Tell us a little about yourself (who you are, background, etc.)?
My name is Nigel Thomas. I am a Chicago native. I’m a Langston University alum as well as a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. I’m a husband to Carrie Thomas and father to Jaidyn, Jazelle, and Jurnee Thomas. I’m entering my 2nd year as an assistant basketball coach for North Carolina Central University. This is my 17th year coaching basketball—previous stops North Carolina Wesleyan College (Assistant Coach; 2014-2019), Langston University (Head Coach; 2011-2014/Assistant Coach 2008-2011), and Prairie State College (Assistant Coach; 2003-2008).
When did you know you wanted to coach basketball and how did the transition from player to coach go for you? Coach Robert Fairbanks sparked that interest early in my playing days by saying I would make a tremendous coach. He told me a job would be waiting for me once I graduated from college. I had two years left of school and knew I had a passion for wanting to help the youth through the game of basketball. I wasn’t always the standout guy on the court. I displayed my passion for the game through watching film, observing the day-to-day operations from my coaches and making sure I was helping my teammates to get better at their game. After I graduated in 2003, I got my first coaching job with Prairie State College as an assistant.
What’s been your biggest highlight as coach and how did you overcome any low points? My biggest highlight would be with winning the MEAC championship last season with North Carolina Central University. We beat our rival school, North Carolina A&T on our home court; on ESPN. It was a great rebound to the 20-point whooping they put on us weeks prior. If you following MEAC sports then you know how huge the NCCU/NCAT rivalry so to pull that off was special.
The lowest point for me professionally and personally was being let go from my alma mater, Langston University. I felt like I let so many people down—my players, my family, the alums that went to bat for me and myself included. I felt that I didn’t meet the expectations I set for myself. It’s a tough pill to swallow when someone tells you the job you’re done isn’t good enough. But, my lowest point was a much needed moment in my life. My mom would always tell me, “The best is yet to come even if the worst has already happened.” Looking back on that time, it made me humble. It made me appreciate the people who are in my corner. It’s how we got through it that storm, God and family.
How do you balance life at home and demands of being a coach? It is not easy. I was really bad at it during my time at Langston. I was so locked in and focused on getting the job done. I also hoped it would land me my next big coaching opportunity. Having that mindset is a disservice to the players, a disservice to the game, but most importantly a disservice to my family. I’m blessed that my wife, Carrie, knows my passion for this game. She knows how demanding coaching is. She’s really good about calling me out when I’m not taking care of my job at home or—when I’m not doing a good job of achieving the work-home balance. After the job at Langston, I’ve learned to reprioritize what’s really important in life. Thankfully the last two coaches I worked for have been really family-oriented. I try to bring my girls with me on recruiting trips and bring them up to hangout at the office. This pandemic has given me the opportunity to spend more time at home and with my family than I have for my entire career. Getting time to see my girls grow and to be engage with them is great. Especially because my career won’t allow me to always be there and thankfully family understands that aspect of the job.
What are some things you’ve discovered during the pandemic that you and your family enjoy doing? Grilling! I haven’t grilled since my days on the yard. I’ve been working to be a grill master especially since that’s what we, “Da Bruhz”, do. My daughters enjoy seeing me grill and they love flipping burgers and hotdogs. My wife is the cook so she will allow me to do that. Also, watching movies and having conversations with them. We’re a Disney+ family so we get together a watch a good movie and I may or may not be sleep during those movies but I love it. I love that I’m getting to learn my girls as they grow. Kids are practical so it’s the time you spend with them is what’s important.
What was your fatherhood experience like growing up and how did that impact you as a father yourself? My father and I have a solid relationship. After my parents divorced, I would spend the weekends with him. He introduced me to the game of basketball. He played well to my interest which was sports. That’s our thing which is sports! He taught me the value of hard work. He taught me that when you work hard; good things will happen for you. He was a guy that if he or we didn’t have it; he would legally find a way to get it. Whether it was working overtime– picking up extras jobs; he would find a way to make it happen. That’s something I teach my girls which is to work hard, sacrifice some time, be passionate and committed with whatever you do.
How has the NCCU’s coaching staff and players adapted to changes brought on by the pandemic? As of this recording, the NCAA came out and said we are to start November 25. Prior to the announcement, we really didn’t know when we would be starting. Our last game was March 14, we weren’t sure how to navigate through the unknowing with our players through the spring and summer. As a staff, we had to ride the line of not overbearing the players with information but also not letting them get too disconnected from us. We had to figure out “how to win the wait” as Doc Rivers said. We met with our guys twice a week via Zoom and we would talk hoops, social injustice, or whatever they had going on. The players are back on campus. We had to go through COVID testing in order to get back to working out. Now that we have a start date, we’re full steam ahead and plan to do so as safely as possible.
How did the passing of Kobe Bryant impact you as a fan and a father of girls? I’ve followed Kobe’s career since the ’96 NBA Draft. I remember watching the draft at home–I had it on tape the whole nine yards. I was sitting on the coach and seeing it on screen and it put me in a world of shock. We were close in age, but he was an individual that you knew would be around forever. Not only hearing about him and his daughter, but the other victims as well was just tragic. Learning about who he was after his career really put things in perspective for me. I appreciate hearing about who he was as a father and the relationships he had with his girls. It made me hug my wife and daughter tight and appreciate to name, GirlDAD
If you could write a short letter to your father starting with “Dear Father,” what would you say?
Dear Father…Dear Ricky Guy Thomas,
Thank you for impacting me the way you’ve done. Our relationship hasn’t always been peaches and cream but I love you for who you are. I thank you for introducing me to the game that I love. I thank you for showing what hard work, commitment and sacrifice means. I appreciate you and I appreciate our relationship for what it is. I love you!
Nigel Isaiah Thomas.
Before we go, I gotta ask–who is the GOAT?
I grew up in Chicago so the GOAT for me is Michael Jeffery Jordan–He transcended the game of basketball from style and winning in general. I have Kobe in a close 2nd and of course you can not mention Lebron, Kareem and Bill Russell. They’ve all transcended the game in their own right and put their stamp on the game of basketball. Kobe was the ultimate competitor–He had the Mamba Mentality. What Lebron is doing is off the charts! You cannot deny that. Right now, he’s locked in and easily has a good five years of ball left in him. But I will say–ask me the question again when Lebron is finished playing.
How can people keep in touch with you and where can they follow Eagles basketball?