People were very much aware of the talents Eric Thomas had developed on the basketball court well before he ever enrolled in high school.
The question was never if he would be successful, but where.
He was born and raised in the Rio Mesa High attendance area, but many doubted he would ever attend school there.
He had traveled too much, seen too much and met too many people. Surely one of those coaches from the summer all-star teams he played on would cart his skinny bones off to play somewhere like Mater Dei, or, at the very least, Santa Clara.
There was much speculation. None of it, however, was instigated by the player or his family.
“Rio Mesa is where I wanted to be,” Thomas said.
Even so, he couldn’t resist playing an innocent little prank to set his skeptics off one last time before he officially enrolled.
So Thomas showed up at a Rio Mesa summer league game wearing a bright red Mater Dei warmup jacket. There are those who say Spartan Coach Steve Wulf had a full head of hair before he spotted his prospective star strolling through the gym that afternoon. Not anymore.
Wulf can laugh about such things now, but back then the thought of Thomas wearing Mater Dei colors--or that of any other team--made him see red.
“People who knew him said there was no question, but with my insecurities, I didn’t know whether he would come here or not,” Wulf said.
Truth be told, the notion of playing for one of the nation’s top high school teams very much appealed to Thomas, who was on several youth teams with Mater Dei players. He had received the Mater Dei jacket as a gift from one of his friends.
“They kind of tried to encourage me to come down and play at Mater Dei,” Thomas said. “They said I could stay at their house and things like that. But my parents wanted me to stay at home.”
And for that matter, so did Thomas.
“All my friends, everyone I grew up with, they all went to Rio Mesa so I thought that would be the best place for me to be,” he said.
There was still another important decision to be made, however. Should this 6-4, 15-year-old weed play on the varsity?
Thomas’ physique indicated otherwise. But his playing ability didn’t leave Wulf much choice. He not only made the squad, he was in the starting lineup when Rio Mesa opened last season against perennial power St. Bernard’s.
Half the result was predictable: Rio Mesa lost. And Thomas scored 32 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d play against guys from the inner city and some of the bigger, stronger teams, but after that I didn’t have any doubts,” Thomas said.
Last season also ended on a high note. Thomas averaged 18.8 points a game and became the first player ever to earn first-team All-Channel League honors as a freshman.
No one could have predicted the ease with which Thomas adapted from junior high to varsity competition. Not even Thomas himself.
Wulf didn’t even try to disguise his surprise. “It was a total shock,” he said. “I had no clue what he could do. I had no expectation he would do so well.”
A year later, however, the expectations are there. And more.
Thomas is 6-6 and a year older. He is also wiser. But so are his opponents.
“People are more aware,” Thomas said. “I get a lot of attention.”
And not only on the court. A sizable amount of mail from college recruiters makes its way to Thomas, who carries the burden of Rio Mesa’s playoff hopes squarely on his bony shoulders.
So much adulation at such an early age has Thomas’ parents scrambling to make sure his hat size stays proportionate to his body mass.
“We try to keep things in proper perspective,” said Donna Thomas, Eric’s mother. “He’s just an ordinary kid. He still has to take out the trash and I still fuss at him when he forgets. I just tell him to be thankful for this God-given talent and that it’s up to him to develop it.”
He certainly seems to be trying.
Last summer, Thomas played basketball on one team or another virtually every day. If it wasn’t for Rio Mesa’s own summer team, it was for an American Roundball Corp. all-star team.
“You reap what you sow,” Thomas said. “I’ve put in a lot of hours and given up a lot and sacrificed a lot that other kids my age haven’t.”
And the work is just beginning if Thomas expects to attain his goal of playing major college basketball. Height can carry a curse--even for a basketball player.
For most of his career, Thomas has played with his back to the basket. You can afford to do that when you’re a six-foot sixth-grader, but not when you’re playing in the Channel League and, hopefully, beyond.
“Before, he could just step in there and they could throw him the ball,” Wulf said. “Now he has to work to get open and he doesn’t always do that.”
Physicians have estimated that Thomas may grow to be 6-10, but he’s not taking any chances. He knows he may not always be able to post up smaller opponents. Especially if he doesn’t gain some weight and strength.
“Six-six, 175 just isn’t going to cut it,” he said. “That’s the one thing that’s hurting my game right now. As soon as the season is over I’m going to really hit the weights hard.”
Coach Jack Dyck of Beverly Hills said muscle is the only element missing from Thomas’ game.
“If we had a big kid, we just would have beat on him,” said Dyck after his team held Thomas to nine points and four rebounds in a game Monday. “He’s too thin. That’s the only criticism I have of him right now and it’s hard for me to even be critical of that because he’s only a 10th-grader.
“If he improves his upper body size, he’s a Division I, big-time player.”
In self-analysis, Thomas listed the improvement of his perimeter shooting and ballhandling as another high priority.
“I’m working hard to develop my outside game,” he said.
This season, Thomas is the team leader in rebounds with an average of 7.3 a game, but he has also made 5 of 7 three-point shots.
Wulf, who is in his fourth season as coach, said Thomas is still a better player with his back to the basket, but he’s forcing him outside for his own good.
“I want him to be successful when he leaves here and to be successful he’s going to have to learn how to play outside,” Wulf said. “Unless he gets bigger, that’s where he’s going to have to play.”
Donna Thomas’ concerns are a bit more basic for her son, the young basketball phenom. “More than anything else, I just want him to stay a nice kid,” she said.