “And not only my life but he changed the trajectory of so many in my family.”
Henson, the winningest basketball coach in University of Illinois history, died at the age of 88. Henson died on July 25 in the same Champaign home his family bought when he took the job at Illinois in 1975 and was buried in a private ceremony on July 29.
“Our Orange and Blue hearts are heavy," Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman said in a university statement. "We have lost an Illini icon. We have lost a role model, a friend, and a leader. We have lost our coach. Coach Henson may be gone, but the memories he provided us, and the legacy he created, will last forever. He was responsible for almost 800 wins in the record book and countless Fighting Illini moments frozen in time, but Coach Henson's true measure will be felt in the lives he touched – the lives of his former players, people on this campus, and friends in our broader community. We are all better for whatever time we were privileged to spend with Coach Lou, whether it was five minutes or 50 years. He made everyone feel like a friend. I so enjoyed my time with Coach these last five years, and I will miss him. Our thoughts and prayers are with Mary, Lisa, Lori, Leigh Anne, and the entire Henson family. Their family will always be part of ours."
The local, regional and national media attention that surrounded Thomas’ recruitment to Illinois that included a recorded conversation between then-Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl and a 17-year-old Thomas that would be the center of an NCAA investigation dirtied what was a moment (going to college) that Thomas, now 49 years old, still believes to this day was a pivotal moment in his life.
Thomas, the 1989 Illinois Mr. Basketball selection and a selection for the 1989 McDonald's All-American game, still remembers when Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins stepped into the gymnasium to watch Thomas’ Simeon High School team for the first time.
“The moment that changed my life was seeing Coach Collins walk into Simeon and realizing he was there to see me,” Thomas said. “But we all know that doesn’t happen without the big dog [Henson] pulling the chain on that. Well, he pulled the chain on me and my life hasn’t been the same since.”
Thomas, who was known as a teenager for being the newest Chicago basketball prodigy after leading Simeon to a City League title as a junior, will correct anybody who’ll listen that his situation growing up was anything but ideal. Despite being raised by grandmother, Bernice McGary, Thomas still credits three basketball people with creating a new life path for him and his family and Henson was part of that trio.
"I grew up on west side of Chicago in a (bad) situation. Really (bad) situation. My mom was a crackhead. I was already into some stuff I shouldn't have been doing. After all that, I was the first person in my family to go to college, let alone graduate,” Thomas said. “There's three people who changed the trajectory of my life and my family's future for generations. They saved my life. If it wasn't for Coach Henson, I don't know if I would be here today. That's just truth.”
Thomas is arguably the most acclaimed Illinois basketball player in school history as he still holds the Illini all-time scoring record with 2,129 points and is the program’s fourth all-time rebounder with 846. Thomas averaged 18 points per game over his career and a second-team All-Big Ten selection for three straight years (1992-94) after earning third-year honors as a freshman in 1991. He currently ranks second in school history in career blocks with 177. Thomas’ final two seasons at Illinois ended in the NCAA tournament and in three of the four seasons the Illini had winning records in the Big Ten Conference. In 2004, Thomas was elected to the Illini Men's Basketball All-Century Team. After being selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the 28th selection in the 1994 NBA draft, Thomas had a 14-year professional basketball career playing overseas. Thomas, who also does color analyst radio work for Fighting Illini basketball games, is part of the University of Illinois athletics development team with a primary focus on his hometown of Chicago as an associate director. Thomas daughter, Gabrielle, will be an Illini sophomore this fall, majoring in animal sciences with the goal of becoming a veterinarian.
“(Henson) saved my life and made the life for future generations of my family better,” Thomas said. “My family’s trajectory wasn’t about (going to college) and that has happened for many members of my family after me. That’s why my daughter is wrapped in orange and blue as we speak. I'll never be able to show him enough gratitude and appreciation for that. Thank God for Coach Bob Hambric at Simeon. Thank God for Jimmy Collins and thank God for Lou Henson."