Scout, NBRPA Miami VP Irving Thomas relives his life in basketball

July 9, 2014

Hayley Glatter

Photo credits: LA Times

For 26 nights in 1991, Irving Thomas lived his dream.

The former McDonald’s High School All-American and second all-time leading scorer at Florida State University took the floor for the Los Angeles Lakers that season and was a part of the team’s NBA championship run. Despite the fact that Thomas may have had a brief NBA playing career, he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything and today makes his mark on the basketball community as a scout with the Lakers and Vice President of the NBRPA Miami Chapter.

“When I was with the Lakers, it was so awesome,” Thomas said. “The guys were great; I mean, you’re playing with the Lakers, the top championship program. It was really like a big family. When you play with the Lakers, you almost have a key to the city, and so it was my greatest athletic accomplishment.”

Thomas is back with the Lakers as a scout, but before his time began in Los Angeles, he was a star player at Miami Carol City Senior High School and Florida State University. As a senior, Thomas led his high school team to a state championship, and he was the first player from South Florida to ever be named to a McDonald’s High School All-American.

“(As a McDonald’s All-American) we got a chance to meet Sonny Vaccaro and John Wooden and Sonny Hill and all these legendary guys in basketball and then play against the top competition during that time,” Thomas said. “Many of those guys went on to play in the NBA so it was great. It was challenging because you’re playing against the best of the best, but it’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

After receiving hundreds of college offers, Thomas eventually settled on the University of

Kentucky, perhaps the premier college basketball program in the country. As a Wildcat, Thomas didn’t get much playing time, but he said he enjoyed his time at UK and made lifelong friends.

After two years, however, Thomas decided to transfer and became a Florida State Seminole – a decision that ultimately led him to a lot of baskets and rebounds. He would graduate as one of the top scorers in program history, despite only having played at FSU for two seasons.

“I got a chance to play more, and the bottom line is you want an opportunity to play and show your talents on the court and not sit on the bench,” Thomas said. “I had better access to my family, and our coaching staff was great. I was a lot more comfortable at Florida State.”

Thomas worked hard to make an NBA roster after college and was eventually signed by the Lakers as a free agent and made his debut in the 1990-91 season. At the end of the season, with experience in the NBA Finals under his belt, Thomas soon took his game overseas to Europe.

Though he said the games he played wearing an Italian uniform were not the same as his time in America, the lessons he learned and people he met in Europe were invaluable.

“The level of competition isn’t the same in Europe, but I also had a great time there,” Thomas said.  “I was fortunate to be in all really good situations. I had great teammates and the management treated me very well. Even though that was Plan B, I wouldn’t change the experience of going overseas. Once I adjusted to being there, it was just really great.”

Today, Thomas’ career in basketball has him back in America, where he and his wife of 21 years are raising their four children in South Florida. He says there is no typical day as a scout for the Lakers, and he spends a lot of time studying players, watching film and traveling to games.

Once his playing days came to an end, Thomas said his transition to life off the court wasn’t easy. After having thought of himself as a basketball player for so long, it was hard for him to shift his self-image.

“When people see you as a basketball player, they think that you can’t really do anything outside of that,” Thomas said. “It took me three years to find what I’m doing in basketball, and I had to fight for the opportunity. That was tough, but luckily I got an opportunity to work with the Lakers, and it’s a dream come true. I’m doing what I want to do where I want to do it.”