LITTLE ITALY — The top scorer in the history of the University of Illinois is back home on the city's Near West Side.
Deon Thomas is entering his first season as an assistant coach for the UIC Flames. The Illini standout, who had a 14-year career playing for several professional hoops teams overseas, has returned to the area where he was raised and where he lived while he dominated the competition at Simeon Career Academy on the way to being named Mr. Basketball in 1989, the honor for the top prep player in the state.
"I grew up here," said Thomas, who lived near the intersection of 14th and Loomis streets — a few blocks from UIC's campus — in his formative years.
Justin Breen says Thomas isn't shy about wanting to move up in the NCAA coaching ranks:
"My life has taken me around the world, and to land my first Division I job right where I grew up, it's a story made for television," said Thomas, now 43 and living in Naperville with his wife and two children.
Thomas played for U. of I. in Urbana-Champaign from 1990-94 and remains the Illini's all-time leading scorer (2,129) and shot-blocker (177). While he never made it in the NBA, he played on six teams around the world before he retired in 2008.
He then considered going to law school, but he decided basketball was still in his blood, and spent five years as the men's head coach and athletic director at Lewis and Clark Community College in Downstate Godfrey.
Thomas said he jumped at the opportunity when the Flames' position opened in the spring, partly because the neighborhood near campus has transformed since he was a kid.
"When I was there, it looked like a city school in the middle of the city," Thomas said. "Now you get that college town kind of feel, and what I've seen is how much this campus and this school have changed, and it's tremendous."
Thomas said he's been given a variety of duties, from directing the Flames' post players to recruiting, especially within city limits. He's already visited several Chicago Public League schools, including Morgan Park High, Kenwood Academy and Hyde Park Academy. He's been to Simeon — arguably the state's best basketball program — three times.
Former Flames head coach Jimmy Collins, who as an assistant for the Illini in 1989 recruited Thomas to play at U. of I. amid controversy, said Thomas is a natural fit for UIC and the city.
"He'll do well in Chicago because he's a kind of person people are attracted to," said Collins, who's now retired and splits his time between homes in the South Loop and suburban Flossmoor.
"He's a person nobody dislikes in Chicago, and when I say nobody, I mean coaches," added Collins, who tried to coax Thomas to his staff when he coached the Flames from 1996-2010. "To recruit Chicago, you have to be loved and respected by Chicago. I think it's a good move for him and for the program."
While Thomas is at UIC, current Flames head coach Howard Moore said he'll take full advantage of Thomas' connections in the city and around the state. While coaches won't be recruiting potential Mr. Basketball winners — Thomas said the odds of the state's best player coming to UIC are "slim and none" — they will be seeking elite but lesser-known talent.
"We need to circle the CPS, getting a bead on the upcoming kids before they blow up nationally," said Moore, whose Flames finished 6-25 overall and 1-15 in the Horizon League last season.
But Thomas might not be at UIC for long.
He told his wife, Dafna, a former model from Israel he met while playing in Spain, that he'd like to become a Division I head coach within four years. Moore said that scenario certainly is possible.
"No doubt about it, I think in four years, I can see him as a head coach somewhere," Moore said. "He's working his way up the ladder. We're very blessed to have him on our staff. I am shocked other people didn't try to snatch him up. Deon has a strong hold in the history of Chicago basketball; now he's going to make his niche as a college coach."
Thomas said he appreciates the chance Moore has given him, but didn't deny interest in heading back Downstate.
"Of course I would like to coach at Illinois. I think it's a great place and a great opportunity. And here, you have Loyola, you have DePaul."
"But it's really just about being a head coach," Thomas said. "I think I have a lot to offer."
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