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End of an era

Matt Lozar | Thursday, March 3, 2005

Mike Brey pointed out his office window.

It wasn’t at the blizzard blanketing the Notre Dame campus Tuesday.

He was pointing at Notre Dame Stadium.

Why? To describe Chris Thomas.

“I think he’s really been the poster boy for the program,” Brey said. “Quite frankly, he’s been the highest profile athlete [at Notre Dame] as well. More than any of the guys over there, because he’s been the guy, and I think he’s handled that with real grace.”

Forget about Thomas’ name being all over the Notre Dame record book.

Forget about the accolades and awards decorating his biography.

Forget about the expectations coming from being Mr. Indiana or his opening-night triple double.

What Brey indicated by simply raising his left arm confirmed the landmark decision made by the Pike high school junior in April 2000.

Thomas accomplished what he came here to do.

Making his own path

In basketball-crazed Indiana, the news of Thomas spread quickly throughout the state. Purdue coach Gene Keady and former Indiana coach Bob Knight had recruited Thomas since junior high. Thomas looked at top-flight programs outside Indiana as well – specifically Duke and Michigan State.

When it came down to it, Thomas wanted to be different.

“I kind of wanted to write my own story,” Thomas said. “I think I wanted to have the ability to get a great degree and get playing time and really do something nobody has really done. That was a huge part of the decision.”

Coming down to a choice between Notre Dame and Stanford, Thomas chose the Irish with a major reason being then-coach Matt Doherty recruited him harder than anybody.

But after one season in South Bend, the former North Carolina player left for his alma meter when the head coach position opened up in Chapel Hill. Doherty didn’t even call Thomas or Jordan Cornette, who were at a Nike Camp in Indianapolis, until the next day to let them know.

However, when he got the Irish job, Brey called Thomas “right away” and asked the Indianapolis native to come visit the campus in early August, spend some time with the new coaching staff and see if it was still going to be a fit.

Thomas never opened his recruiting back up to other schools.

“I think before he met me, when I was on the phone with him in July, he was about 90 percent back to staying,” Brey said. “I think that says a lot about him as a kid – talk about a loyalty to a university.”

Setting the bar high

Thomas didn’t walk onto campus as a celebrity. When he would play at Rolfs or outside his dorm, people would provide some advice – try out for the team.

It didn’t affect Thomas until his first collegiate game. Twenty-four points, 11 assists and 11 steals later, and Thomas wasn’t a campus unknown any longer.

“It was something I just shrugged off until the very first game when I had the triple-double or the exhibition games when I played really well,” Thomas said. “So I just set the bar real high. I expected to play real well.”

Thomas played well throughout that freshman season – earning numerous freshman or rookie of the year honors – when the Irish almost knocked off No. 1 seed Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament. One year later, the Irish finished off their second-round opponent, advancing to the school’s first Sweet 16 since 1987.

Coming off a season where he garnered Associated Press honorable mention All-American honors, Thomas declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft on May 6, 2003. Brey was right there next to him, encouraging him.

After participating in individual workouts with a number of teams, Thomas never got a guarantee he would be a first-round pick, which meant a guaranteed three-year contract.

Thomas therefore returned to school on June 16.

“I’ve always said, I think it was a great decision to explore it and if he was guaranteed a No. 1 pick, he would have gone and I would have told him you have to go, even if he didn’t want to go,” Brey said. “I think it was good for him because it showed him what he had to work on.

Becoming a leader

Those 41 days taught Thomas a lot.

It taught Thomas the decision-makers in the NBA weren’t looking for flashy point guards, but leaders.

“It was very important to my progress as a player more as a cerebral player. You see their work ethic and see what the general managers look for,” Thomas said. “They don’t look for the dunks or crossovers, but how you lead your team, win big games, pick up full court on defense.”

Attempting to better understand his role as a point guard, Thomas refocused his game for his junior year. There was only one problem – that pain in his left knee.

Thomas hurt the knee after his sophomore year but didn’t want to shut down his junior season when Brey asked him twice if he should. He actually cut his coach off in mid-sentence both times.

So Thomas stayed the course and the led team through an eight-day stretch that saw the Irish, sitting at 10-9 overall and 4-5 in the Big East, beat Connecticut, Seton Hall and Syracuse – three future NCAA tournament teams – and get back into the talk for the tournament.

“I think that kind of shows what kind of kid he is,” Brey said. “I was proud of him because he carried us. For us to get to 9-7 [in the Big East] and be on the bubble after where we were at 10-9, 4-5 and the big guy [Torin Francis] goes down, that says a lot about the kind of stretch drive he had for us … He was a hunchback by the end of the season. No wonder the knee was sore.”

The Irish finished at 16-11 but didn’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday. After two years of going to the Big Dance, the Irish settled for the NIT.

“It was real tough. That was probably the lowest point of our four-year career, Jordan [Cornette] and mine,” Thomas said. “Walking out of coach Brey’s basement knowing that you couldn’t even play in the tournament.

“I think it was a motivator, a wake-up call.”

Leaving a legacy

That motivation stayed with Thomas during the off-season, despite his April 9, 2004 surgery preventing him from returning to the court until August.

Now it’s put his team in position for the NCAA tournament – one final chance for Thomas to leave his mark on the Notre Dame program.

“Nobody deserves it more. I think anybody around the country with this kid, you want him to go out playing in the NCAA tournament,” Brey said. “I don’t know if anybody wants that more than he and I.”

Regardless of what happens this season, Thomas has already left his mark on the program for next season. Brey said he now can recruit a segment of high school players Notre Dame hasn’t seen since the middle of the 1980s. Players that led to the incoming freshman class being rated in the top 15 in the country.

Players such as Luke Zeller from Washington, Ind. who stayed in-state but came to South Bend.

Players such as Kyle McAlarney from Staten Island, N.Y. who is the heir apparent to Thomas at the point guard position and came to Notre Dame largely because of what Thomas has done during the past four years and the relationship Brey has with the current point guard.

“He’s one of the best guards in the nation, and he’s gotten better over his four years there, and he’s been quarterbacking his team since he was a freshman,” McAlarney said. “It influenced me a lot. I saw the style of play. And I think I have kind of a similar game to him offensively,”

It’s not easy to match Thomas’ success by filling out the stat sheet, but Brey’s been judging his point guard by what he’s measured by – wins and losses.

It’s something Thomas’ teammates and fellow senior co-captain Cornette see all the time, putting the team above himself.

“People are going to naturally associate you with wanting to achieve personal achievements. He’s the guy that would trade it above all else to have team achievements,” Cornette said. “He wants it to be the team did this and not CT did this. That’s a huge testament. He puts everything aside for the betterment of the team. That’s selflessness.”

Thomas could have taken the easy road and followed the rest of the top players from Indiana and stayed at a state school.

He could have thought about his bank account and left for the NBA after either of his first two seasons.

He could have put himself first last season and repaired his aching knee that got iced down minutes after every game before the quarterfinal run in the NIT.

But for four years, Thomas hasn’t put himself first.

“I just look at the wins and losses over the last four years,” Thomas said. “In my eyes, my main basketball goal was to help turn this program around.

“I think that was my main goal, and I feel like I’ve accomplished it pretty well.”

Thomas has one more home game and the Big East tournament to prepare for an NCAA tournament run – the tournament he came to Notre Dame for.

“It’s been almost a whole year since we’ve been back. Even though you’re in postseason tourney play, it’s a totally different atmosphere,” Thomas said. “Your program’s not buzzing about it, and when we went sophomore year, it was the biggest thing to come around for a long time.”

The biggest thing to come around, that is, since Chris Thomas.