THOMSON — As Thomson boys’ basketball coach Michael Thomas approaches 500 career wins, people who know him have stressed the importance of another number – 30.
For three decades, Thomas, 51, has contributed to Thomson High School and the community. A physical education teacher as well as a basketball coach, he is the longest-serving faculty member at the school.
After serving one year as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Jenkins County, Thomas became head coach at Thomson.
During his previous 29 seasons with the Bulldogs, he has accumulated 487 wins, eight region championships and two appearances in the final four of the Georgia High School Association playoffs.
“His success is not only in the number of wins,” said Marcus Allen, a former player. “His real success is being in Thomson with the basketball team for so long, bringing consistency, leadership and motivation to his players. That requires great success and persistence, and the amount of hours he’s had to put into that on a high school coach’s salary is amazing.”
For Thomas, the key is focusing on short-term goals for his team.
“In coaching, you’ve just got to get to the next game, the next play, the next practice,” he said. “The accumulation will take care of itself.”
His first opportunity to reach No. 500 is Tuesday when Thomson plays host to Harlem.
“I really hadn’t given it a lot of thought because there’s so much basketball to be played still,” Thomas said of the milestone. “There are so many games and practices, so many other steps that you have to focus on before any of that takes place.”
He says the mark shows how solid his team has been over the years.
“It is a testament to the longevity and success of a program,” he said. “When we’re blessed to reach that milestone, I’ll be happy and proud from that standpoint.”
Thomas said he is most proud of the camaraderie that develops among everyone involved in the program, from former players to current ones. Through conversations with other coaches across the state, he has learned that is not always the case.
“Oftentimes former players come back home for the holidays or the summer, and even though they may not know Ronkeem Sallywhite from Adam, because he plays Thomson basketball he’s one of the guys,” Thomas said. “There’s an instant connection that transcends just the game that’s on the floor.”
Every player from the 1982-83 season should feel just as much a part of the accomplishment as players from the current season, he said.
Because of the positive experience Thomas provides as a coach, many of his former players return to volunteer their time. Others offer monetary donations to the basketball program to help players attend camp or buy tennis shoes.
Though Allen no longer plays basketball or lives in Thomson, he still applies the lessons he learned while playing for Thomas.
“Some of the principles that coach Thomas taught me 20-something years ago still hold true today,” he said. “The first thing he focused on was character building. It was critical for me in terms of my success and understanding what was expected of me first as a man, then as a student and then as an athlete.”
Allen played power forward and center during his junior and senior seasons at Thomson, starting in 1988. He remained on the bench for the entire first year but became one of the team’s leading scorers his senior year.
He said Thomas was instrumental in his college plans. Before his senior season, Thomas spoke with his friend Ron Spry, then the athletic director and head basketball coach at Paine College.
Allen went on to play for three years at Paine, where he is one of only two players to have his jersey retired, and spent seven years playing professionally in Europe.
He and Thomas remained in contact throughout his basketball career.
“Both (he and Spry) continue to be mentors in my life from a professional level and a spiritual level,” Allen said.
Thomas also continues to mentor former player Cordaro Crawford, who serves as a Thomson basketball assistant coach along with LaTerrance Casey, yet another former player.
Crawford is also the head coach of the junior varsity boys’ basketball team. He played basketball for the Bulldogs’ from 2003-05 for his junior and senior seasons. During his senior year, the team won the region title.
“When I was playing, I always understood the game, but he helped me understand it more in different situations,” Crawford said. “He helped me formulate my vision to want to become a coach.”
When Thomas teaches his players about basketball, he emphasizes self-discipline, concentration and hard work, traits which have contributed to his success as a coach, Crawford said.
Though reaching 500 wins is commendable, he said Thomas has high aspirations for this year’s team, which has a 12-1 record.
“I think he’s downplaying it because the team we have this year could do special things,” Crawford said. “He doesn’t want this season to be about his 500 wins. He doesn’t want the spotlight on him; he wants it on his players.”
Antonio Coleman, a senior at Thomson, said he is honored to play for Thomas in a year that is significant for the program.
“It’s a reward to play on this team,” he said. “Most people won’t ever get to be on a team like this. As I’ve grown up I always wanted to play for Thomson, so it’s kind of like a dream.”
Allen said many of Thomas’ successes are off the court, like his fundraising efforts to provide the program with much-needed resources and the influence he has as a role model for his players.
“He’s smart and talented,” Allen said. “He could do so many other things, but he chooses to make an impact on those kids’ lives.
“Once he’s gone, you’re not going to get another Michael Thomas to coach that basketball team.”
Though Thomas is eligible for retirement, the thought has never crossed his mind.
“I’ll be here as long as the good Lord wants me to be here,” he said.