clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Where is Lance Thomas & UConn icon gallops off into sunset

Jim Calhoun retires after a remarkable career.
Jim Calhoun retires after a remarkable career.

Lance Thomas' sounds of silence

With the early week news that former Duke basketball player Lance Thomas was being sued for $63,700 by Rafaello & Co. jewelry store for being extraordinarily delinquent on a promise to pay note -- after paying a $30,000 down-payment for an assortment of bling-bling during his senior year at Duke -- I've patiently waited for Thomas, or Thomas' attorney, or Thomas' adviser, or Thomas' mother, to confidently issue an exculpatory statement absolving Duke, Duke boosters, and Thomas from culpability in a matter that is understandably described as fishy.

Maybe Thomas, a low scoring starter on Duke's 2010 national title team, inherited a sum of money from a relative or family friend; maybe Thomas won the lottery (after all, somebody has to win); maybe Thomas' mother, who reportedly has a moderately high paying job, is great with the family's finances and chose to give her son a generous, early graduation gift; maybe Thomas returned somebody's lost dog and collected a hefty reward ... whatever the reason, I've been waiting.

But no word has been forthcoming. Not from Thomas, or anyone associated with Thomas. Which to me seems very odd, and perhaps, incriminating.

I mean, think about it. If Thomas had a legitimate reason for having $30,000 to spend on luxury items, in his senior year of college, doesn't it stand to reason that he would be falling all over himself trying to get to a microphone and explain, with evidence in hand, that these monies did not come into his possession by unscrupulous means?

Perhaps the Duke alum is busy gathering exculpatory paperwork as I write, but it certainly feels like Thomas is experiencing an "uh-oh" moment. As in "Uh-oh, I screwed up." The sad thing, though, and another possible explanation for Thomas' silence, is the fact that the NCAA does not hold subpoena privileges. In other words, the NCAA cannot compel anyone to talk about, well, anything, as long as that person isn't a current student-athlete or coach living under the umbrella of Mark Emmert's agency.

Furthering that line of thinking; Thomas can, if guilty of an untoward act, simply stay quiet and instruct others involved do the same -- the jewelry story has already declined comment on the Thomas affair, so we do not know why it chose to extend such extravagant credit to a college kid -- and eventually the NCAA's bone-breakers will make their way back to Nap-town empty-handed.

Of course, if evidence is uncovered proving Thomas enjoyed extra benefits while a student-athlete at Duke (such as Thomas being extended credit by the jeweler because he was a Duke basketball player), that places him and Duke well down the path of Thomas being declared retroactively ineligible under the NCAA's strict-liability guideline, even if no one associated with Blue Devil basketball was involved. One assumes, a vacation of wins would then follow.

Although, the NCAA did quite affectively distance itself from credibility with its non-punishment in the Corey Maggette/Myron Piggie affair, in which the former Duke star, while still a high school player, received considerable cash infusions from the now-deceased Piggie, in violation of NCAA rules.

But forcing schools to vacate wins because of strict-liability seems to be a purely punitive action by the NCAA, and completely lacking in merit, even if the school being punished is Duke.

Kentucky's own John Calipari is a terrific example of why the strict-liability standard being used by the NCAA as a basis for vacating wins and championships is a ridiculous practice, and in the Thomas case -- as is true with Calipari -- vacating wins at Duke would only serve to tarnish (in many people's minds) the nearly peerless accomplishments of Mike Krzyzewski, and the achievements of the 2010 Duke basketball team.

And really, it doesn't run counter to logic to wonder how Duke, or anyone associated with Duke, could be the source of the thirty-grand? Thomas was not a star, he wasn't a future NBA draft pick (although after toiling in the NBA's D-League, Thomas signed with the New Orleans Hornets in early 2011). He was a role player who happened to start. Not generally the type of performer showered with extravagant extra benefits by either unethical coaches or boosters(or agents or runners).

It's truly a mystery -- How did Thomas come across the cash? Why did the jeweler extend credit? -- And it's likely to remain a mystery, especially if Lance Thomas continues to maintain his mute button status.

Will UConn's excellence on the basketball court continue post-Jim Calhoun?

In Kentucky, freshly retired UConn hoops coach Jim Calhoun wouldn't make a list of the top 50 most popular college basketball coaches. Although there aren't many, if any, Kentucky Wildcat fans sending notes wishing happy retirement to the sometimes brusque Hall of Fame coach, there is no denying the indelible imprint Calhoun and his baby, the UConn Huskie basketball program, have made on the college basketball landscape.

Calhoun's remarkable career began at Northeastern (from 1972-1986), where Calhoun revived a moribund program, guiding it to four post-season appearances in his final five years, and winning 248 games while losing 137. He then went to Connecticut, a team that had posted a 139-114 record the 10 seasons prior to Calhoun's arrival in 1986, and built the program from being a college basketball after-though to a national power. Calhoun won 618 games during his 26 years at UConn, and 873 overall (sixth most wins all-time).

But building is what Calhoun should be remembered for. Not reviving, as John Calipari and Rick Pitino did at Kentucky, rather constructing, from dust, a major college basketball super power. Calhoun brought outstanding players like Clifford Robinson, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Charlie Villanueva, Donyell Marshall and many other great talents to UConn, making bucolic Storrs, Connecticut a sexy place to be for many of high school basketball's elite.

It was that outstanding talent, along with great coaching calculation, which enabled Calhoun to win three national titles -- 1999, 2004, and 2011 -- allowing him to hang with impressive hardwood company. As only a precious few college basketball coaches, including John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Coach K, have won more than two NCAA championships. His seven Big East championships (to go along with 10 regular season conference titles), over a 23-year span (1990-2012), serve as the benchmark all other Big East coaches are judged against (although the Big East may be very near flat lining due to member defections).

Calhoun, in perhaps his toughest challenge, shepherded UConn into the realm of respectability and then near-dominance in the Big East. In the 1980's, the Big East boasted Georgetown, Syracuse, St. Johns, Seton Hall, and Villanova as its mainstay power teams. UConn? Unimportant and irrelevant, at least until Calhoun arrived.

He will also be remembered for flourishing in what many consider to be a young man's game, as he won all three of titles after his 55th birthday, and with UConn's 2011 NCAA tourney final victory over Butler, Calhoun, at age 68, set the record for oldest coach to win an NCAA basketball championship.

Anytime, though, one man, one coach, is responsible for bringing a previously impotent program to the forefront of its sport, when that coach leaves, the question asked is, "Will the school's success continue at current levels?"

Kevin Ollie, a 39-year old, 13-year NBA veteran (which can't hurt his cause), and former UConn player who worked under Calhoun as an assistant the last two years, has been tapped as Connecticut's new head man (at the behest of Calhoun). Ollie now has the responsibility of maintaining the Huskies' current college basketball status, even as he is faced with playing a 2013 schedule absent an appearance in any post-season tournaments due to UConn not meeting the NCAA's Academic Progress Report requirements. Not an easy task considering the talent UConn lost over the last few years.

Perhaps giving Ollie a modicum of job security, at least in the near-term, was Calhoun reportedly pushing for Ollie to be contractually protected (for an unknown length of time), but no details of Ollie's UConn deal have thus far been made public.

As tough as it might be for Ollie to maintain UConn's extraordinary success, it's that same success which renders relief to Ollie's difficult task. For Calhoun didn't build a basketball program, he built a brand, a brand that is feverishly followed and supported by a vast fan base. But it's the current high school players' recognition of that fact which matters most to the program, and since today's elite high school cagers have witnessed the apex of UConn's success, it's doubtful they will soon forget about the Huskies.

I wish nothing but success for Ollie and the UConn program, as long as the Huskies don't cross paths with the 'Cats, and they beat Louisville like a drum every time they battle.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!