Sixteen years after James Thomas played his last game as a Longhorn, he decided to go back to school and get his degree.
The former Texas basketball center reached out to an academic adviser in the summer of 2019 and began classes that fall. Ten months and a pandemic later, Thomas graduated from the University with a bachelor’s degree in youth and community studies.
“I always preach education to my three kids,” Thomas said. “How can I preach that when I didn’t even finish what I started?”
Thomas, who promised his mother he would get a college degree, said he will never forget celebrating his graduation with his family. Both of his sons also graduated from pre-K and eighth grade in May.
“I was like, ‘JT, you did it!’ Thomas said. “The great thing about it was we all really graduated at the same time. That’s going to be a family photo that’s going to be kept for years to come.”
The only hurdle in Thomas’ way was not just going back to school after 15 years off. He was also working two full-time jobs in Austin while separated from his family back in New York.
Even with the busy schedule, Thomas still found time to go to Texas basketball games during last year’s season and speak to head coach Shaka Smart and the team.
“James had his family back in New York,” Smart said in a Longhorn Weekly interview in March. “So, you talk about a sacrifice that he’s making for his family, for his future. It’s such a great lesson for our players.”
In the same interview, play-by-play announcer Craig Way said he remembered Thomas as “one of the most determined people he’s ever seen.”
When he first came to the Forty Acres as a teenager from Schenectady, New York, Thomas said his determination came in a different form.
“I was an angry young man,” Thomas said. “I think that’s why I liked rebounding so much. I had a lot of built-up anger from my childhood.”
Thomas said it was anger that came from “coming from nothing,” but it was also anger that became determination with some guidance from former Texas head coach Rick Barnes.
“I never knew what accountability was until I really got down to Texas,” Thomas said. “When you’re young, it’s everybody else’s fault, but coach Barnes was like, ‘You got to look in the mirror when you wake up in the morning.’”
In his years at Texas from 2001-2004, Thomas finished as the Longhorns’ all-time leading rebounder and helped lead the team to a Final Four appearance in 2003. The Longhorn great would go on to play 10 years in professional basketball, including a two-year stint in the NBA.
Once Thomas retired in 2015, he took an assistant coaching job for the Maine Red Claws in the NBA’s G-League, largely because of the impact Barnes and his other coaches had on him.
“Without (Barnes), I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Thomas said. “So I’ve always said, ‘When that time comes, I'll be able to give my knowledge and my expertise back to the ones that are in need.’”
Thomas returned to his alma mater, Schenectady High School, to coach the girls basketball team in 2018. After graduating from UT in 2020, Thomas is pursuing a master’s degree and working as the dean of students at Albany Leadership Charter High School.
“That’s a belief that I didn't have when I was coming up,” Thomas said. “I want them to know that they have somebody in their corner pushing them for greatness.”