The Lobos' 6'8", 255-pound forward, Kenny Thomas, has evoked premature comparisons with Karl Malone, endured the high school nickname Baby Shaq and, if he has the sort of junior season everyone is predicting for him this year, will lead New Mexico to the WAC title and far into the NCAA tournament. Just don't expect Thomas to wax rhapsodic about any of it. "Coach [Dave] Bliss is always telling me I should talk more," Thomas says quietly, pulling a large hand down one side of his face. "But...." He smiles amiably and shrugs.
Like Shaquille O'Neal, Thomas grew up under the watchful eye of a no-nonsense Army man. Unlike O'Neal, Thomas is unflinchingly quiet. He says he prepares for games by "praying on my own, reading the Bible." Growing up, Thomas moved from one military base to another (including stops in Georgia, Germany, Texas and New Mexico) with his parents, Calvin and Patricia. But unlike a lot of big kids who gain self-confidence from basketball and blossom because of it, Thomas remained unsure of himself. Even as his game improved in high school and there was talk that he was a cinch to get a college scholarship, he says, "I didn't think I was good enough." Now he's similarly reluctant to believe he's bound for the NBA—"Haven't done it yet," he says—despite the fact that he's on most preseason All-America lists.
So, coming from Thomas, it's an emphatic endorsement of this year's Lobos when he says, "Well, we can be real good." With four starters returning, New Mexico can improve on last season's 25-8 record, especially if it can raise its game a notch on the road, where all eight of its losses occurred. Thomas should improve on his 1996-97 averages of 13.9 points and 6.9 boards a game while continuing to play unselfishly alongside forward Clayton Shields, a spindly 6' 8" senior who averaged 15.5 points last year and converted a school-record 96 three-pointers.
Guard Charles Smith, the Lobos' alltime leading scorer, was a first-round draft pick of the Miami Heat, but, Bliss says, watch out for Smith's replacement, sophomore Lamont Long. A 6'4" whippet, Long shares three traits with Thomas: a laconic temperament, star-caliber talent and a bemused disregard for Bliss's admonishments to get more "hyped" for games. "People say that when I come down the court and dunk on someone, they can't tell if I scored or someone just died," Long says. "But that's just the way I am."
If Long, Shields and Thomas all play to their abilities, the Lobos' taciturn stars can let their actions on the court do their talking for them.