He was just a teenage boy, a ninth-grader new to basketball but
already taller than most men, with hands as soft as flannel.
This was Kenny Thomas--a gentle, sober child who had gone to
church twice a week for as long as he could remember, who
towered over his teammates on the varsity, who one afternoon
came off the court and told his father that, God willing, he
wanted to play college ball. "I said to him, 'Work hard, listen
in school and don't get into trouble,'" Calvin Thomas says. "I
told him if he did that he would get what he wanted. Then when
all of that stuff happened, it was like, Guess what--it doesn't
work that way."
"That stuff" is a thing that often dashes hoop dreams: a
confrontation with the NCAA over an academic infraction. A
dispute erupted that last year threatened Thomas's freshman
season at New Mexico. He went to court to fight (and temporarily
win) it, but it looms over him even now.
In late August 1995 the NCAA ruled Thomas ineligible on the eve
of his enrollment at New Mexico, claiming he was one high school
core credit shy of the 13 credits required. At issue was the
Introduction to Physical Science class he had taken as a
freshman at El Paso Austin High, a course the NCAA considered
remedial and therefore not part of a core curriculum. Thomas
appealed, saying he had taken the class at counselors' direction
and that if the NCAA had notified him earlier, he would have
made up the class. The appeal was rejected. "I felt like I had
lost the one thing I knew how to do," Thomas says. "I didn't
know what I'd done so wrong. I just knew I couldn't play ball."
Calvin's fatherly advice suddenly rang false. Kenny had worked
hard. He had stayed out of trouble. An only child who was raised
on Army bases by his mother, Patricia, and Calvin, a sergeant,
Kenny was always big--"When he was three, he looked like he was
six," Calvin says--but he eschewed contact sports for stickball.
He also tagged along to watch Calvin compete in Army-organized
track and field meets; when the family moved to El Paso in 1988,
Kenny threw the javelin and put the shot for his middle school
November 15, 1996
It was when he began playing basketball in eighth grade that
Kenny found his true athletic love. He started spending summers
in Albuquerque so he could play for Flight, a team made up of
top high school players; it was there that he drew the attention
of New Mexico assistant coach Tony Benford.
The summer before his senior year, Thomas led Flight to the BCI
championship in Phoenix, one of the most prestigious amateur
tournaments in the country, and was named its MVP. Suddenly all
the big schools were interested--Georgetown, North Carolina,
Wake Forest. Feeling a new confidence and seeking more of a
challenge than he was getting in El Paso, Kenny transferred to
Albuquerque High. To help smooth the transfer, Calvin, who had
left the Army, rented an apartment in Albuquerque. Patricia,
working as a medical supplies technician, stayed in El Paso. "We
had to make sacrifices," says Patricia, "but it was for Kenny."
Father and son, meanwhile, lived the year in tight quarters. "We
had only one bed and we couldn't both sleep in it--he was too
big," says Calvin. "I slept on the floor."
Kenny, who that autumn rewarded New Mexico's longstanding
affection by signing with the Lobos, stood 6'9" and weighed 250
pounds. Around Albuquerque High he was known as a "baby Shaq"
who averaged 25.2 points and 16.9 rebounds per game while
leading Albuquerque to a state title. He did well enough
academically to graduate, and though he failed the ACT on his
first try, he studied hard and passed it at the end of the
Then in late August, in the midst of Thomas's excited
preparations for college, New Mexico coach Dave Bliss called to
tell him that he had been ruled ineligible. Kenny simply wept.
"He'd done everything right," says Calvin, "and now he couldn't
play. He was sitting around moping, not eating. I couldn't stand
So the Thomases went to court. They charged that the NCAA's
decision was causing irreparable harm to Kenny's education as
well as to his professional prospects. For three unnerving days
they sat in an Albuquerque courtroom filled with members of the
press and Lobos faithful. Finally, on Nov. 3, two weeks before
the team was set to open its season, Judge Daniel Schneider
decreed that the NCAA's ruling on Introduction to Physical
Science was not binding. Noting that Thomas was "a kid who never
quit....He busted his rear end to get it done," Schneider issued
a preliminary injunction that allowed Thomas to join the team.
Lobos fans have been building shrines to Schneider (a UNM law
school alumnus) ever since. Seemingly indomitable, the red-hot
Thomas averaged 14.7 points and 7.8 rebounds and shot 57.8% from
the floor last year. "He reminds me of Karl Malone," says Utah
coach Rick Majerus. "He's strong and finds lots of ways to score."
Thomas was the nucleus of a team that had the best record in New
Mexico history (28-5) and advanced to the second round of the
NCAA tournament for the first time in 22 years. "He made the
whole team better," says senior guard Charles Smith, Thomas's
roommate. "At first he was so distracted by the NCAA, he would
talk about it all the time. Now he hardly mentions it."
Yet the case didn't die that November day. One month after the
initial ruling, Schneider heard and denied the NCAA's motion for
reconsideration. Subsequent attempts at mediation have proved
fruitless; the NCAA could now ask for a final hearing, but
hasn't said if it will.
Such a hearing would not be held before next spring at the
earliest. So for now, Thomas remains--gratefully--a Lobo. "I
don't want to think about all that stuff anymore," he says
softly. "I just want to play."