IUS assistant coach gives players hope after a life of hardship

IUS Horizon

Alvin Gene Thomas
Alvin Gene Thomas

Alvin Gene Thomas, IUS assistant men’s basketball coach, was on his way to becoming one of Denny Crum’s champions.

Thomas was a star basketball player at Male high school in Louisville Ky. He was recruited by Bill Olsen and had been working out with Wiley Brown, IUS men’s basketball head coach, when his career as a player was ended abruptly at the hands of a drunk driver.

The car accident left him with a broken neck and no chance of ever playing college basketball.

“I got a hangman’s break,” Thomas said. “There were five people the same day that came to University hospital with the same break, and I was the only one who survived.”

Thomas said his chance of survival was sketchy, and, during the experience, he was declared legally dead for 90 seconds.

During those 90 seconds of lifelessness, Thomas said he was aware of what was happening.

“It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.  So beautiful I have a hard time describing it,” Thomas said.

“My father had died six months before that happened, and I saw him,” Thomas said. “When they revived me, and before they took me to surgery, I told my mom I was going to be OK, and dad made it to heaven.” 

Once Thomas was stable and out of the hospital, he was fitted with a neck brace and had to undergo intense physical therapy.

“It took a long time for me to get the courage to step back on a basketball court, because I had been used to wearing that brace for a year, and I thought if it was off and I jumped my head would fall off,” Thomas said, laughing.

Thomas went on to coach men’s basketball at Seneca high school in Louisville while working as a laboratory technician at University hospital.

During this time, Thomas founded the Louisville Street Heat AAU basketball program.A program designed to teach kids to be more efficient on the basketball court, and in the classroom.

“I opened up the doors for kids who didn’t have the talent of a Lebron James or Kobe Bryant, to give them incentive to keep practicing basketball while maintaining their GPA, so they could qualify for academic scholarships,” Thomas said.

After three years at Seneca, Thomas was asked to be an assistant coach at IU Southeast, a decision that Thomas said didn’t come easy with an ill mother to care for.

“My mom was terminally ill with Sarcoidosis, a disease that causes inflammation of the vital organs due to miscommunication in the immune system, and I was afraid that coaching at IU Southeast would take too much time out of schedule to take care of her,” Thomas said.

Despite her illness and need for assistance, Thomas said his mother eased his worries and told him to take the job.

“She said she was more worried about the boys on that team, and she thought if I could do some good for them, then I shouldn’t worry about her,” Thomas said.

Thomas’s mother passed away while he was coaching last season. After the Grenadiers won their conference title last year, players Dejon Gary and Carlos Mitchell took down parts of the net, and told Thomas to place them on his mother’s grave.

As a coach, Thomas said he tries to give the same guidance and peace of mind his mother gave him, to his players.

“We treat the gym floor like a church,” Thomas said. “When you come in here, you’re supposed to leave all of your problems outside. “

Thomas said, despite this mantra, some players still have problems and worries that he helps them work through.

During a recent practice, Thomas had one of those conversations with player Michael Woodson Jr.

“Mike was worried about losing playing time because of problems he was having with his knee, and I told him that, when the time comes, his knee will work fine,” Thomas said.  “Afterwards he looked down, shook his head and said: ‘You know what, coach Thomas, you’re all right.’”

Thomas said, as a player or person; if you can fight through pain, you call feel the love.

By MICHAEL MARCELL
Staff Writer
mdmarcel@ius.edu