Although Thomas's individual accomplishments have been remarkable, Villanova as a team has been a conspicuous disappointment this year. Expected to contend for a spot in the Final Four as the season began, the Wildcats sputtered through the regular season, going 12-6 in the mediocre Big East and bottoming out with a miserable performance on national TV in a 93-56 loss at Kentucky on Feb. 9. All season, Thomas has staunchly limited himself to a supporting role. "I told myself from the start that I wouldn't try to score 50 points every game, because we have so many good players here," he says. "The season hasn't gone as well as we expected, but I still believe I need to let the game come to me and allow Jason and Alvin to run the show. It's their team."
However, if the Wildcats are to exorcise their recent NCAA tournament demons, it might be necessary for Thomas to be more assertive. In Villanova's disappointing first-round loss to Old Dominion in the '95 NCAAs and to Louisville in the second round last year, the Wildcats lacked quick, inventive players who could create their own scoring chances. "When we needed a basket last season we had to design a play to get a shot," Lappas says. "Now we have the option to give Tim the ball and get out of his way."
That is what had the coaches salivating when Thomas telephoned Lappas's office on May 6 to confirm his college choice. After Lappas hung up the phone, a rowdy celebration ensued among the Wildcats' coaches, punctuated by Lappas's firing up a victory cigar. But once the jubilation died down, a disquieting awareness began to take hold in the room. Lappas turned anxiously to his assistants and said, "Gosh, how long do you think he'll stay?"
Most experts predicted he would turn pro after one season, but Thomas claims that the only times he thinks about the NBA are when he checks out Bryant's stats in the Los Angeles Lakers box scores or during an occasional phone conversation with Pippen. The Bulls forward has cautioned him about the rigors of the nomadic life in the pros, and Salmon believes Pippen's counsel could influence Thomas to remain at Villanova beyond this year.
Early in the season Thomas suffered a mild case of what. Salmon calls "freshmanitis." The 19-year-old spent four of his first six college weekends at home in Paterson, a 90-minute drive from campus. "He's just a kid, and at the beginning of the school year he got homesick," his mother says. "But his entire outlook improved on the day basketball season started."
He might still want to stay close to home for a while, though. "If you really know Tim, you know he's into comfort, and he hates change, and right now college is his clean, well-lighted place," Salmon says. "Tim doesn't want to be a big celebrity or a social misfit, just a regular guy. But maybe that's not possible anymore."
Maybe it's about time for Tim Thomas to accept that he will never be as normal as he would like. A normal guy just doesn't have Scottie Pippen's beeper number.