The first time I saw Carl Thomas I was announcing Western Michigan University basketball games for a radio station in Kalamazoo.
It was the winter of 1989 and I was courtside at Bowen Fieldhouse in Ypsilanti for a Mid-American Conference matchup between Western’s Broncos and Carl Thomas’ Eastern Michigan Hurons. (They hadn’t changed their name to the Eagles yet.)
During the game a loose ball flew in my direction – and shortly after that Carl Thomas flew in my direction as well. Although no damage was done to myself, my partner or our equipment and the ball went out of bounds anyway, I remember watching Carl clap his hands and trot back onto the court, only seconds after careening out of bounds to try and save the ball.
I remember thinking to myself, ‘man, that guy hustles’ and I made note of it on the radio.
I recalled this incident the other day when speaking to the new men’s basketball coach at Jackson College. When he offered a little of his background in basketball, he mentioned his time at Eastern Michigan, and I laughed and said ‘oh, you’re THAT Carl Thomas!”
Indeed he is.
It was no wonder then that, when I asked him what he wants his Jackson Jet teams to be known for, he offered this: “Effort and toughness. At the end of the game, whether we’re fortunate enough to win or if we lose, I want other teams to look at us and say that we played hard, that we gave maximum effort and that we didn’t take a single possession off.”
It was that same attitude that carried Thomas during his long playing career, including multiple stints in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic.
“I wasn’t the greatest basketball player on the planet,” Thomas said. “But I knew that- and I worked as hard as I could to keep playing the game that I loved. I grew up in a basketball family and my dad taught me the value of working harder than the next guy. I wasn’t going to get there on just talent and I never would have lasted as long as I did.”
During his playing career- which included stints overseas – Thomas learned from some of the sharpest minds in basketball, including Mike Fratello (longtime coach of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and NBC Televisions ‘Czar of the Telestrator’ for his on-camera analysis; Former Sacramento Kings coach Dick Matta; Current Akron coach Keith Dambrot and longtime Eastern Michigan coach Ben Braun. He also taught a coaching class at Eastern for six years, so he knows a thing or two.
“My background is so diverse, but it’s rooted in basketball,” Thomas said. “I’ve always wanted the opportunity to work my program and test it against others to see how we measure up and I’m excited to move forward.”
Part of moving forward is getting to know the Jets current players and becoming a fixture on campus.
“It’s been pretty crazy so far getting settled in,” Thomas said. “I’ve been spending a lot of time on campus and in study tables with the guys, making sure everyone’s doing what they should be doing. Eventually I want to get out into the community more. I know we’re Jackson College now, and not Community College, but we’re the Jackson Jets and it’s important that I integrate myself into the Jackson community.”
He mentioned several incoming players to this years’ roster with local ties, including Trevor Perkin (Hanover-Horton), Kyle Godfrey (Jonesville), Alex Potter (Lumen Christi) and Marques Mondy (Jackson High.)
“I always want to have an eye on local players and Jackson area talent,” Thomas said. “But we need to go outside the area, as well. I expect to spend time reaching out to kids in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing.”
Yep, THAT Carl Thomas – the one who helped lead Eastern Michigan (alongside his twin brother Charles) to one of the best seasons in school history. The one who spent years hustling in the NBA and overseas. And the one who jumped into an assistant coaches’ role barely a year removed from his playing days because he couldn’t imagine not being around basketball.
Thomas’ father played basketball for the Jets – back in the ‘glory days’ – and Carl’s excited to shape the next generation.
“I know people remember when (Michigan State grad and NBA All-Star) Kevin Willis played at Jackson and (former Pistons coach) Dick Versace coached there,” Carl said. “But my dad’s teams just before that were some of the best in the country. It would be incredible to get us back to that level again.”
Carl Thomas wants his Jackson Jets to be known for effort and toughness and for never taking a possession off. If he coaches the way he played, that won’t be a problem.
It’s an exciting time for the Jackson Jets men’s basketball team, because ‘man, that guy hustles.’ I know, because I’ve seen it up close. Soon, the Jets’ competition will, too.