Deon Thomas Returns To Hero's Welcome

Thirty former Illini basketball players have their jersey numbers hanging from the Assembly Hall rafters to commemorate their great achievements at Illinois. Deon Thomas was the latest to unfurl his banner in a public ceremony, doing so Sunday during halftime of the MSU game. Thomas is Illinois' all-time leading scorer, and his return was special to everyone in attendance.

Deon Thomas was a great basketball player at the University Of Illinois. He accumulated 2129 points over his four year career, giving him 177 points more than his closest pursuer Kiwane Garris. More than that, he is the third leading field goal percentage scorer with .601. And he is the Illini's all-time leader in blocked shots with 177.

What makes his story even more compelling was the adversity he had to overcome to play at Illinois. Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl involved him in a recruiting scandal that had long-term repercussions for all concerned. The innocent, sensitive Thomas was secretly tape recorded in a phone conversation with Pearl while still at Chicago Simeon High School, and his responses were sufficiently vague to open an NCAA investigation.

Deon sat out his first year waiting a resolution. When finally cleared to play, he showed an amazing consistency through the years 1991-1994. And he was as productive off the court, obtaining his degree and impressing everyone he met with his good heart and gentle demeanor. He did himself and his University proud.

Deon Thomas was listed as a 6'-9" post player, but in reality he is closer to 6'-7". And yet, with his patented post moves, long arms and soft touch, he was practically unstoppable. After a long career in pro ball overseas, he is now living and coaching in Florida.

"I coach a high school team at a university school in a suburb of Fort Lauderdale," Deon explains. "We finished 22-6, which is the first 20 win season for the high school. We also went to the regional finals, which is also a first."

Thomas hadn't been back to campus since 1994 as his pro career took precedence.

"It's been great to come back here and see the changes that have taken place at the University, with the campus and facilities and everything. The last time I was here was when I graduated. So it's been a long time. I would leave here in August and wouldn't be back until May or June and turn around and have to leave again in August."

Deon made up for lost time with his visit Sunday. Getting to walk out on the Assembly Hall floor again, smothered in affection from an appreciative sellout crowd, was a special moment.

"I almost got a little teary-eyed. I was trying to hold it back because I can't go out there crying. I think it's great. I think it's very important to honor the people who have come before. I think the other players would say the same thing, that they're honored the same as I am. To come back here and celebrate with the University, there's no words to really describe it."

He was asked to speak briefly to the Illini team prior to the game. It didn't help the Illini defeat the Spartans but will undoubtedly be helpful down the road.

"I tried to reiterate a thank you to the seniors because they've given a lot to help the University and to help the basketball program. And to go out there and do what they know how to do, play basketball.

"This is one of the most difficult conferences there is, so if they want this game for the seedings for the NCAA and Big 10 Tournament, they have to come out and fight. You have to take the things you want. You can't let these opportunities slip away."

Deon never won a Big 10 Championship at Illinois. He was asked if the scoring record made up for it.

"It was a good individual accolade, but I'd rather have the Big 10 title any day of the week. It's good to have the recognition, but I would have rather won."

He had an interesting response to whether he is surprised no one has broken his record. And he used the opportunity to stress the importance of getting an education.

"To be honest, no. I know a lot of great players come through here, but because of the dynamics of the way things are right now, they're leaving after one or two years. No one is really hanging around like they did when I was playing.

"So I hope a lot of these guys will take the opportunity to stay in college. That's very important, not just for basketball but to grow as men."

Thomas may not be surprised no one has broken his record, but that doesn't mean he isn't glad to still have it.

"Of course I am. But all records are meant to be broken. I hope someone comes in and breaks it because it will help him and the University."

He was not afforded many chances to keep up with his beloved Illini while playing overseas, but he is making up for lost time now.

"When I was overseas, not very much. When March Madness came around, they would have all those games on. Since I've been home now, I've gotten a chance with the Big 10 Network as well as they've had a lot of games on ESPN. So I've kept up a lot."

Deon Thomas may not have been back to campus for 15 years, but he knows his visits from now on will be more frequent.

"Hopefully, I can come back and help out during the football season. If the coach needs me, all he has to do is call."


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