A normal guy doesn't have an off-to-college pool party thrown in his honor by some guys in the neighborhood and have it turn into an affair that includes a wet T-shirt contest and a celebrity hoops game featuring the rap group Naughty by Nature.
A normal guy doesn't hang out with Scottie Pippen. Thomas and Pippen met through a mutual acquaintance and shared a dinner last May at Mickey Mantle's restaurant in New York City during the Chicago Bulls- New York Knicks playoff series. They chatted until 2 a.m., and then 11 hours later the Bulls suffered their one loss to the Knicks, a defeat for which Thomas holds himself partially responsible.
When Thomas visited the set of The Preacher's Wife, which included scenes filmed in Paterson last spring, he was introduced to Denzel Washington, who took the opportunity to ask Thomas if he planned to enter the NBA draft. Alas, Washington was the 67, 259th person to broach that subject.
"It's been very hard to stay normal," Thomas admits. "I live in this fishbowl, and people keep tabs on my every move. It's a little unfair because I like to have fun and act goofy, like a kid, every once in a while. But I'm afraid people will say, 'Look at Tim Thomas. What's wrong with him?' "
Villanova coach Steve Lappas began keeping tabs on Thomas at a summer basketball camp just after Thomas had finished the ninth grade. "I'm watching one game, and I hear all these oooohs and aaaahs from another court," Lappas recalls. "I walked over to watch and I thought, Who is this guy? Then somebody told me not to mess with the kid because he was going to North Carolina."
Lappas recruited Thomas anyway, as did Villanova assistant Paul Hewitt, who happens to be a longtime friend of Salmon's. It was Salmon who advised Hewitt not to overwhelm Thomas with salesmanship, so Hewitt limited his phone calls to no more than one a week.
Villanova's pitch to Thomas was appealing. The team would feature talented seniors like center Jason Lawson and point guard Alvin Williams, so Thomas was convinced that as a Wildcat he wouldn't have to be the Man, just a part of the team. In other words, he could just be a normal guy. "I saw the pressure Felipe Lopez was under at St. John's, trying to carry that team on his shoulders, and I didn't want to go through that," says Thomas, whose final list of schools also included Rutgers and Seton Hall. "I wanted to be a freshman, not a savior."
Still, it has been hard for him to be a normal freshman. A 6'9" small forward, Thomas plays like a chameleon, able to post up inside on a smaller defender or to drive and stick the three-pointer like a guard. He announced himself with 29 points in his Big East debut against Providence on Jan. 11, and in one stretch early in the season he sank 29 straight free throws. He went into a bit of a slump toward the end of the regular season but emerged from it last Saturday when he scored 24 points in an 84-74 win at Rutgers, despite the fact that Scarlet Knights fans booed him unmercifully every time he touched the ball—because he chose Villanova over their school.
It's not often that a team loses an All-America like Kerry Kittles, who scored 25% of the Wildcats' points a year ago, and looks just as strong the following season. But it should be noted that had Thomas gone straight to the NBA, he might now be playing for the New Jersey Nets, who very well might have taken him ahead of Kittles with the eighth pick.
"Tim's come in and played great, and he's also fit right into the family," says Williams, who admits that the media ask him five questions about Thomas for every one about himself. "There's no room for jealousy on this team because we know Tim is a huge ingredient in our success."