JUST FITTING IN THAT'S WHAT VILLANOVA FRESHMAN TIM THOMAS HAS TRIED TO DO ALL HIS LIFE, BUT HE IS SIMPLY TOO TALENTED TO BLEND INTO A CROWD

March 10, 1997

Two piping hot cups of coffee stood at attention before Tim
Thomas as he and his teammates from the Little Lads Basketball
Association ate breakfast together one morning at a Shoney's in
Trenton, N.J. It was the summer of '91, and Thomas, the least
little of the Lads, standing 6'6" at age 14, was the only one
who ordered java that day. "What the heck are you doing drinking
coffee?" asked his cousin Jimmy Salmon, who was also the team's
coach.

"I'm trying to stunt my growth," Thomas said.

"Are you nuts?" Salmon said.

Turned out that every morning since he was in seventh grade,
Thomas had been making a secret detour on his way to school to
stop at a Dunkin' Donuts two blocks from his home in Paterson,
N.J. There he would guzzle a big cup of joe, firmly believing
that was the best possible way to combat the forces of nature in
his bones. "I thought if I could just stop growing, then
eventually everyone else might catch up to me," says Thomas,
laughing at his own innocence. "I've always just wished I could
be a normal guy."

These days Thomas has kicked the coffee habit and is 6'9" and
happy for every inch he's got. He even hopes to grow another
inch or two, though after 29 games the Villanova freshman
forward is already the finest first-year player in the nation
and one of the best in any college class this season. Many
basketball scouts contend that had he followed through on his
highly publicized inclination to turn pro last spring, he could
have made an impact in the NBA this season. Instead, Thomas has
been averaging 16.5 points for a Villanova team that goes into
this week's Big East tournament with a 21-8 record and the No.
21 ranking in the AP poll. About the only thing at which he is
failing miserably is, well, being a normal guy. But he hasn't
stopped trying.

Start with his name: Timothy Mark Thomas. It's a standard issue
identity if there ever was one, yet Thomas has never embraced a
more colorful nickname. He's just plain Tim. Like a normal guy,
Thomas wears his uniform number, 3, in honor of a basketball
hero, in his case the late New Jersey Nets guard Drazen
Petrovic, who was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1993.
Like a normal guy, Thomas wears Air Jordans, and sometimes he
blackens out the first digit of Jordan's 23, leaving his own
number. Like a normal guy, he has admitted to harboring a crush
on a television star, Tatyana Ali, who played Will Smith's
cousin on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And like a normal guy,
Thomas got in trouble when his girlfriend, Natricia Jones, a
student at Georgetown, heard about it.

His desire to remain normal extended to the college recruiting
process. Thomas didn't make a single official campus visit
because he didn't want his head bloated by a legion of
sweet-talking coaches. Then when he did announce his college
decision last May, he did so in retro fashion. While Thomas's
friend, Kobe Bryant, called a huge press conference in his
suburban Philadelphia high school gym to inform the world that
he would skip college for the NBA, and another Thomas crony,
Shaheen Holloway, appeared live on a New York City cable
television station to announce his plans to attend Seton Hall,
Thomas turned down that same station's request and instead
merely invited three local newspaper reporters to his living
room. While his mother, Dorothy, cooked dinner in the kitchen,
he told them he was going to Villanova and then promptly wept at
the thought of leaving home.

Despite all his sincere efforts, Thomas appears doomed to
abnormalcy. His uniqueness is his burden.

A normal guy, after all, doesn't finish high school and think to
himself, Hmmm, what'll it be? Rutgers or the Raptors?

A normal guy doesn't have his high school coach ride his
coattails. Salmon, also Thomas's coach at Paterson Catholic
High, joined the Villanova coaching staff last August.

A normal guy doesn't have an off-to-college pool party thrown in
his honor by some guys in the neighborhood and have it turn into
an affair that includes a wet T-shirt contest and a celebrity
hoops game featuring the rap group Naughty by Nature.

A normal guy doesn't hang out with Scottie Pippen. Thomas and
Pippen met through a mutual acquaintance and shared a dinner
last May at Mickey Mantle's restaurant in New York City during
the Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks playoff series. They chatted
until 2 a.m., and then 11 hours later the Bulls suffered their
one loss to the Knicks, a defeat for which Thomas holds himself
partially responsible.

When Thomas visited the set of The Preacher's Wife, which
included scenes filmed in Paterson last spring, he was
introduced to Denzel Washington, who took the opportunity to ask
Thomas if he planned to enter the NBA draft. Alas, Washington
was the 67,259th person to broach that subject.

"It's been very hard to stay normal," Thomas admits. "I live in
this fishbowl, and people keep tabs on my every move. It's a
little unfair because I like to have fun and act goofy, like a
kid, every once in a while. But I'm afraid people will say,
'Look at Tim Thomas. What's wrong with him?'"

Villanova coach Steve Lappas began keeping tabs on Thomas at a
summer basketball camp just after Thomas had finished the ninth
grade. "I'm watching one game, and I hear all these oooohs and
aaaahs from another court," Lappas recalls. "I walked over to
watch and I thought, Who is this guy? Then somebody told me not
to mess with the kid because he was going to North Carolina."

Lappas recruited Thomas anyway, as did Villanova assistant Paul
Hewitt, who happens to be a longtime friend of Salmon's. It was
Salmon who advised Hewitt not to overwhelm Thomas with
salesmanship, so Hewitt limited his phone calls to no more than
one a week.

Villanova's pitch to Thomas was appealing. The team would
feature talented seniors like center Jason Lawson and point
guard Alvin Williams, so Thomas was convinced that as a Wildcat
he wouldn't have to be the Man, just a part of the team. In
other words, he could just be a normal guy. "I saw the pressure
Felipe Lopez was under at St. John's, trying to carry that team
on his shoulders, and I didn't want to go through that," says
Thomas, whose final list of schools also included Rutgers and
Seton Hall. "I wanted to be a freshman, not a savior."

Still, it has been hard for him to be a normal freshman. A 6'9"
small forward, Thomas plays like a chameleon, able to post up
inside on a smaller defender or to drive and stick the
three-pointer like a guard. He announced himself with 29 points
in his Big East debut against Providence on Jan. 11, and in one
stretch early in the season he sank 29 straight free throws. He
went into a bit of a slump toward the end of the regular season
but emerged from it last Saturday when he scored 24 points in an
84-74 win at Rutgers, despite the fact that Scarlet Knights fans
booed him unmercifully every time he touched the ball--because
he chose Villanova over their school.

It's not often that a team loses an All-America like Kerry
Kittles, who scored 25% of the Wildcats' points a year ago, and
looks just as strong the following season. But it should be
noted that had Thomas gone straight to the NBA, he might now be
playing for the New Jersey Nets, who very well might have taken
him ahead of Kittles with the eighth pick.

"Tim's come in and played great, and he's also fit right into
the family," says Williams, who admits that the media ask him
five questions about Thomas for every one about himself.
"There's no room for jealousy on this team because we know Tim
is a huge ingredient in our success."

Although Thomas's individual accomplishments have been
remarkable, Villanova as a team has been a conspicuous
disappointment this year. Expected to contend for a spot in the
Final Four as the season began, the Wildcats sputtered through
the regular season, going 12-6 in the mediocre Big East and
bottoming out with a miserable performance on national TV in a
93-56 loss at Kentucky on Feb. 9. All season, Thomas has
staunchly limited himself to a supporting role. "I told myself
from the start that I wouldn't try to score 50 points every
game, because we have so many good players here," he says. "The
season hasn't gone as well as we expected, but I still believe I
need to let the game come to me and allow Jason and Alvin to run
the show. It's their team."

However, if the Wildcats are to exorcise their recent NCAA
tournament demons, it might be necessary for Thomas to be more
assertive. In Villanova's disappointing first-round loss to Old
Dominion in the '95 NCAAs and to Louisville in the second round
last year, the Wildcats lacked quick, inventive players who
could create their own scoring chances. "When we needed a basket
last season we had to design a play to get a shot," Lappas says.
"Now we have the option to give Tim the ball and get out of his
way."

That is what had the coaches salivating when Thomas telephoned
Lappas's office on May 6 to confirm his college choice. After
Lappas hung up the phone, a rowdy celebration ensued among the
Wildcats' coaches, punctuated by Lappas's firing up a victory
cigar. But once the jubilation died down, a disquieting
awareness began to take hold in the room. Lappas turned
anxiously to his assistants and said, "Gosh, how long do you
think he'll stay?"

Most experts predicted he would turn pro after one season, but
Thomas claims that the only times he thinks about the NBA are
when he checks out Bryant's stats in the Los Angeles Lakers box
scores or during an occasional phone conversation with Pippen.
The Bulls forward has cautioned him about the rigors of the
nomadic life in the pros, and Salmon believes Pippen's counsel
could influence Thomas to remain at Villanova beyond this year.

Early in the season Thomas suffered a mild case of what Salmon
calls "freshmanitis." The 19-year-old spent four of his first
six college weekends at home in Paterson, a 90-minute drive from
campus. "He's just a kid, and at the beginning of the school
year he got homesick," his mother says. "But his entire outlook
improved on the day basketball season started."

He might still want to stay close to home for a while, though.
"If you really know Tim, you know he's into comfort, and he
hates change, and right now college is his clean, well-lighted
place," Salmon says. "Tim doesn't want to be a big celebrity or
a social misfit, just a regular guy. But maybe that's not
possible anymore."

Maybe it's about time for Tim Thomas to accept that he will
never be as normal as he would like. A normal guy just doesn't
have Scottie Pippen's beeper number.

COLOR PHOTO: LANE STEWART [Tim Thomas sitting in hinged box] COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SPURLOCK The versatile Thomas can dominate inside and shoot from long range, too. [Tim Thomas in game against University of Notre Dame]
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