It was a nice birthday and Christmas present combined: Billy Thomas got word Sunday, his 32nd birthday, that he is headed back to the NBA after a two-year hiatus...and he is going back to the team, the Nets, and the coach, Lawrence Frank, who first gave him a chance.
"Best birthday gift I ever had," Thomas said, after being serenaded by Sean Williams after practice Monday.
Thomas is a feel-good NBA story, a kid from Shreveport who got a last minute scholarship offer from Kansas based solely on a videotape. Then after spotting up for three's with the likes of Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz for four years, he went on a basketball odyssey, spending nearly a decade playing ball in eight different leagues on four continents.
Thomas starred at Kansas from 1994–98, setting a school record for three's, but not getting drafted by an NBA team. So, in 1999, he embarked on a professional career that has included stops in various minor and international leagues, regularly spending his summers in the NBA's summer leagues.
Vince Carter was so impressed with Thomas' love of the game that he still uses his example as a way of motivating his summer basketball campers.
He's played in Argentina for Regatas San Nicolas (1999), in Philippines for Tanduay Rhum Masters (2001), in Italy for Pallacanestro Trieste (2003-04), in Serbia for Red Star Belgrade (2006-07), in Greece for Olimpia GE Larissa (2007), as well as the Cincinnati Stuff in the IBL (2000-01), the Dakota Wizards (2004) and Sioux City Skyforce (2006) in the CBA, the Greenville Groove (2003-04)and Colorado 14ers of the NBDL (2007) and had several different stints with the Kansas Cagerz of the USBL, becoming the first USBL player to make the NBA. He's been spit on in Argentina, been the target of debris thrown by fans in Serbia (specifically, the fans of Partizan Belgrade, Nenad Krstic's old team and Red Star's rival).
He played on summer league teams for the Jazz in 2001, the Pacers and Nets in 2002 and 2003, the Wizards in 2004, the Spurs in 2005, and Bucks in 2007. Twice, he has worn NBA uniforms, getting picked up by the Nets in 2005 and the Wizards in 2006. He was almost called up this month by the Wizards after Antonio Daniels went down with an injury.
On January 20, 2005, Thomas' dream of playing in the NBA was finally realized when he was signed as a free agent by the Nets. He appeared in 25 games with New Jersey, averaging 3.7 points and 1.4 rebounds, his intensity and defense making him a Frank favorite. He even got some burn in the playoffs, but didn't score against the Heat.
Statistically, his best game was on February 9, 2005 when he scored 14 points on 5-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-9 beyond the arc, in an overtime loss to the Lakers. He played 37 minutes and also collected four rebounds, two assists and three steals.
But for drama, his outing against the Kings six days after being called up may have been the topper. He scored 12 points, including seven straight, breaking open a close game with the Warriors. Thomas scored 12 points in 18 minutes, going 5-for-6, overall, including 2-for-3 beyond the arc. He got a new nickname as a result: "Off-the-street Billy" from Jason Kidd, a tribute to his being able to play in the NBA coming right "off the street".
The following season he played in 17 games with the Washington Wizards and averaged 2.2 points in eight minutes of action per game.
At one point, he held a couple of D-League records with the Greenville Groove. The Groove captured the D-League’s first title in 2002 led by Thomas who averaged 24 points in five playoff games. During that postseason he also set a D-League record for three-pointers made in a playoff game when he connected on 10 against the Columbus Riverdragons on March 29, 2002.
The next season he averaged 16 points, including a record-setting 49-point performance against the Asheville Altitude on March 22, 2003. The record stood for four years.
In this, his second tour of the D-League, he has averaged 14.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.7 assists in 12 games, shooting 41.1% from the arc, 21-for-56, in 12 games. In his best game, on December 15, he had 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting, along with five rebounds and six assists.