David Thomas sat alone in the stands Friday at Pima College’s West Gymnasium, looking over the high school talent in front of him, keeping mental notes of who could play at the next level.
Only three summers ago, the roles were reversed for Thomas.
He was coaching his Arizona Power Academy AAU team in Tucson preparing for tournaments in Las Vegas and other locales. College coaches from various levels observed his talent from Southern Arizona.
Now, Thomas is watching local kids play with the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough as an assistant coach at Park University, an NAIA school in Gilbert.
“I miss those relationships with my former players,” Thomas said of his experience leading Arizona Power in Tucson. “When you have a kid that entered your program at seventh grade and went all the way through until when he was a senior you build a really strong relationship.
“I will develop new ones.”
Life has dealt Thomas’ various challenges, including having to be revived by his wife Ashley when he went into a seizure in 2015 and leaving after parts of two years as Pusch Ridge’s head coach because of health and family reasons.
In the last two years — serving as graduate assistant at Colorado Christian in Denver — he got his feet on the ground in life, coaching and his education. He earned his master’s degree in Organizational Leadership at Colorado Christian.
Thomas feels more at ease returning to Arizona with his family (Ashley and sons Christopher and Benjamin) to coach under Gordon Stubblefield at Park University, a new program that starts play in 2019-20.
“Home is where the heart is,” Thomas said at Pima, where the Aztec Classic is held this weekend. “When this opportunity arose, almost simultaneously by chance, my wife was offered a job (by Wells Fargo as an administrator) in Phoenix. It was a no-brainer.”
At the outset of his coaching career, following when he played at Southwestern College (now Arizona Christian) in Phoenix, Thomas, 34, was bent on becoming a head coach at the NCAA Division I level.
He joined Brian Peabody‘s staff at Ironwood Ridge High School out of college and helped coach the Nighthawks through 2013 before becoming the head coach at Catalina and then the head coach at Pusch Ridge in 2015.
“When I was younger and I first started out, I would tell Brian Peabody, ‘I’m going to be a Division I coach some day.’ As you get more mature and life gets a hold of you, you kind of prioritize things differently,” said Thomas, who played at Pusch Ridge under former Arizona player Jason Stewart.
“One of the things I love doing right now is being a father. The lower levels like NAIA or Division III, they allow you to have a work-life balance, whereas even with a Division II school, Colorado Christian, it was tough being on the road. The last half of our season we had a lot of road games.
“That usually entails me gone from Wednesday or Thursday to Sunday. It takes a lot away from that. That doesn’t include the recruiting that you do throughout the week when you’re at home. (Being with Park University) will allow me to be more of a family man. My goal is to hopefully be a head coach at the NAIA level.”
Park University is the fourth NAIA basketball program in Arizona joining Benedictine University at Mesa, Arizona Christian and Embry-Riddle.
Becoming part of Park’s staff happened by chance. Thomas sent Stubblefield an e-mail informing him two players at Colorado Christian were interested in transferring there.
“He was like, ‘I was going to reach out to you. I’ve heard about you. I know you have a lot of connections. I would really love to talk with you,'” Thomas said. “I made a trip down here. We actually met here at Pima. We had a work out with a few local kids that I wanted to see work out. We had dinner that evening. He ended up offering me the job and it worked itself out.”
Thomas learned more of his coaching craft under Colorado Christian coach Jeff Hironaka, a former Washington State assistant who helped develop Klay Thompson into an NBA player while with the Cougars.
Thomas’ long network of contacts now extends to Colorado with Hironaka. In his time with Arizona Power, Pusch Ridge, and coaching with Peabody and Pima assistant Mike Morgan while at Ironwood Ridge and with the Tucson Heat AAU program, Thomas has developed an extensive list of coaches and players he can reach out to for information on potential recruits.
He shares a background with Arizona coach Sean Miller having coached each of Miller’s three sons — Austin, Cameron and Braden. He coached Austin when he played with the Tucson Heat and Cameron with Arizona Power. He has also helped train Braden, who will be a senior next season at Salpointe.
The Lancers’ head coach, Jim Reynolds, was an assistant with Thomas at Pusch Ridge in the 2015-16 season.
Of the interesting dynamic of coaching sons of a Division I head coach, Thomas said, “Miller was cool. He never told me how to coach. He never told me what to do. He said, ‘Hey, I think my son needs to get better in this and this” and I would develop workouts that tailored to that. Other than that, it was a very mutual respect. At the end of the day, those kids had their own identity. I never really looked at them as Sean’s kids, just as Austin, Cameron and Braden. I developed a great relationship with Cameron while coaching Arizona Power. I never thought of him as Sean’s kid.”
Thomas views his new position at Park University as a way to give Tucson-area players another opportunity to extend their basketball careers to college.
David Thomas on his time with Arizona Power
“I miss those relationships with my former players. When you have a kid that entered your program at seventh grade and went all the way through until when he was a senior you build a really strong relationship. I will develop new ones”
He will maintain constant visibility in Tucson with Peabody and Morgan at Pima (Park has games scheduled in a tournament with the Aztecs next season), high school coaches and AAU teams such as the Tucson Spartans (led by former Arizona Power coach Marvin Beckwith).
Coaching at the NAIA level comes without restrictions of a quiet period like with the NCAA. He can approach and contact potential recruits at any time.
“We’re going to have one, possible two, developmental teams (at Park),” Thomas said. “Some guys may not make it on our traveling varsity squad. They can possibly still be in the program, play a 28-game schedule against other colleges and then have an ability to move up. That’s what I’m really excited about.
“We will be able to get 30 to 35 guys a year in hopes to improve guys. Hopefully, we can get it as successful as Pima’s gotten their program. They are able to get a lot of guys and get them going. They are in the gym a lot, probably more than anybody else. So I’m hoping we can do something similar.”
Thomas was not recruiting any player in particular at the Aztec Classic. The time at Pima this weekend went beyond observing local players.
It was a chance to feel at home again after being away in Denver the last two years.
“I want to get to know some of the kids that are playing, but I also want to continue to build relationships with certain coaches,” Thomas said. “I look across the gym, there’s (Sabino coach) Marty Roth, for example. I want to talk to him. It’s been two years since I’ve been here in the basketball realm. I just wanted to get acclimated.
“It feels good to be back.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.