Feb. 6, 2003
by Ken Kleppel
Placed high upon a national pedestal as the program’s current poster-boy with his defining style and swagger, sophomore Chris Thomas refuses to blink or even budge.
He withstands attention from the media and fans alike, and remains firmly rooted in his conviction as a person and as a student-athlete.
“I chose Notre Dame because I wanted to be different,” says Thomas.
“I just wanted to be myself.”
Time and again he meets the rigorous demands of college athletics and exceeds expectations, but through it all he somehow manages to keep that simple promise to himself.
And in so doing, fulfills an even greater obligation to his family-to simply play the game.
From Thomas’ days as a six-year old in the Rhodius Basketball League to his four years at Indianapolis Pike High School that ultimately culminated in the title of Mr. Indiana Basketball and a room full of trophies, in addition to two state championships, the hoops in the family backyard and at area gymnasiums have seen their share of moments.
“It was something my family had always loved,” says Thomas.
“We always watched basketball games together as a family. It just stuck with me.”
He’s shoveled the snow from his driveway and the cul-de-sac to practice in the winter.
He’s played against future McDonald’s All-Americans and professional talent in AAU-tournaments as a 14-year-old kids. And he’s done it all under the watchful eyes of his father Frank.
Ever eager to learn about his father, Thomas has heard all the stories.
“I always thought that he was better than what he really was because people would always tell me how good he was back in the day,” says Thomas.
Frank Thomas was a former three-sport standout at North Side (Fort Wayne) High School, where he earned all-state honors and a roster spot on the Indiana All-Star team, before becoming a two-year starter at Butler University.
But at the age of 15, the baton finally passed from father to son as Chris registered his first victory over Frank in one-on-one competition and in the process became the standard-setting athlete in the Thomas family household.
And he has two adoring younger siblings as proof.
Nine-year old Kyle is in his second year of organized basketball. Thirteen-year old Paige is a cheerleader for her middle school football team and is in her first year with her middle school basketball team. Through their support of Thomas and the program, in many ways, both are members of the Notre Dame team itself.
“They’re students of the game,” says Thomas.
“They watch all the players on the floor at my games. Sometimes I think they would much rather come to a Notre Dame basketball game and be around all of the guys on this team and this atmosphere than go to their respective games.”
For each home game-weekday and weekend-the two make the six-hour round-trip journey from Indianapolis to South Bend and back. But the benefit of seeing older brother play makes the drive seems a lot shorter.
Day in and day out, they keep coming back for more.
A national television audience will watch at least eight regular-season games this season, but for the Notre Dame nation that is not enough. Thomas rarely disappoints as the publicized image of Notre Dame’s return to national prominence.
Game in and game out, they keep waiting for more.
Thomas himself has spent only 18 months on the Notre Dame campus, but it already seems like a career-he is second on the roster in terms of career minutes after less than two full seasons.
Day in and day out, he keeps coming back for more.
“The challenge is to never be satisfied,” says Thomas.
“I always want to have the feeling that I could do better and that the team could be better because when you lose that mindset, I feel that competitiveness gets taken away from you. My gift comes from my competitive drive. If I ever lose that, then I won’t be the same player.”
Yet, like the extra step he uses to beat defenders to the basket, Chris Thomas is already a step ahead of others in the classroom.
Thomas chose marketing as his major in the Mendoza College of Business because, in large part to Thomas, “everything we do in life is because of marketing.”
When you have a product like Thomas, the merchandise sells itself.
In this case, the retail value is somewhere around 35 minutes, 18 points, seven assists and two steals per game. Thomas is the team leader in minutes played, free throw percentage, assists and steals and has started every career game played.
But the most important number to remember is “one.”
Before the start of his freshman season, Thomas traded the number 30 he wore at Pike High School to showcase his talents on the collegiate level wearing a number that he knew would draw attention-“one.”
Thomas wears it well, though, with an impressive collection of firsts that he has set in the jersey besides being the first Irish cager to don the number.
In just his first collegiate game and in the process breaking the Joyce Center mark for steals in a game, Thomas became the first, and only, player in school history to record a triple-double with a 24-point, 11-assist, and 11-steal effort against New Hampshire in the 2001-02 season opener.
Three months later, he became the first 60-minute man in program history, putting forth a stellar performance in the quadruple-overtime game against Georgetown in January, and in so doing earning Sports Illustrated Player of the Week honors.
The first Indiana Mr. Basketball at Notre Dame at the start of the season became the first Notre Dame player to be selected to the BIG EAST all-tournament team by the end of the season and the first conference player to be recognized as its Rookie of the Week six times.
He also set the Notre Dame single-season record for assists and steals and was honored as the 2002 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year in a freshman campaign that saw him play 1,255 of a possible 1,340 minutes, or 93.66 percent of the entire season, including a whopping 40.25 minute average in 16 BIG EAST regular-season outings.
And he is well-versed on the exclusive club of Notre Dame basketball that he is destined to join. Thomas can talk at great length about David Rivers and Austin Carr and their accomplishments on the floor, but keeps a mature perspective on the greater impact of those who came before him.
“I feel that as a collection, the players that come from Notre Dame aren’t just players, but they’re great people,” says Thomas.
“It just shows the strong ties to Notre Dame that if you go here, you become part of a family that will never go away.”
Beyond the box score and stat sheet, Thomas is tops in another category – leadership. Thomas’ personality in the lockerroom, and work ethic on the floor, complements the example set by the Irish tri-captains.
“I want to be that kind of player who people always see as somebody who has fun on the court, who is smiling and laughing and is a great person to be around,” says Thomas.
“I want to be the best teammate I can be. If people see me in that way, then I’ve done my job here at Notre Dame.”
With that, head coach Mike Brey is the first in line to credit Thomas for his ability to lead as a sophomore.
“As a sophomore and as a veteran he’s helped set the tone in the lockerroom,” says Brey.
“It’s nice to have your quarterback being more vocal. As a freshman, he didn’t need to do that as much because we had so many older guys. This year, he’s done that and that’s helped us.”
Look no further than freshman guard Chris Quinn.
Expected to provide depth at the point guard position at the start of fall practice, Quinn has emerged as a sparkplug off the bench and an impact freshman for the Irish.
While a Thomas-Quinn duo on the court provides the Joyce Center crowd with an entertaining backcourt combination, an off-court pairing between the two has provided Quinn the necessary intangible tools to achieve success as a rookie.
“Individually, he’s helped me so much getting through this season and making me a better player everyday,” says Quinn.
“He treats me like a real good friend. He tries to teach me everything that he knows and help me with things in basketball and away from basketball as well. He’s helped make the difference.”
Likewise for freshman forward Torin Francis, who as the program’s second McDonald’s All-American in as many seasons, has turned to Thomas for advice throughout his freshman campaign.
“I was in the same situation as him, coming in as a freshman being able to get quality minutes,” says Francis.
“Chris has been talking to me, telling me how to handle pressure. He tells me not to get frustrated, not to get anxious, but to come in and do what you came to do.”
Thomas follows his own advice and is so very meticulous in the ways in which he does so.
At the start of each season he prepares a comprehensive list of teams on the Irish schedule, complete with color-coded highlights for games at home, games against BIG EAST teams, and match-ups against top point guards, while key games on the schedule are circled.
Student equipment manager Toby Biebl and his equipment staff note the great care Thomas exercises to properly maintain his locker. Albeit shoes, t-shirts, spandex, practice jerseys, or practice shorts, everything in the Thomas’ locker is neatly stacked and organized.
Following each practice-each day-he goes through a consistent routine of shooting drills aimed at improving his three-point play.
“It’s just different things where I challenge myself day-in-and-day-out to be the best player that I can be,” says Thomas.
But this behind-the-scenes aspect of Thomas is ultimately overshadowed by the most visible reminder of his no-nonsense style, one that is proudly emblazoned permanently upon his left forearm. ‘Stop Me if U Can’ reads the tattoo.
To date, no one has.
“It stuck with me because it was my personal motivation to give everybody my best shot and knowing that everybody was going full thrust at me,” says Thomas.
This afternoon Pittsburgh, a perennial conference leader, and arguably a number one in their own right, will step foot in the Joyce Center in a pivotal divisional contest.
Rest assured, another number one is lurking in the Notre Dame lockerroom. Once again, Thomas will get their best look. Once again, he will give them his best look.
Perhaps the Joyce Center will be in store for another first. But through it all, Thomas will remain steadfast in his position.
“All the guys before me built the tradition,” says Thomas.
“As long as Notre Dame continues to attract good people that are good players, then there will be tons of Chris Thomases to follow.”
But only one to lead.