Basketball saved him from street violence when he was a 14-year old in Philadelphia, and the game has been part of his life ever since. After making history at the Panola Junior College by dropping 70 points in a single game, Omar Thomas carried UTEP to the Ncaa tournament in two consecutive seasons. He later became a basketball journeyman who played in the Philippines and Dominican Republic before coming to Italy, a country he fell in love with and where he ended up playing for 8 years. And now he pursues his dreams. One of them is about basketball, the other one has a lot to do with mozzarella and limoncello. Here’s what he told us about his career as a player, his new job at Southern Mississippi, Italian players in the Ncaa and his future.
You’ve been a professional basketball player for 12 years, and now you chose University of Southern Mississippi to start your new career. I read that you also talked to Tim Floyd, UTEP’s head coach, your alma mater. How and why did you end up in Southern Mississippi? Did coach Doc Sadler have anything to do with it?
I had talked to Tim Floyd of UTPE because I loved the opportunity to go back to my college. I think going back to the college you played for and take a coaching job there is a dream for many professional players. But then, a position opened at Southern Mississippi. Coach Sadler and I have been in touch in the 15 years since I left college. He attended my wedding and on several occasions we discussed the chance to start a career as a coach once I was done playing. So, when the position opened, he thought of me and I just took that opportunity. You don’t usually start as Director Of Basketball Operation, you need to climb up the ranks, but thanks to coach Sadler I could skip quite a few steps. It has been an incredible opportunity for me indeed.
Speaking of Coach Sadler. You played for him at UTEP and now you are a member of his staff. How has his vision of the game developed during the years? Which are the main elements of his philosophy?
Well, he is the same coach, as tough as he used to be. He has always had a great vision of the game, especially on the defensive side; although I was not a much of a defensive player at the time (he adds with a laugh). He is really great at developing game plans and with Xs and Os.
Sadler said that he is really happy to have you in his staff because of your great “energy, passion and enthusiasm”. Do you recognize yourself in this portrait?
(Omar smiles at these words) I was exactly that type of player, and these are the very same values I try to impart to my players. But now, in my new role, I must be a mentor to them, I must motivate them. So, even though my passion, energy and enthusiasm are still there, I am a different person from the one I used to be as a player. I was a tough player back in college, but now I have to teach to these kids how to read the game, to visualize it and understand it.
C-USA is a conference on the rise; last season you finished with a 7-11 record and upset Middle Tennessee in overtime in the conference tournament. Can you tell us something about that game? After such a great win, did you think you could reach the final and maybe enter the NCAA tournament?
This season we had a bunch of new players and you must understand that the NCAA is a difficult tournament. You need luck and a close and motivated group. It is not just about talented players, it is more about creating and developing real chemistry with the group. Throughout the season we were able to find this chemistry. That is why we knew we had a real chance against Middle Tennessee and we seized it (winning 71-68). But after that win, I must confess that as a team we ran out of gas. We were not ready to play four games in four nights. That’s why I think we didn’t have many chances against Marshall. I believe that at that point and with that team, we weren’t ready for the NCAA tournament. Next season our chances will be better as our players will be more conscious of what they are doing and hungry to match the results of last season. I am confident next year we’ll get to the NCAA tournament. Lets say that we used last season to be ready for the next one.
You lost your semifinal against Marshall but you fought hard and raced back from a 24-point deficit. Any regrets? Could you do something more?
Marshall had a very close group that has been together for 2 or 3 years now. Dan D’antoni (brother of Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni) built a powerful offensive team that is hard to contain. They won the conference championship for a reason. We cannot be upset about that game. It was our best season so far with Coach Sadler as a head coach (16 victories and 18 losses). That’s proof that we are on the right path and have to keep following it.
You played Giovanni De Nicolao’s UTSA twice last season, a player we have recently interviewed. What is your impression about him?
I actually know Giovanni’s brother very well. I played against him many times in Italy. When I met Giovanni I embraced him and he remembered who I was. He is not very athletic but he plays like a veteran. He is a very disciplined player and that’s what I like the most in young European players. The Italian junior leagues are not as competitive as it is here in the US. Playing in the US allows them to develop in a more structured way and to be more disciplined in their game. In Italy they have a greater team and game ethic, when they arrive here in the States they already own solid bases. This is what we are looking for. This is why I am trying to build bridges between Italy and the States, starting with the clubs where I played. I would like to recruit more Italian and European players and bring them here to play for us. I spent eight years in your county and I really appreciate your player’s style and game.
You played against Michigan in preaseason. What did you think of their team at the time? Could you have imagined they would reach the NCAA final?
Honestly, no. We almost won that game, although Michigan was certainly trying to build some chemistry at the beginning of the season, just like we were. When we played them, they weren’t even close to the level they played late in the season. Michigan freshmen and sophomores improved game after game and this had a positive effect on the team’s growth.
Let me ask you a tough question. After the FBI investigation, the NCAA model has been questioned and criticized. Changes might be coming soon. How would you change it?
It’s a tough question indeed. First, because it isn’t easy to understand where the money comes from and who actually payed the players. The NCAA is a business and there are many sponsors involved. It is not just a matter of basketball. I am happy that the FBI took this investigation so seriously. Sure, it will take years, but it’s never too late to start. I mean, this is the first step to clean up college basketball and I am glad it is happening now. It has been going on for too long and thanks to the FBI, now it has come to light.
Let’s go back to easier stuff and talk about your experience as a player. What can you tell us about those 70 points with the Panola Junior College?
Oh! At that time we used to play very fast, like Mike D’Antoni did in Phoenix. When I go back to that game, even now, I still cannot explain how I did it. At half time I already had something like 50 points. It was sensational! It was my freshman year at the Junior College and I immediately hit a record. And it was only the second highest as another guy had scored 87. Insane!
Even before that match your nickname was Black Jesus, can you explain us the story behind it?
Well, it happened in high school. I was playing against a guy they used to call “Black Jesus”. He had braids, I had braids; he was dark skin and I was dark skin. I crossed him over a couple of times and we eventually won the game. I don’t know what happened but I think they just took the nickname from him and gave it to me. But I carried it real well. I also got a tattoo.
In past interviews you often said you were a difficult kid while growing up. How did basketball help you with this regard?
Everybody knows the story of my father and my two brothers, about the jail and the charges for murder. If basketball hadn’t saved me when I was 14 years old, I would have certainly gone down the same path they did (OT spent three months in a boot camp for juvenile delinquents in Uvalde, Texas). I started playing in the school team and, the more I played, the more I fell in love with the game. My approach to basketball has been similar to the approach to a girlfriend, if you like. I think basketball taught me discipline and control, but for me it was more a gateway from the street: it helped me avoid the gunshots, the violence and the drugs in a city like Philadelphia and it kept me out of troubles. Instead of staying in the street, you know, I went playing and this saved my life.
When you got to UTEP in 2003, the program started to win and reached the NCAA Tournament in two consecutive years. You also won the MVP of your conference in 2005. Which are your greater memories of your college years?
My college years were amazing, he says laughing. My first year, as a junior, we won against Boise State twice and there I realized that we were a good team. That victory gave us great confidence. In my second year at UTEP, with coach Sandler as head coach (the previous year he was an assistant) we reached the NCAA tournament once again, but it was different. That first year had the excitement of watching Selection Sunday on TV to learn if we had made it. In 2005 we had won the conference so we had an automatic bid to the Tourney.
Tell us something about the Selection Sunday. What is like?
It depends on whether you already know if you are in or not. As I said, the second time we were certain to be in, but the first year nobody knew what would have happened. I remember we were all together following the show on TV and I had my heart pounding so fast I was scared I could have a heart attack. The whole community was rooting for us and it was truly special. We had the cameras and everybody was nervous to see whether our name would pop on the screen, from family members to the guy sat next to you, the coaching staff, or people you hardly know. It is impossible to describe those moments.
You had a tryout with the Seattle Supersonic, and then you joined the NBDL. Any regrets about the NBA?
Actually, no. Every kid dreams of playing in the NBA but I got my chances: I had a tryout with the Seattle Supersonic, a pre-draft camp in Chicago and I also played in the Development League for the Austin Toros (later rebranded as Austin Spurs). In Italy I played in the first and second league. No, I don’t have any regrets. I am happy with my career. When I was in Italy a few people said that “I tried to go back to the NBA”, while I was simply invited to some camps. At that point I didn’t see myself as an NBA player anymore. My life and career were in Europe: money was good and I had a family (my son was born in Avellino) and honestly I was happy there.
You arrived here in Italy thanks to Giampiero Ticchi. After your debut with the Rimini Crabs you played for various teams, including Avellino and Dinamo Sassari. Which is the greatest memory of our league? And which team do you feel more attached to?
The MVP award in 2011 with Avellino and the promotion to the 1st league with Brindisi in 2009. Brindisi is also the team I felt more attached to. There were only two Americans in the team and I got closer to guys like Michele “Micio” Cardinali, Mauro Pinton and Luca Infante. It was a special year as we lived together and we played together. I had also a special bond with our coach, Giovanni Perdichizzi, and his assistant, Agostino “Ago” Origlio. I’m still in touch with Luca and Mauro and Giovanni. He is an extraordinary human being and he is helping me with recruiting Italian players to bring here in the States.
In 2011 the National Commission of Judges of the FIP suspended you for 16 months, but eventually you came back to Italy despite this bad episode. What did you like the most about our League? Are you still following the Italian championship?
It was a question of comfort. The referees knew me, as well as the coaches and all the other players. Returning there simply looked better than change and go to another country. And despite the issue with the passport, anyone knew me as a person and I was sure there wouldn’t be any problem. That is why I decided to go back to Italy. I still follow the championship although I am very busy with my kids now. I try to stay updated and I follow in particular the American players who are there.
In the past, you openly said that your main goal is to become a head coach. What kind of head coach would you like to become? Is there any role model inspiring you?
Many coaches have never played, but I had the chance to do it at a high level. That gives me a very different perspective. Honestly, I’m trying to figure out which kind of coach I want to be. Usually you follow the footsteps of the coach you have learned from; but I’m not sure I can be as good as coach Sadler, especially with Xs and Os. I think I may be more of a motivational coach. I also thought I could become a tough coach like Bill Gillispie, but you know, that’s not me and I don’t think that style works nowadays.
Would you like to come back to Italy and coach here?
I heard that becoming a coach in Italy has become quite difficult. But, yes, I would like to come to Italy to coach…maybe for the Rimini Crabs!
In an interview, you also said that in your future, beyond a role as a head coach, you would like to open an Italian restaurant in the US. Is this project still valid?
Yes, yes, it is still valid! As soon as I find the way to have fresh mozzarella cheese and limoncello here in the US!
Have you found a good name already?
No, it will come to me when at the right time, but I will try to get some inspiration from the “la Mia Mamma” in Rimini next time I’ll be there…or maybe from a place in Brindisi. Lets see if I find the right name there!