Featured: LaToya Thomas, First Lady

photo: Mississippi State Athletics

by Torsheta Jackson

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A young girl in a maroon t-shirt and white shorts stands with a basketball under her arm, staring at a wall in Mississippi State’s Humphrey Coliseum. The wall features pictures of former Lady Bulldogs. She knows that these are the best of the best and looks for Victoria Vivians and Morgan William, her new beloved heroes. In the middle of her search, she pauses at a figure caught mid-dribble and notices that this lady has the longest list of honors. She reads the awards that stretch like a catalog, but realizes she is unfamiliar with this name.

Before there was Queen Victoria or the miracle shot by Morgan, Mount Teaira and coach Vic Schaefer, there was LaToya Thomas. Arguably the most talented Lady Bulldog ever, Thomas was a 6’2” forward with a sweet pull-up jumper and a knack for finding the rim off the drive. As versatile as she was on offense, she was deadly on defense. So much so that she still holds the program’s records for field goals, points per game, rebounds and blocked shots and is MSU’s all-time leading scorer — men or women — with 2,981 points (23.8 ppg).

Yet for many, the name LaToya Thomas doesn’t quite ring a bell.

Thomas shot her first basketball in her neighbor’s backyard on the corner of Starling and Third in Greenville, Miss. She and some friends had attached a bicycle tire rim to a backboard left hanging on a tree. They would enjoy those days of pickup games, playing long into the warm evenings of the Mississippi Delta. At age nine, Thomas’s life would forever be changed when her mother died of organ failure.

“At first I didn’t know what was going on because I was so young.” Thomas says. “But it taught me something I didn’t know I had in me. And that’s to fight. I had to fight the whole time. I was fighting within myself.”

As difficult as it is for any child to lose their mother, the death also meant Thomas would lose her surroundings. When her aunt took the responsibility of raising her, it prompted a move to a new, completely different area of town.

But the mystery of life often makes opportunity out of tragedy: with the move, Thomas was suddenly able to attend the recreational league basketball games at the local community center close by. She made short order of seizing it.

.“I went to the game, but I wasn’t on the (local) team yet and they needed another player,” Thomas recalls. “So I came out of the stands and played.”

The player she would become, well, became the stuff of legend. Thomas was practicing and playing on the Greenville High varsity team when she was only in the 8th grade. By the end of her senior season, she was a two-time Mississippi Player of the Year and being heavily recruited by powerhouses such as UConn, Florida, North Carolina, and Auburn.

Pat Summitt, the great coach at the University of Tennessee, made the trip to the Mississippi Delta herself to convince Thomas that Knoxville was the place for her. But the most important factor for the three-time Dandy Dozen who had lost her mother at age nine was to be near her family. She would take only one campus visit. When it ended, she knew Mississippi State University was where she would play college basketball.

“When I met the coaching staff, I instantly knew. I instantly fell in love. I’m a family person so to stay in Mississippi was my dream,” Thomas says. “I felt comfortable with the players. I fell in love with the school.”

The Parade All-American’s commitment added her to an impressive collection of talent assembled by head coach Sharon Fanning-Oatis in an effort to build a respectable SEC program. Thomas would key several successful runs, leading the Lady Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament three times during her career.

Each year, her list of accolades grew longer. As a freshman, she was named SEC Newcomer of the Year. She earned the SEC Player of the Year award twice. By the end of her time at State, she had been named first team All-SEC all four years, was a four-time Kodak All-American and a three time National Player of the Year finalist (Thomas lost out her senior year to UConn G.O.A.T. Diana Taurasi).

Thomas a star before her time at State (photo: MSU Athletics)

“I wanted to make the state better in a lot of aspects. I wanted to make my home better. I was born and raised here and I wanted Mississippi to have everything the other big schools had,” Thomas says.

But that Mississippi State was not the one we know now. There were no televised games or packed “Dawg Walks”. The Naismith award finalist recalls limited facilities that forced her and her teammates to practice in the old McArthur Gym. A marketing attempt to “Pack the Hump” against powerhouse LSU proved futile. The largest crowd Thomas played in front of in Starkville was less than 7,000. Despite being the winningest group in program history at the time, the team never garnered the fan support or national attention the Lady Bulldogs enjoy now.

Timing is everything. In some ways, Thomas came before her time: a transcendent women’s basketball player at a time when Mississippi didn’t put much stock into women’s basketball. She may have also been bigger than the stage Mississippi State could offer nationally at the time. Thomas shrugs at the thought.

“I don’t know if I was before my time. I just enjoyed the moment. I know we didn’t have all the recognition we have now. All I know is that I enjoyed the time that I spent there. I actually grew up there. That was the most crucial part of my life, I think, that time in Starkville.”

Spotlight or not, Thomas’s performance placed her squarely in the sights of professional scouts. They saw her for the player she was: a powerhouse of athleticism, skill, basketball IQ and instinct. She was selected first in the 2003 WNBA draft by the Cleveland Rockers, becoming the first person from the state of Mississippi to be taken as a top pick in any professional sport.

“It meant a lot, even though I really couldn’t enjoy it because I had to leave and get on a plane that night (Thomas was accepting the prestigious NCAA Senior Class award in Kansas City). But it meant a lot coming from a small town, I just wanted everyone to be proud and to put Mississippi State on the map.”

Her time in the WNBA was a mixed bag of good, injured and again before her time. The Rockers folded after her successful rookie year, a casualty of the league’s early financial troubles, and Thomas was again up for the draft. She went to San Antonio, where she averaged 12 points per game over three seasons. Then came a torn meniscus, another expansion draft, and Thomas’s time in the league accelerated to a close.

“I really couldn’t find my groove. It was much tougher. You’re playing against tougher competition,” she acknowledges. “But it was okay still: I learned a lot of things and I’m very grateful for my experience.”

Thomas would continue to play overseas for the next five years, as she had done during the offseasons in the WNBA. In 2014, after 12 years of playing professional basketball, Thomas put her shoes up for the last time, for the very same reason she chose Mississippi State so long ago. She wanted to be close to her family.

“I felt like I had missed out on so much, as far as watching my nieces and nephews grow. I was always playing. I only had, maybe, two to three weeks to see my family. So I felt that it was time to travel a little and spend time with my family.”

Thomas spends her time now watching her nieces and nephews follow in her footsteps. Two are playing basketball in Texas and her nephew is a 6’8 senior at O’Bannon High School in her hometown. She enjoys teaching them the game and sharing her experiences. Being stateside has, of course, also given her time to visit the campus which launched her career and holds some of her fondest memories. But it’s a very different Mississippi State than the one she left. The facilities, the campus, the town itself have changed with the speed and purpose of her famous pull-up.

Thomas: “We didn’t really have what they have now. We didn’t have our own practice facilities. We had to share with the men. It’s totally different. You have dorms with the condo feel. Everything is new to me. When I go for an event, I sometimes forget which way to go because they’ve closed that street off.”

Perhaps more than anything, women’s basketball has changed at Mississippi State. On every corner with a “Hail State” sign, you might be greeted by a random stranger and a “Praise the Lord and Go Dawgs” shout – Schaefer’s signature line. The Lady Bulldogs are a national powerhouse and a prominent fixture in the NCAA tourney.

Thomas, now a member of the MSU Sports Hall of Fame, had the opportunity to watch the Lady Dogs play in 2016. It was a packed house for a nationally televised game – neither of which she thought could ever happen.

“We have been so close to an SEC Championship so for them to come back and win this year… I cried. It was overwhelming for me. To see them actually get there and win was an amazing feeling for me,” she says. “I get emotional just thinking about it because the women have come a long way. It’s great and I’m a proud alumni. I bleed maroon and white.”

The young girl in Humphrey Coliseum doesn’t recognize Thomas, but she understands the writing on the wall, she feels in the crowd of ten thousand, what this lady meant to the program. Thomas may not enjoy the notoriety she deserves as the greatest women’s basketball player in Mississippi history. She is comfortable in her own legacy. Beyond the catalog of awards etched boldy on a wall, she wants to be remembered for her impact on the game she loved.

“I try not to get wrapped up in all the accomplishments and achievements. Yeah, I would like to be known as a pioneer of the game in the state,” Thomas says. “Most of all, I just want people to know that no matter where you come from and no matter where you go, anything is possible. I came from a small town and went to – at the time – a small school. Not everybody wanted to go there (then). To look at it now and to see how it’s changed over the years, I feel so proud.”

As the first lady of Mississippi State women’s basketball, Thomas has every right to be.

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