Thomas, Illinois get course in recruiting


CHICAGO -- In the summer of 1988, all seemed right with the world of 17-year-old Deon Thomas.

Entering his senior year at Chicago's Simeon High School, Thomas was one of the most gifted basketball players in the country. And he was qualified academically to play for the universities he was considering.

Three years later, Thomas is entering his junior year at one of the country's leading schools, carrying a C-plus average studying pre-law. He is coming off a season in which he averaged 15 points a game and was named third team All-Big 10.

But what should be a success story for the athlete and his school -- the University of Illinois -- has turned into an acrimonious legal and recruiting dispute that keeps growing and already has cost Illinois nearly $1 million in legal fees to defend itself against NCAA charges.

Allegations of recruiting improprieties during the pursuit of Thomas -- many levied by the University of Iowa -- helped land the Illini basketball program on probation. Illinois was not found guilty of breaking rules for its recruiting of Thomas, but the investigation of those charges led to other violations and the NCAA ruled there was a lack of institutional control. The basketball team was ineligible for last season's NCAA tournament and has lost several scholarships, endangering the future of the program.

Thomas, who hopes to become a sports attorney, believes the experience has been frustrating but educational.

But the question persists: How could one 6-foot-9-inch Public League basketball player cause such legal consternation between two reputable academic institutions? And could similar uprisings develop over the recruitment of other vulnerable high school athletes?

"Yeah, I am kind of surprised this happened. But frankly, one individual isn't going to make or break a program," said Iowa Associate Athletic Director Larry Bruner. "But sometimes personalities get involved, pride becomes involved, egos get involved. It is unfortunate when that ever happens.

"The recruiter on the road has to use some common sense in his judgment. Don't get into oral attacks, that type of thing."

Bruner said the Deon Thomas incident has left "a little bit of a bad taste" at Iowa. "That," he said, "is only because [Thomas] wanted to come here and he decided not to."

Illinois officials deny the assertion Thomas wanted to go to Iowa. "That's a lot of baloney," said one Illinois official. "It is a free country. Deon could have gone anywhere he wanted."

From the basketball courts to the courts of law, the whole experience still manages to astound and baffle Thomas.

"Yeah, I mean, I see basketball as a game," said Thomas, who says he has learned valuable lessons over the past two years. "Maybe other people see it as more than just a game. It is something you use as a stepping stone to get you to college and further your education.

"I have basically learned who is trustworthy and who is not. You have to watch out for yourself because nobody else will do it but you."

Thomas says the NCAA investigation into his recruitment was disconcerting. Making the academic and social adjustment from high school to college can be overwhelming enough for the average student.

"I had a lot of other things to think about, mainly the NCAA investigation," Thomas said. "That put an extra burden on my mind and made it a lot harder to be able to make the adjustment."

Asked if he would have done anything differently during his recruitment period, Thomas responded: "Maybe I would have made my decision earlier."

Steve Beckett, the attorney representing Thomas, fears similar cases will happen throughout the country.

"I think it could happen anywhere," said Beckett. "The big dollars that are rung up on the board from major college athletics definitely make it worthwhile for two major colleges, that are otherwise deserving of the utmost of respect, to go eyeball to eyeball in the trenches of recruiting of a prospective college athlete.

"Deon has really matured and grown a lot. I look back at myself at the age that he is and wonder how I would have handled the pressure. He is a remarkable guy."

Thomas, who recently underwent surgery on his broken left hand, says he wants to put the legal entanglements behind him.

"As far as I know, the litigation is over, so I don't really want to deal with that. All I want to do is play basketball," said Thomas.

Beckett, on the other hand, is not discounting further legal action, possibly against Iowa for the charges that school made against Thomas and Illinois.

"I wouldn't say it is all over, nor would I say that Deon has made a definite decision to move forward," said Beckett. "He seems to keep having these 'events.' And after the event is over he will kind of look at the situation and make a decision. The most recent event was that he broke his hand and he had to have surgery. I assume that in the near future he will decide exactly what he wants to do. The prospect of litigation is still out there. It is Deon's call."

Similar stories of recruiting indiscretions and NCAA sanctions have been told by other colleges.

Cincinnati, De Paul and Kentucky were in a recruiting battle for Covington, Ky., guard Dickie Beal 10 years ago. Beal told the Tribune "I am definitely going to De Paul," toward the end of his senior year of high school. He also responded positively to initial overtures from Cincinnati. But he belatedly wound up at Kentucky and allegations against the Wildcats rivaled the charges Iowa made against Illinois in the Thomas recruitment.

"Why [Beal] went to Kentucky, I don't know," said Cincinnati assistant athletic director Glenn Sample. "They were involved with a lot of things there. I don't know what (the NCAA) got them on, but they had page after page of allegations. But their punishment wasn't that bad. We thought we had done a lot less than they did, based on what we had heard."

Former Illinois basketball player Levi Cobb from Morgan Park High School in Chicago was recruited by Tony Yates a decade ago when Yates was an assistant coach for Lou Henson in Champaign. Yates later became the head coach at Cincinnati and was there when that school was placed on probation three years ago for alleged NCAA violations.

Cobb was among the first Public League basketball players signed by Illinois in some 20 years.

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