Saturday, March 1, 2003

An outside shot


Big moment ends season of bad break

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When the hype of March Madness gets too crazy, remember Thomas Smith.

He's for real.

Every coach - every teacher, parent or boss, for that matter - wants a Thomas Smith on his team. He knows the pain of a bad break and the joy of a good one.

Thomas is a 14-year-old shooting guard on Princeton Junior High School's eighth-grade basketball team, the Vikings.

He only played two games this year, the first one of the season and the last one at home.

In between, he blew out his knee.

During a warm-up before the season's second game, Thomas thought he "landed funny." Then he realized his kneecap "looked like it was up on my thigh."

Thomas was primed to play that game. He had had a good season-opener.

"Twenty points, five rebounds, six assists," he recalled instantly while sitting at a table in the school's library with building principal Dr. Molly Moorhead and seventh-grade principal Michael Wilson.

Surgery repaired Thomas' knee. His leg stayed in a cast for two months.

Two days after his cast came off, the Vikings had their last home game of the season against Hamilton Garfield.

Coach Michael Anderson told Thomas to suit up. He was going to play. But only near the end, if the decision was not in doubt, no matter who was winning. Thomas would go in for a few seconds. And one shot.

Anderson had made a deal with Garfield's coach. Each team would go into a zone defense for one play and allow the opponent to take a wide-open shot at a three-pointer.

Thomas had worked hard for this moment. Before his injury, he always arrived early to practice and stayed late.

He also stayed out of trouble.

"In Springdale, where I live, people like to steal cars. I don't want to get involved with that or with drugs," he said.

"I'm going to make something of my life that my parents can be happy about."

Getting into trouble is for followers. That's not Thomas.

"My mother says: `Don't be a follower. Be a leader.' "

Another thing she tells him is: "Be polite." And he is.

Thomas practices his basketball moves by himself for hours after school.

"We have to tell him we're locking the doors to get him to stop," Wilson said. "And he always says, `Thank you.' "

After his injury, Thomas helped his teammates. Hobbling on crutches, he managed pre-game drills and cheered during the games. All the while, he thought his season was over.

A warm feeling

Thomas' last chance to play came on Feb. 4.

Twenty-two seconds left. Princeton ahead by 10.

In he went. A teammate passed him the ball. Thomas took aim. No dribble. No head fake. He just fired. And nailed it. A three-pointer.

Nothing but net.

"It felt real cold out there before I took the shot," he said.

Then everything got warm.

Maybe the heat came from the crowd's cheers.

I believe the warmth came from his heart. And the lesson he learned.

Thomas realizes tributes of this sort seldom happen in the world of sports where winning is everything.

He's well aware that last-second shots often fall short. The Garfield player, for instance, failed to make his wide-open attempt at a three-pointer.

Thomas now knows, after dealing with disappointment, how wonderful a good break can feel. He swears he'll return the favor someday.

Some might call that a lesson in sportsmanship. To me, he learned a lesson in life.

Call Cliff Radel at 768-8379; or e-mail: cradel@enquirer.com.




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