Nets inspired by Thomas , Former Jayhawk journeyman carving niche in NBA

By Dave D'Alessandro - Newark Star-Ledger , Tuesday, February 1, 2005

This is the side of the business you rarely hear about, because it has no impact on the machinery of the star-driven vehicle that is the NBA, where hundreds of men such as Billy Thomas have come and gone without anyone marking the occasion with more than a line in the transactions section of the local newspaper.

The average fan might regard the New Jersey Nets' swingman from Shreveport, La., and Kansas University as irrelevant, but the Nets would disagree.   Thomas has made a team, pulled in a paycheck, helped win a game and earned the respect of everyone in the locker room.

In short, Thomas fulfilled his life's destiny in just one week, and everyone -- even stars of the highest magnitude -- have learned something from the eloquence of his example.  "Just listening to Billy's story, it's one of the things I'm able to tell my campers: that not all players make it like I did," Vince Carter said after Thomas buried Golden State in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.

"I was fortunate to get drafted and have a career in this league, but there are some people who go a round-about way, and it takes them years and years to get in. Kids don't understand that. But he's finally made it. You can see his desire. His perseverance. It's unreal."  Thomas' story is not uncommon, but you don't find many 29-year-old rookies in the NBA. His professional odyssey has taken him through three continents, three minor leagues, and four NBA camps.

It's an alphabet soup existence: There were two stints with the Kansas Cagerz of the USBL, Regatas San Nicholas in Argentina (two years), the Cincinnati Stuff of the IBL (2000-01), Tanduay Rhum Masters in the Philippines (2001), the Greenville Groove of the NBDL (2001-02), Pallacanestro Trieste of the Italian A-league (2003-04) and, finally, the Dakota Wizards of the CBA -- where he got the call he had been waiting for his entire life nearly two weeks ago.

"I'm on Cloud 9, 10 and 11," Thomas said. "It's unbelievable: I'm in wonderful spot with good-character guys who have done nothing but encouraged me."  Jason Kidd calls him "Off the Street Billy," because just 24 hours after he arrived in New Jersey, Lawrence Frank threw him into the Boston game. The rock-solid 6-5, 220-pounder had an 11-minute cameo in Phoenix, followed by a solid game at Sacramento (12 points, three steals).

Then came Golden State. He destroyed the Warriors, going off for 12 points in 18 minutes, shackling Jason Richardson, and busting open a six-point game by scoring seven unanswered points early in the fourth quarter including a corner three, and a breakaway slam off a steal by his former backcourtmate at Kansas University, Jacque Vaughn.

"I remember a shot against UCLA at the Allen Fieldhouse from the same spot -- the left corner -- that Jacque assisted on," Thomas said. "Immediately, that flashed back to me. Every time he's passed it to me, that always seems to be what I remember."  Vaughn and Thomas worked out together last summer. "He kept believing this opportunity was going to come," Vaughn said. "I told him if he kept working at it, good things would come. I really believed that. He deserves good things to happen to him."