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ONE YEAR AND THEN...? VILLANOVA PHENOM TIM THOMAS GIVES IT THE OLD COLLEGE TRY, BUT THE CALL OF THE NBA IS NEVER OUT OF EARSHOT

Nov. 15, 1996
Nov. 15, 1996

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Nov. 15, 1996

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ONE YEAR AND THEN...? VILLANOVA PHENOM TIM THOMAS GIVES IT THE OLD COLLEGE TRY, BUT THE CALL OF THE NBA IS NEVER OUT OF EARSHOT

The handlers of his nascent college basketball career sit in
their Villanova offices pleading for patience, offering a dose
of perspective. They ruminate about the folly of freshman hype,
and they tell cautionary tales, gravely invoking the names of
other sure things who became teenage busts.

This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1996 issue

Then, a few hours later, 6'10", 235-pound Tim Thomas ambles onto
the deep-brown varnished floor at old Jake Nevin Field House, a
grand little throwback of a gym on campus. It's a humid
September afternoon, just the second day of pickup games among
Thomas and his new teammates. And soon something is unmistakably
clear: Thomas, a prodigal talent, is headed for stardom no
matter how much the Wildcats' staff tries to tourniquet the
gushing expectations.

Moments into the game, Thomas takes the ball on the left low
post, pounds down one dribble and spins by fellow freshman Malik
Allen. With one step Thomas is airborne; 6'11" senior center
Jason Lawson slides over and plants himself between Thomas and
the rim. With his arms raised to their full height, Lawson has
effectively made himself a 91/2-foot roadblock. Not that it
matters. Thomas is still floating, floating from left to right
across the lane, and his head seems nearly even with the rim. In
the same split second that Lawson plants, Thomas switches the
ball from his left to his right hand, reaches out and slides a
finger roll over Lawson's outstretched fingertips. The ball
nuzzles into the net. Thomas falls to earth. His face is
expressionless as he lopes back downcourt. "It's like he's on
cruise control," senior guard Alvin Williams says.

"I tell people he shoots like a 2-guard, rebounds like a power
forward, runs the floor like a small forward and blocks shots
like a center," says Jimmy Salmon, Thomas's cousin and his high
school coach at Paterson (N.J.) Catholic High. "And I've been
Tim Thomas's biggest critic for four years."

Asked if Thomas is also adept at distributing the ball,
Villanova coach Steve Lappas nods enthusiastically. Asked if the
freshman's outside shot is as good as advertised, Lappas purrs,
"Oh, yeah."

But Lappas is a worrier. In his next breath, he screws up his
face and says, "But Tim doesn't have to be the Guy here. As I
told Tim's mother, 'If you send your son to Villanova, he won't
have to be the something. He can be a part of something.'" That
about-face is abrupt, like lifting a phonograph needle off a
spinning record. Thanks to Thomas and a fine senior nucleus,
Villanova will enter the season with a Top 10 ranking. Despite
the graduation of All-America guard Kerry Kittles, the Wildcats
could contend for the national championship this year.

Privately, however, Lappas fears that this could be a season
pockmarked by internal team tensions and chemistry-sapping
jealousies. In deference to his upperclassmen, Lappas made
Thomas and the team's three other freshman players off-limits to
the media until practice started on Oct. 15. That won't stop the
inquiries into whether Thomas will stay at Villanova beyond this
year. The better Thomas plays, the more the NBA speculation will
rage.

The McDonald's All-America dragged out his decision to attend
the school until just days before the May 12 deadline to enter
the NBA draft. When he finally committed to Villanova, Thomas,
who had been told that he would have been selected anywhere from
seventh to 15th in the June draft, said, "As soon as I feel
ready to come out, I'll come out." Two high school seniors--Kobe
Bryant, a 6'6" guard from Lower Merion, Pa., and Jermaine
O'Neal, a 6'11" forward from Columbia, S.C.--threw their names
into the pro hat and were drafted. (The Charlotte Hornets
grabbed Bryant at No. 13, and the Portland Trail Blazers
snatched O'Neal with the 17th pick.) "What do you do with a kid
like Tim Thomas? Decide not to recruit him? C'mon," Lappas says.
"I wouldn't have taken Tim if he told me he was coming for just
one year. But you can't tell kids that. No kids would come. And
Tim didn't give me a time frame of how long he'll stay because
he doesn't want to lie."

In late August the Wildcats announced that they had hired Salmon
as the team's restricted-earnings coach. Rivals griped that
Thomas and his 32-year-old cousin had been a package deal and
that Salmon had played the recruiting process like a first-chair
violinist. But Salmon has a quiver of responses ready. Sitting
behind his desk in his windowless office, he leans forward and
says, "Look, if Tim had wanted something, he would have gone
pro. If I had wanted something, I could have just said, 'Tim, go
pro. Make the sure money. And remember Cousin Jim.' I mean, if I
was trying to get anything, why go for just a little bit? I'm
barely making $40,000 a year here. I don't pretend I'm the most
righteous man in the world. But I wouldn't have taken a dummy
job just to be Tim's caretaker."

This is the backdrop against which Thomas begins his career at
Villanova. Still, as if a grace note has been struck, Thomas
seems acutely aware of the pitfalls of being a basketball star.
He insists that he's sincerely interested in getting a college
degree, not just a fly-by-night experience. Seton Hall freshman
guard Shaheen Holloway thinks there's yet another reason Thomas
didn't go pro. "I honestly think Tim just wants to be a kid
again," says Holloway, Thomas's close friend and one of the
top-rated freshmen in the country. "He never really got to be a
kid."

Thomas, a two-time New Jersey player of the year, has been in
the basketball spotlight since he was a 6'6" eighth-grader. But
by all accounts he's a laid-back sort. He ended the most
celebrated recruiting saga in state history simply by summoning
three local reporters to his family's home in Paterson. His
mother, Dorothy, had cooked a turkey, and a small party was
already under way. When asked why the occasion was kept so
low-key, Thomas said, "That's just me. I've been on TV enough."

Though Thomas was thought to be leaning toward college, no one
was sure what his choice was until the announcement. He didn't
make any official visits to the five schools on his final
list--Kentucky, North Carolina, Rutgers, Seton Hall and
Villanova--although he did spend time on his own at the three
campuses within easy driving distance of his home. Access to
Thomas was tight. At Salmon's urging, Thomas did no television
and few print interviews during his first three years of high
school. By January of Thomas's senior year, Salmon had cut
interviews back to a mere trickle. "I didn't think Tim's
personal business needed to be out there play-by-play," Salmon
explains. "I'm just not comfortable with high school kids' being
celebrities and role models when they haven't even established
their own characters."

Unlike many young players, Thomas recognized that going pro
prematurely could mean the difference between a three-year
career and a 15-year career. To protect his options, Thomas did
rigorous SAT prep work from September to May of his junior year.
Sometimes he griped about the 7 a.m. sessions, but he also made
the qualifying score on his first try. "I feel too good," he
said upon learning he had surpassed the 700 minimum score. "I
looked at [the score] and looked at it, and I felt like I hit
the lottery."

When it came time to decide, Thomas chose college and picked
Villanova, just a 90-minute drive from Paterson. Though he made
the commute home on his very first weekend at school, after the
first few weeks of classes Thomas was telling friends that he
was "psyched" about college life, particularly his philosophy
of education course. But he has also said that he would have
gone pro if he'd been told he would be a top 5 pick. That
benchmark will probably be his standard again next spring.

All the same, most coaches would kill for a recruit like Thomas,
for however long they could have him. "I'd rather coach Tim than
have to coach against him," Lappas says. "To me, you have to
look at it like you'll do the best job you can with a guy for as
long as you have him around." And then, against all odds, you
have to hope your freshman phenom plays like a man but still
aches to be a kid. At least long enough to return as a wizened
sophomore.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [Tim Thomas]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS The multitalented Thomas has quickly impressed teammates.[Tim Thomas]