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Wednesday, March 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boys Basketball

4A State Hoops: Curtis' Thomas no small talent

Special to The Seattle Times

UNIVERSITY PLACE — He's a flashy 5-foot-9 guard with hops, energy and charisma to spare.

He has a 41-inch vertical jump and throws down crowd-wowing dunks with ease.

He's Isaiah Thomas, the 253's answer to Nate Robinson.

When Thomas, a junior point guard, leads Curtis High School into the Class 4A state boys basketball tournament today, he will draw comparisons to the former Rainier Beach and Washington Huskies star who now plays in the NBA.

Third-ranked Curtis (23-2) is a contender to bring home a championship thanks to Thomas, who averages 31.6 points with his fearless attitude and sweet, left-handed jump shot.

"I get that all the time," Thomas said of the Robinson comparisons. "I love it. He's small and he made it the level I want to be at. He's just a great player, definitely someone I look up to."

Like Robinson, Thomas plans to play football next season and even hears chants of "Gary Coleman" from opposing crowds.

The most striking similarity between Thomas and Robinson, however, has nothing to do with size or leaping ability. It's their passion for the game, the joy they wear on their faces every day on the court.

At practice a week before the state tournament, Thomas runs through defensive drills, fighting through screens with a huge grin. It's the same way in games. That engaging personality, the smile and the swagger. You can tell this kid is having fun.

"We just try to have fun out there because we're still kids," said Thomas, who scored 52 points in a game this season and has gone over 40 four times. "That's the main thing. Once you're not having fun you shouldn't be playing, so I just focus on having fun. Win or lose, I just want to have fun."

Thomas has had plenty of fun in the past two years, rapidly transforming from mystery ninth-grader to the state's best junior.

On the air


Today: Jackson boys vs. Curtis, 9 a.m., KRKO (1380 AM) and KLAY (1180 AM); Cascade boys vs. Mount Tahoma, 10:30 a.m., KRKO (1380 AM); Puyallup girls, vs. Woodinville, 3:30 p.m., KLAY (1180 AM); Southridge boys vs. South Kitsap, 7 p.m., KHHO (850 AM); Snohomish boys vs. Prairie, 8:30 p.m., KRKO (1380 AM) and KHHO (850 AM).

Thursday: Curtis boys vs. TBA, 9 a.m. or 3:30 p.m., KLAY (1180 AM); Puyallup girls vs. TBA, 9 a.m. or 3:30 p.m., KLAY (1180 AM); boys quarterfinals, 7 and 8:30 p.m., KHHO (850 AM).

Friday: Boys semifinals, 7 and 8:30 p.m., KHHO (850 AM).

Saturday: Boys and girls finals, 7 and 9 p.m., FSN, KJR (950 AM).

"We knew him from down at the junior high. He was just this little kid that loved to shoot all the time," said Chris Sprinker, a senior center/forward for Curtis.

Not a lot has changed.

Thomas is two years older, but not a whole lot bigger. And the kid still loves to shoot.

As a 5-8 sophomore, Thomas surprised everyone — including himself — by averaging 26.2 points.

"I've always been confident in my game, but I did not think I was going to do that," he said.

This season, the word is out. Thomas is not sneaking up on anyone, despite his 5-9 — OK, so maybe that's a little generous — 165-pound frame. Teams are making a point of trying to stop him.

But Curtis coach Lindsay Bemis said Thomas might be a better passer than scorer. He averages 4.7 assists, 2.4 steals and 3.4 rebounds, and his all-around game attracts recruiters from all over the country.

Thomas just might follow in Robinson's footsteps to Washington. The Huskies are one of several marquee programs pursuing Thomas.

Thomas, who hopes to make a college decision in April, has offers from Washington, UCLA, Florida and Kentucky and is also being recruited by Georgetown. Indiana was high on his list before coach Mike Davis decided to step down.

If Thomas had picked the Hoosiers, it would have been déjà vu in Bloomington. Indiana is where former NBA star Isiah Thomas played in college, leading the Hoosiers to an NCAA title in 1981. Isaiah Thomas, was named, at least in part, for the former Pistons star.

Thomas' father, James, was a Lakers fan, and was so sure his team would beat the Pistons for the 1989 title that he made a bet with his friend: If the Lakers lost, he would name his son after Detroit's star.

But Isaiah's mother, Bettina Baldtrip, is a religious woman, and agreed only if the name was spelled the biblical way.

Growing up, his famous name drove him to be better.

"I knew that since I had his name I might as well be playing basketball," he said. "I figured I'd better work hard and live up to that name."

Working hard at basketball is something Thomas has always done. Always the little guy, he knew he'd have to put in extra work to succeed.

"I was always the short guy in the group," he said. "I knew I was short, so I had to work harder than everybody else, so that made me a better player. I've been shorter than everybody my whole life. You just have to have heart and no fear against anyone."

He took that commitment seriously even as a young child.

"Every day, it was wake up and go play ball," said Roderick Peters, a sophomore on Curtis' junior varsity who lived with Isaiah's family for a year in grade school. "Everybody always knew he was going to be good. He always had that shot. The weird part is he always had so much dedication that most kids don't. Every day, it was basketball."

One area in which Thomas admits to needing a better work ethic is the classroom. After his son was slapped with a one-game suspension for skipping a class in December, James Thomas took Isaiah's uniform to Bemis and said Isaiah was done for the season.

"Basketball is number two and school is number one in my book," his father said. "You can't go anywhere without an education."

James let his son return, but on a short leash.

"He's gotten a lot better," he said. "That woke him up a little. It's all part of growing up."

Isaiah agrees that a lesson was learned.

"Yeah, that got my attention," he said. "He wants me to think school first, and I'm working on that. He gets on me, reminds me that I should be putting school first and not just worrying about basketball."

The voice message on Thomas' cellphone indicates he's trying to live that lesson: "Hey, this is Isaiah. I'm either hitting the books or hitting jump shots."

Books before jump shots. He seems to be listening.

After leading the Vikings to a surprise semifinal appearance in last year's state tournament, Thomas knows the team from suburban Tacoma wears a bull's-eye this year. The Vikings have been at or near the top of the state rankings all season.

Things will be different for Curtis at the Tacoma Dome this year, but Thomas is looking forward to the challenge.

"We were a young team last year and people weren't looking at us to be that good," he said. "This year everyone will be coming after us."

There's something else about that other overachieving, undersized guard, the one from the 206: He won a state title and tournament MVP award with 3A Rainier Beach in 2002.

Something not lost on Thomas.

"I want to get that trophy," he said. "We're just going to try to come in and play our A game and play as a team. I think if we play as a team and play hard, no one can stop us."

John Boyle: jboyle@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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