On Dec. 5, Allyson Wynn spent some of her day in tears — all grateful ones.
Later that afternoon, she made her way to the Mervo gym well before the start of the varsity boys basketball game, feeling antsy and excited and nervous all at the same time.
It was the Mustangs’ season opener and her only child, standout senior Will Thomas, was returning to the Mervo court after a trying one-year layoff.
“I was excited to watch him play because I know the backstory and what he had to go through. That first game against City, I could hardly contain myself and nobody could understand why,” Wynn said.
Thomas, who started his basketball career at Mount Carmel before transferring to Mervo in his junior year, has faced more than his share of obstacles.
There was the broken foot, a Jones fracture that required surgery and six-plus months away from basketball right before the start of what was supposed to be his senior season last school year.
Before that, the only place he has ever called home — the family’s duplex minutes away from Mervo on York Road — caught fire in the middle of the night, displacing him and his mother for more than a year.
And just before the fire, which took place in February 2017, his grandmother, Janette Wynn, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She helped Allyson, a program coordinator at a private school for students with special needs the past three years and a middle school science teacher the previous 17, raise Thomas.
Today, all that Thomas has dealt with is a measure of his fortitude.
The versatile 6-foot-5 forward, who turned 19 in November, is back in top form, averaging 22 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game in leading the No. 12 Mustangs to a 5-3 record.
“It’s crazy because when I look back, It’s like: ‘Dang, I went through all that and now I’m here and I’m 100%.’ I’m just thankful,” he said.
‘It’s OK to be down, but you can’t stay down’
Thomas loves to talk about basketball. He says that’s really all he enjoys doing, aside from hanging with friends, and even then it’s all about hoops. But he doesn’t shy away from discussing how all the roadblocks temporarily brought him down.
He tried staying close to the team, going to practices and games with a cast on his leg, but it became tougher every day. It reached a point where getting out of bed every morning became a challenge. His grades suffered. He quit going to practices and games, and became removed from his friends.
Diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) when he was in grade school and already having dealt with anxiety during middle school, Thomas told his mom one day that he felt depressed.
“I’d be anxious about literally everything life brings you,” he said. “If you don’t have depression, you don’t understand it. I used to try to talk to people that didn’t have it and they would tell me things would work out. It’s so hard to get through something like that. My whole motivation dropped. My grades dropped, I was getting to school late — it was real hard.”
Wynn listened and provided encouraging words.
“He just started talking about how he had no desire to do anything, that if he can’t play basketball, what is there to do? He was really down,” Wynn said. “We had a long talk about it and I said, ‘It’s OK to be down, but you can’t stay down.’”
The strong bond he has with his mother and the faith they share in God, along with medication, therapy and a strong support group — including his father, Stevie Thomas, coaches and teammates — helped him pull through.
On March 10 last year, Thomas was cleared to play ball again.
Tentative early on, he worked his way back into game shape, played some Amateur Athletic Union ball with Team Thrill in the summer and mostly held his own despite an injured ankle.
During preseason practices at Mervo, while teammates ran the same drill in which Thomas broke his foot, coach Deron Harding would have his star taking free throws at the other end of the court.
Days before the season opener against City, Thomas told Harding he wanted to participate in the drill.
“He said ‘Coach, I want to get in the drill,’” Harding said. “He went through the whole drill and it further reassured him. He was saying: ‘I’m OK now.’”
Harding says Thomas, whom he calls the most versatile player he has ever coached, is now more than OK.
“We formed a village with him — his mom, dad, coaches here at Mervo and his AAU coaches — and just tried to reassure him that if he does everything he needs to do, everything else will take care of itself,” he said.
“It’s great to see a kid who was so down in the dumps last year have a smile on his face. He comes to school with a smile on his face, he’s enthusiastic at practice, he’s a great leader and the guys love to be around him and love to play with him.”
Getting his bounce back
With his size, handle, ability to score with either hand and vision to distribute, Thomas is an opponent’s nightmare at the wing position. Completely confident the first significant injury he ever had is safely behind him, Thomas believes he’s returned a better basketball player.
“I’m glad it kind of happened because I view things differently now,” he said. “I don’t take basketball for granted anymore and every time I’m in the gym, I work harder and give it everything.”
The same can be said in other aspects of his life. In the classroom, his grades are improving — past a "C" average now — with several mid-major Division I colleges showing interest.
“He’s overcome a debilitating injury and is back to where he was before,” said Tom Strickler, a Maryland-based scout for National Recruiting Report, a coaches-only service that evaluates high school players throughout the country. “He’s a multi-positional player that can shoot with either hand, he can finish, he can handle and plays hard at both ends of the floor.”
Wynn, who also played basketball in high school, applauds the NBA for having such a focus on mental health awareness. Last year, in response to stars such as Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan opening up about their own mental health struggles, the NBA hosted a mandatory health and wellness meeting for team executives in Chicago, setting formal requirements for all 30 teams. The league also adopted new rules that required teams to add at least one full-time licensed mental health professional — a psychologist or behavioral therapist — to their full-time staff.
“It’s helped open the door for young players like Will to say, ‘Yes, I’m having these mental health issues and I need to get help and follow up and it’s OK now,' where in the past it’s been such a stickler," Wynn said. "So it’s a good opportunity and I hope somebody is touched by Will’s story.”
As for the City game, which turned out to be a 71-66 overtime loss for the Mustangs, Wynn said the final score didn’t matter to her that day. What she saw was electric: Her son’s bounce was back.
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“As soon as he hit the floor, it was like a scene from a movie for me,” she said. “It was exciting and then to see he was back to the old Will — fearless, playing with tenacity. Will won because he was back on the court. And I’m proud of him for never giving up. He could have put the ball down and said forget it. He could have put the books down and said forget it. But he never did.”