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SportsTerps

Shy off the court, Alyssa Thomas dominates on it as leader of Maryland women

BasketballPro BasketballCollege BasketballCollege SportsMaryland TerrapinsLeBron James

COLLEGE PARK — Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas practically had to shove a basketball into the hands of her young daughter, Alyssa.

"Oh, she threw a hissy fit, kicking, screaming crying," recalls the mother, thinking back on her daughter's reluctance to give up soccer for the sport she'd one day master.

Alyssa Thomas didn't like being thrust into new, uncomfortable situations. As late as an overnight recruiting visit to Maryland when she was a teenager, she clung to her parents rather than bunk with future teammates.

But her mother, a hyper-competitive former college forward, knew what she was doing. As reluctant as Thomas could be off the court, she quickly grew into a multi-talented predator on it — a "Lady LeBron" in the words of teammates and analysts. Now in her senior season at Maryland, she is arguably the greatest player in the history of a star-laden program.

Terps coach Brenda Frese saw that possibility the first time she watched Thomas run lay-up lines before an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Baltimore.

"We knew we had to have her," Frese says, remembering the rare blend of physical force and basketball skill. "You knew All-American. You knew difference maker. You knew some day, she could have her name and number up in the rafters."

Basketball has acted as a remarkable binding agent in Thomas' world. Her parents met and bonded through the game. She grew up battling her brother, Devin, who now stars at Wake Forest, in countless driveway games of one-on-one. Her devotion to team as a second family steered her to Maryland.

Perhaps most importantly, basketball offered a means of expression for an otherwise painfully shy girl.

"People say when I'm on the court, I'm a different person," Thomas says. "Off the court, I'm shy, reserved. I only open up to a few close people around me. But when I'm on the court, there's no shyness."

Her accolades — including two-time ACC Player of the Year — convey how great a force she is. They do not tell the entire story of her evolution.

It has taken four years, but Thomas seems comfortable as the leader, not just the best player, of a Maryland team with designs on a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Though still no yapper, she's the last word when the Terps need a course correction.

"She's the one who gets at us if we're not doing what we're supposed to do," says redshirt junior Laurin Mincy, Thomas' roommate for four years.

'You've got to go fight'

Thomas really was born into the game. Her mother and father, Bobby, both played Division II ball at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Mom was a rugged rebounder, dad a thoroughbred who could dunk from the free-throw line. They used to rise at 7 a.m. so they could get to a nearby park for the day's first games.

They played one-on-one too, with Tina telling her future husband, "I will hack the heck out of you if you ever try to dunk on me."

"If you guys ever have kids," one of Bobby's teammates told them, "I want to coach them."

Prescient words.

The couple settled in Harrisburg, Pa. and raised a family in which competition seemed the chief currency.

"You had to earn every win," Thomas says with an amused expression.

Even in a game of Chutes and Ladders, the parents gave no quarter. "You've got to go fight," Tina told her children. "You've got to go figure it out. Life's not that easy."

Thomas' mother laughs, describing her insatiable need to win. She teaches social studies to fifth- and sixth-graders and if there's a door-decorating contest at the school, she'll spend weeks scheming up the best design.

"My co-workers tell me I'm ridiculous," she says. "And I am."

Thomas laughs about it as well, but it's clear from her friends' descriptions that the ferocity passed from mother to daughter. As an All-American, she probably doesn't have to win every practice sprint to remain in Frese's good graces. Nonetheless, there she was on a recent afternoon at Comcast Center, bolting ahead of her teammates.

Thomas' inner fire also showed up in her relationship with Devin, two years her junior. The siblings played every game imaginable around the family home and at the nearby Friendship Center. Onlookers thought they were twins because Devin — now 6-foot-9, 245 pounds — was so large for his age.

"He was bigger than me but a lot slower," Thomas says. "So I would use my quickness on him, and he'd get frustrated."

They went at it so hard that some games ended in blows. The squabbles got bad enough that they finally stopped playing each other as Thomas entered high school.

Younger sister Alexia, now 12, avoided those fierce intra-family games but now faces the prospect of living up to not one, but two all-state siblings.

Beyond a yen for competition, Thomas picked up the all-around game from her parents. Her mother, who coached her in recreation leagues, insisted that she pass to open players, even if the other kids possessed a fraction of her gifts. She played everywhere, from point guard to post, foreshadowing her remarkable versatility at Maryland.

If anything, Thomas felt her mother was harder on her than the other kids.

She mouthed off to Tina once and earned a whole first half on the bench. "It was never about our kids," her mother says. "It was about team."

There was no hiding Thomas' stardom at Central Dauphin High, especially after a growth spurt took her past six feet and gave her sculpted shoulders rarely seen among prep girls.

"I saw it when we went against each other when we were really young," says Mincy. "She was the same build, same body type, same skill. I knew she was something special."

The thing was, Thomas didn't want to be regarded as special. She hated it when classmates buzzed about the coaches scouting her from Penn State and Notre Dame. She didn't care to discuss her college plans with every acquaintance. She even avoided the school's football games, because she didn't enjoy being approached.

No one should have mistaken her reluctance for indecisiveness. During an AAU tournament at Duke, the teenager found many people on campus rude. "You should never talk to anyone that way," Thomas told her mother. " I couldn't come here."

By contrast, she found Maryland low-key and homey. She says that's why she committed as a junior, before the recruiting circus could gain momentum.

"If you watch her, she's very quiet, but she takes it all in," says Tina. "You have no idea how much she picks up."

'Reminds me of LeBron'

After Thomas completed her prep career as Central Dauphin's all-time leading scorer (she'll proudly note that Devin failed to catch her), her parents worried that she might struggle with being away from home at college.

Not so, as it turned out.

"I was very comfortable," Thomas says casually. "It was an easy transition for me."

She was quiet, sure, but her personality gradually unfolded to those in her immediate circle. Mincy offers these details on her pal: Thomas like to sleep with her window cracked, even when temperatures plummet near zero. She cooks baked spaghetti for her housemates and sometimes hides in their rooms, waiting to startle them. She professes to hate scary movies, but that hasn't stopped her from plowing through "American Horror Story" with the rest of the house.

On the court, Thomas doesn't so much startle opponents as overwhelm them. On her signature plays, she'll grab a defensive rebound in a cluster of bodies, then turn up court with the ball still in hand, dribbling past everyone to set up a teammate or score herself. These displays of force and skill evoke a young Charles Barkley or yes, a certain NBA MVP who plays in Miami.

"She kind of reminds me of LeBron [James]," says Lexie Brown, Maryland's freshman point guard. "The way she snags rebounds and just goes. It's kind of unreal."

Her stat lines certainly resemble those of King James. Consider the 32 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists she hung on Wake Forest in the ACC tournament last year or the 26, 12 and seven she put on North Carolina in the next round. Of the five triple-doubles in program history, she's responsible for four. As a junior, she led the ACC in scoring, rebounds and assists.

The last feat came in part because Frese asked her to switch from the frontcourt to point guard for a depth-starved team. For all her exterior calm, it wasn't easy on Thomas.

"She was very frustrated, complaining that they wanted her to do this and do that," her mother says. "But her dad just said, 'That sounds like a good problem.'"

Reminded that her parents raised no whiner, Thomas proved she could handle yet another position. Nevertheless, she frequently tells Brown how happy she is not to sit in the point-guard seat during huddles this season. "I sat there last year," she'll say. "I don't want to sit there anymore."

This season, Thomas is averaging 18.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. She recently surpassed 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds and stands an excellent chance to break Crystal Langhorne's all-time scoring record for the program (2,247). With a much deeper bench behind her, she might also have her best chance to lead a Terps team back to the Final Four for the first time in eight years.

Frese says there's little doubt Thomas will follow with a long WNBA career. A surer 3-point shot is the only major skill she needs to add. In one sign of her stature, USA Basketball recently named her to a pool of 33 candidates for the 2014 world championship and 2016 Olympic teams.

"However I can stay around the game, I'll try," Thomas says of her future.

For all her honors, there's another scene Tina enjoyed most from her daughter's career. It came after the Terps won the ACC tournament in 2012, with Thomas taking MVP honors. As her teammates celebrated, the kid who once clung shyly to her mother's leg approached each member of the university's band to offer a hug and thanks for making the trip to North Carolina.

At that moment, the Thomases saw they had raised a woman in full.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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