Feb. 14, 2008
Stacey Thomas did not have to travel far to receive the type of college experience she was looking for. A native of Flint, Mich., long a hotbed for talented basketball recruits, Thomas was simply interested in attending a university that offered a highly regarded business school and a basketball program where she could be comfortable around the coaching staff and make an immediate impact on the court.
Despite Thomas and her family getting to know members of the various postal and delivery services with the daily volume of letters she received from schools nationwide, Michigan met all of her conditions and was soon her first official recruiting visit.
As it turns out, Thomas only need one recruiting trip for her to know where she wanted to go to school. How could a process, which filled her mailbox daily with letters from several interested coaches around the country, have been simple enough to conclude from just one visit to a school located one hour from home?
Skeptical parents Charles and Norries thought it was too easy.
"I had my mind made up, but my parents advised me that it would be a good opportunity to make comparisons and be sure of my decision," Thomas said. "I liked the campus, the facilities, the coaches, and my future teammates, but it's ironic because I also ended up taking one other visit to Michigan State."
Thomas ventured to East Lansing and to her surprise, enjoyed the visit and became comfortable with the coaching staff, in particular assistant coach Sue Guevara.
But despite her personal connection with Guevara, Thomas elected to stick with her gut and signed her letter of intent to play for the Wolverines. However, shortly thereafter, Michigan opted for a change in leadership and dismissed the coaching staff that had just landed the talented Thomas.
The high school all-star now had no idea what the future would hold, but all concerns were laid to rest when Guevara was hired away from Michigan State to lead the Wolverines.
"Everything worked out because I had already developed a relationship with her," Thomas said. "The rest was history."
Thomas made an immediate impact in her first season in Ann Arbor, averaging 12.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.9 assists per game. For her efforts, Thomas was named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in 1997, as well as honorable-mention All-Conference and a member of the league's All-Freshman Team.
Being named the Big Ten's top freshman is still an honor that remains quite memorable for Thomas.
"I can still remember how I called my parents as soon as I found out," she said. "I was so excited and overjoyed, I ended up leaving a message that they kept for many months until it somehow was erased. This was a special award because it reflected all of the hard work, mentally and physically, that I put in during the beginning stages of my collegiate career."
Her sophomore season resulted in more accolades as Thomas helped lead the Wolverines to the 1998 NCAA Tournament. An All-Big Ten selection by the coaches, Thomas ranked first in the conference in steals with an average of 3.1 per game. She also boasted averages of 11.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists per outing.
But for Thomas, who admitted to being obsessed with having a balanced stat line by contributing in all different aspects of the game, the one category that was most important to her was steals.
"It was important to be productive on both ends, but defense was definitely a priority," she said. "Playing defense is something that you just simply must desire in order to be good at it. You have to want to defend the best player on the other team. You have to be willing to communicate and work with your teammates as a unit. You have to know that playing great defense is a sacrifice, but it's also an opportunity for exciting plays to occur and it has the ability to alter the momentum of any game."
Thomas' defensive mindset led to two more seasons of leading the conference in steals. She averaged 3.7 steals per contest her junior season and 3.4 as a senior in 2000. In addition, the two-time captain averaged nearly 15 points, eight rebounds and two assists in each of the two years and was a unanimous All-Big Ten pick in both seasons as well.
During the 1999-2000 campaign, Thomas broke the conference's all-time steals mark with 372 career swipes - a moment she cites as her favorite in her basketball career. She guided the Wolverines to a 22-8 record, including 13-3 in the Big Ten, which tied for second. Following the regular season, Thomas was picked as the league's first-ever Defensive Player of the Year, as well as a Kodak All-America honorable mention.
She concluded her career accomplishing what she looked to do in every game. Fill out the stat sheet. Thomas finished her time in Ann Arbor averaging 13.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.2 steals and 1.9 assists per game. In addition to ranking first in school history in steals, Thomas still ranks second in total rebounds (851), fourth with her 7.4 rebounding average, fifth in points (1,556), sixth in blocks (80) and eighth in games played (115).
"I like to know that I made a contribution in every area possible for the success of my team and teammates," she said. "Being able to steal the ball away from my opponent has always been an undertaking of mine."
After graduating with a degree in business administration, Thomas was drafted in 2000 by the WNBA's Portland Fire in the second round with the 23rd overall pick. One of six Wolverines to be drafted by a WNBA team, Thomas played three seasons for the expansion team before it folded and was then shipped to Arizona for a stint with the Phoenix Mercury. After playing 19 games in Arizona, Thomas was traded to the Detroit Shock for the final 11 games of the 2003 season.
"I couldn't have been happier because I was coming home," Thomas said. "And at the time, the Shock was playing well and had one of the best records in the league. I fit right in with their style of play and I knew just about everybody on the team already. We ended up winning the WNBA Championship that season and I was overjoyed to be able to share it with my family and friends."
Thomas would play one more full season with the Shock before being traded to Minnesota, continuing her carousel ride in the league.
"Yes, you move around and would rather stay in one place, but the bottom line is you are playing a sport you love to play," she said. "Change is good and it has helped me evolve and grow as a person and an athlete."
Thomas has continued to move around and experience change overseas where she has continued her professional career. She is currently playing in Latvia, but has played in Sweden and Turkey and visited a number of places including Spain, Puerto Rico, Poland, Belarus, Mexico, Hawaii, London, Hungary, Lithuania and Germany.
With language barriers common and American luxuries almost non-existent overseas, Thomas remains humbled that she had the opportunity to continue playing the game she loves. She is hopeful that her body will hold up for four or five more seasons, but looks forward to continuing a life in basketball following her retirement. When she has been back home in Michigan between seasons, Thomas has served in a variety of roles including director of women's basketball operations at Northwestern, assistant coach at Central Connecticut State, and even as a registered basketball official in her home state.
Regardless of what the future has in store for Thomas, she will long be revered as a player who excelled on both ends of the basketball court. She took pride in being an all-around player, one who could score on you just as easy as she could steal the ball from your top player. She was the minority in the basketball world for aspiring to "get down and dirty by playing great defense," however, she is also honored by representing Michigan as another type of minority.
"I am definitely proud and honored to have been selected by Michigan as the female representative for the Big Ten's Black History Month campaign," she said. "It feels good to know that the way you carry yourself and all of the efforts you put forth in the past and present day are still being recognized. I hope that this recognition will inspire young African-American women, and any women for that matter, to dream big and go after their dreams."
Thomas' dream was to earn a degree in business while making an impact on a basketball program.
After all those letters delivered to Flint, Mich., from schools nationwide, who would of thought that her dream would come true at a school just one hour from home.
"I think back even now and smile about all the good times I was able to experience while being a student-athlete at Michigan," she said. "It felt good when the kids would run up to you after a home game and want you to sign an autograph. Representing Michigan and having the opportunity to be a role model was always special to me."