Two piping hot cups of coffee stood at attention before Tim Thomas as he and his teammates from the Little Lads Basketball Association ate breakfast together one morning at a Shoney's in Trenton, N.J. It was the summer of '91, and Thomas, the least little of the Lads, standing 6'6" at age 14, was the only one who ordered Java that day. "What the heck are you doing drinking coffee?" asked his cousin Jimmy Salmon, who was also the team's coach.
"I'm trying to stunt my growth," Thomas said.
"Are you nuts?" Salmon said.
Turned out that every morning since he was in seventh grade, Thomas had been making a secret detour on his way to school to stop at a Dunkin' Donuts two blocks from his home in Paterson, N.J. There he would guzzle a big cup of joe, firmly believing that was the best possible way to combat the forces of nature in his bones. "I thought if I could just stop growing, then eventually everyone else might catch up to me," says Thomas, laughing at his own innocence. "I've always just wished I could be a normal guy."
These days Thomas has kicked the coffee habit and is 6'9" and happy for every inch he's got. He even hopes to grow another inch or two, though after 29 games the Villanova freshman forward is already the finest first-year player in the nation and of the best in any college class this season. Many basketball scouts contend that had he followed through on his highly publicized inclination to turn pro last spring, he could have made an impact in the NBA this season. Instead, Thomas has been averaging 16.5 points for a Villanova team that goes into this week's Big East tournament with a 21-8 record and the No. 21 ranking in the AP poll. About the only thing at which he is failing miserably is, well, being a normal guy. But he hasn't stopped trying.
Start with his name: Timothy Mark Thomas. It's a standard issue identity if there ever was one, yet Thomas has never embraced a more colorful nickname. He's just plain Tim. Like a normal guy, Thomas wears his uniform number, 3, in honor of a basketball hero, in his case the late New Jersey Nets guard Drazen Petrovic, who was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1993. Like a normal guy, Thomas wears Air Jordans, and sometimes he blackens out the first digit of Jordan's 23, leaving his own number. Like a normal guy, he has admitted to harboring a crush on a television star, Tatyana Ali, who played Will Smith's cousin on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And like a normal guy, Thomas got in trouble when his girlfriend, Natricia Jones, a student at Georgetown, heard about it.
His desire to remain normal extended to the college recruiting process. Thomas didn't make a single official campus visit because he didn't want his head bloated by a legion of sweet-talking coaches. Then when he did announce his college decision last May, he did so in retro fashion. While Thomas's friend, Kobe Bryant, called a huge press conference in his suburban Philadelphia high school gym to inform the world that he would skip college for the NBA, and another Thomas crony, Shaheen Holloway, appeared live on a New York City cable television station to announce his plans to attend Seton Hall, Thomas turned down that same station's request and instead merely invited three local newspaper reporters to his living room. While his mother, Dorothy, cooked dinner in the kitchen, he told them he was going to Villanova and then promptly wept at the thought of leaving home.
Despite all his sincere efforts, Thomas appears doomed to abnormalcy. His uniqueness is his burden.
A normal guy, after all, doesn't finish high school and think to himself, Hmmm, what'll it be? Rutgers or the Raptors?
A normal guy doesn't have his high school coach ride his coat-tails. Salmon, also Thomas's coach at Paterson Catholic High, joined the Villanova coaching staff last August.