Unleashed: The Strength Of A Program
Feb. 29, 2012
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By Gregg Bell
SEATTLE - I don't need Bracketology or someone telling me what Huskies' chances are of making another NCAA tournament to know how strong Lorenzo Romar's program is at Washington.
I saw it last weekend - and heard it, yelling and cheering directly over my shoulder.
Isaiah Thomas could have been anywhere Saturday. He is the starting point guard for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. He's producing consecutive 20-point games and getting nicknamed "Mr. Fourth Quarter" by his new team, in a league where many people as recently as last summer said he could never even make a roster -- let alone star.
During his first All-Star break, Thomas could have been in Northern California. That's where he scored 18 points and had eight assists Tuesday to help lead the Kings past Utah in his latest big game. He could have been in Los Angeles or New York basking in national fame he is gaining with each game. Heck, he could have been in the tropics. He certainly could have stayed where he was for most of last weekend, back in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., with his family including his infant son Jaiden.
Instead he was, as he put it, "in the middle of NOWHERE."
Thomas was in Pullman, where blowing snow and 15-degree wind chills closed highways across the Palouse. Authorities were asking residents to stay home and not drive on Saturday afternoon. Yet there was the 5-foot-9 Thomas, addressing the team before the game then standing and pacing and flashing his "Dubs" from behind Washington's bench during it. He was jumping and cheering and encouraging throughout UW's tense afternoon at Washington State.
And when it was over, after the Huskies had rallied from 13 down to beat their archrival and stay on track for the Pac-12 regular-season championship, Thomas grabbed me from behind and screamed, "YEAAAAAH!!!!"
As in, yeah, he's a Husky for life.
"I saw a while ago my Huskies were playing when I was home. And then when I saw it was at Wazzu, I just had to be here," a beaming Thomas said in a hallway beneath WSU's Beasley Coliseum, just after he led a loud postgame celebration inside the visiting locker room.
His former coach sure was impressed.
Isaiah could be anywhere. He comes to see his former team. It means a lot.
"All-Star break, Isaiah could be anywhere. He comes to see his former team. It means a lot," Romar said outside the Huskies' locker room. "It's special."
Thomas sat in the first row behind the Huskies' bench in a black hoodie and a black Huskies cap.
Make that, he stood. He couldn't sit still. He was rocking nervously from side to side, almost pacing. His scream of "YEAAAAAH, BABY!" when Aziz N'Diaye dunked for the opening score carried throughout the arena.
During dead balls, he was shouting onto the court to tell the Dawgs about deficiencies he was detecting in the Cougars.
"It was fun having him at the game. It was fun having him talking to us," Gaddy said. "He's a competitive dude. We're all his brothers. He didn't want to see us lose. ...That's what he did last year. It's his nature."
His coach noticed his new cheerleader.
"One time, I looked up and I thought he was on the bench," Romar said, laughing.
THE STRENGTH OF A PROGRAM
See, the strength of what Romar has built in his decade at Washington goes beyond the six NCAA tournament appearances. Beyond UW's three Sweet 16 appearances, the four consecutive 20-win seasons for the first time in the 110-year history of Husky basketball, and the fact the Huskies are going for a fourth consecutive conference championship this weekend at USC and UCLA.
That granite-like foundation of Husky basketball is made of moments like Saturday's, when Thomas had to be the only NBA player within a couple area codes of Pullman.
That foundation is also evident in comments such as what Thomas said when I asked him how much he thinks about what might have been, how great these Huskies - his Huskies - would be had he not decided to forego his senior season and enter last summer's NBA draft.
"Man," he said with a sigh after UW improved to 13-3 in the Pac-12. "I think about that all the time."
Thomas knows he would have smashed Chris Welp's career scoring record at UW had he stayed for his senior season. I.T. finished with 1,721 points in three seasons, 352 behind Welp. More than that, he knows a Huskies team with him on it on top of two potential first-round picks in Terrence Ross plus the sharpshooting of C.J. Wilcox would have smashed just about everyone this season.
"I'm starting to have some success in the NBA, and I love it," Thomas said. "But with me, Abdul, T-Ross, Tony, C.J., we'd be doin' A LOT of damage right now. We'd be killin' it!
I'm just happy to see how they are maturing, how this is their team now without me, and how well they are doing.
"I'm just happy to see how they are maturing, how this is their team now without me, and how well they are doing. It's great."
Romar and his players were so grateful Thomas made the time to be there they gave their former all-conference scorer and league tournament MVP a ride to Moscow-Pullman Airport on the team bus and then a seat on their charter flight home. For that 45-minute flight it was like last season all over again, and the two seasons before that when Thomas was the engineer to conference titles and NCAA tournaments. "Zeke" was back joking with his boys on a tiny commuter plane.
After the little jet landed at SeaTac Airport, Thomas said goodbye to those boys to return home to another one of his, baby Jaiden, in Tacoma.
Thing is, as appreciative as Romar was that Thomas made the effort to get to Pullman, he wasn't exactly shocked.
This summer and fall, when the pros were still locked out of the NBA, Robinson (who played for Romar's first UW teams from 2002-05), Hawes (2007), Brockman (2006-09) and Will Conroy (2001-05), and Thomas came back to Alaska Airlines Arena for pickup games with the current Huskies. They were more like impromptu NBA scrimmages.
How many other colleges have Golden State Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and Sacramento Kings training with their team before a season? How many others have those pros still taking courses online toward finishing their college degrees, as Thomas is doing at UW?
That's not all. Brandon Roy, the 2006 Pac-10 player of the year for the Huskies who was recently forced to retire as a Portland Trail Blazers star because of knee injuries, spent part of his Sunday watching the NBA All-Star game with Wroten.
Immediately before each Huskies home game this season, the big video board at Alaska Airlines Arena showed Thomas, Hawes, Robinson, Brockman and others stating "I AM Husky basketball."
They really are.
I'm not saying other schools don't have so many of their former players so involved. But I doubt it. I've been to every arena and visited with every program in the Pac-12 over the last three seasons. No place has such a presence of recent players, NBA stars, involved in the current program as much as Washington does.
It speaks to the quality of the players Romar has recruited to UW that so many Huskies have gone on to star as pros.
It speaks to the quality of the men Romar has developed here since arriving in 2002 that so many of them come back so often.
`I'M LIVING MY DREAM'
Thomas, who turned 23 this month, laughed when I asked him if life in the NBA is what he'd dreamed it would be, when he starred at Curtis High School in University Place, Wash., then at South Kent prep school in Connecticut and UW.
He called the NBA season a grind, especially this one with a schedule condensed by the lockout and the league not starting until Christmas.
"Every city it seems like we get into it at 2 in the morning, after games," said Thomas, who has become a starter since Sacramento hired Keith Smart as its coach following a slow start to this season. "There's no time to practice.
"But I love it. I'm living my dream."
The grind doesn't show. As Saturday's game went on, dozens of fans began recognizing the guy in the black hoodie making all the noise behind the Huskies bench. They kept coming up to Thomas saying things like "It's great seeing how well you are doing in Sacramento. Keep it up."
Not all of them were Huskies fans, either.
Gaddy knows Thomas better than any Husky. They basically grew up together in Tacoma, and Gaddy calls Thomas one of his best friends.
Now the junior point guard, the steadying influence vital to how far these Huskies advance this season, is benefitting from that foundation Romar has built and Thomas is enhancing.
"He's been like my big brother since I was growing up," Gaddy said of Isaiah before practice Tuesday for UW's game at USC on Thursday.
He gives me life lessons all the time.
"The main thing is he's grown up so much, becoming a man (in) the fact that he just handles all his business. He gives me life lessons all the time, on the NBA life, how it's a business, how they treat you, how you are supposed to treat people when you go somewhere."
Gaddy is as impressed with his buddy off the court as he is from his play on it for the Kings.
"Him having a child, that changes a lot of things in your life. It made him grow up," Gaddy says.
He has seen Thomas first-hand in his newest role.
"It's cool, man," Gaddy said. "It looks like the most fun thing. Not in a sense of you want to have a child, but it's just cool to see how he has a son and how he interacts with him. He has him out there on the court. He is a basketball player, he wants him to be a basketball player, and he has him playing with a basketball."
Gaddy says Thomas is silly with Jaiden, but that he also finds it interesting to watch his friend have to "do the right thing" around the baby, "to make sure he doing the right thing."
Like not putting dad's keys in his mouth or licking the basketball he's always playing with, I bet.
"It's cool that he's interacting with him. It's nice to see, because you don't see a lot of dads like that where I am from," Gaddy said. "I had my dad growing up with me, which was great for me, but a lot of my friends didn't."
Gaddy is the main reason Thomas is in the NBA right now instead of with the Huskies.
Thomas told me last summer on the eve of the Kings drafting him that the reason he turned pro was, by extension, because Gaddy got hurt. Gaddy blew out his knee in practice in January 2011. That forced Romar to move Thomas from off guard onto the point at the start of Washington's conference season.
That put Thomas at the position he would play in the NBA - try to name the last 5-9 combo guard to succeed in the pros. He had the ball in his hands most for the crux of last season: the Pac-10 schedule, the conference tournament and the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament.
He didn't consider it so much at the time, but the role of running the team and creating most of its offense against the likes of Arizona and North Carolina is exactly what NBA scouts and GMs wanted to see Thomas do before he came into their league. And that wasn't going to happen for him at UW this season, not with Gaddy coming back and Wroten arriving as a freshman scoring and passing whiz.
"Gaddy and I talk about it all the time," Thomas said. "He says, `Man, if this didn't happen to me, you wouldn't be where you are right now.'
And where Thomas is right now goes beyond racking up points for the Sacramento Kings.
He's enhancing the remarkable foundation Romar has built in 10 years at UW, a decade that has been far more enriching and impressive than mere wins on a basketball court.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.