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Local News

Indiana basketball legend settles in Bolingbrook, finds calling coaching youth

One day in 2011, when Daryl Thomas was coaching youth basketball, a young boy approached him, holding a copy of “Knight: My Story.”

“(The boy) told me that there was a chapter in the book where Bob Knight talks about me, Daryl Thomas, and a conversation we had about my life after basketball,” Thomas recalled in an interview last week. “That young boy told me, ‘The book describes how you always wanted to coach children. You are now able to do exactly what you want.’”

It was a goal the Bolingbrook resident set for himself as a teenager, before he went on to win a National Championship with Coach Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers in 1987 as a 6-foot-7 forward. And it’s a goal the Westchester native is carrying out today as a youth basketball coach with the Chicago Bulls/Sox Academy in nearby Lisle.

“I love coaching kids at this age,” Thomas said. “I try to remind them that this is one of the last times they can all play competitive together and still have fun. At this age, enjoying the game is the most important thing; everything changes in high school. But I need to keep them on their toes, teach them accountability.”

Before joining the Bulls/Sox Academy in 2011, Thomas had an eight-year stint as the coach and assistant coach of his alma mater St. Joseph High School’s sophomore and varsity basketball teams. He left opting to instead teach private lessons, lead camps and coach to younger basketball players.

As a senior at St. Joseph’s in 1983, Thomas received Illinois All-State honors and was named a Parade and McDonald’s High School All-American. Such accolades garnered attention from dozens of high profile collegiate basketball programs, according to Thomas, but he was swayed by a conversation he and his parents had with Knight.

“Coach Knight was the only guy to come into my house and sit down with my parents and me,” Thomas said. “He told us that he could not guarantee me any playing time, which caught me a little off guard. But he said that if I came to Indiana, earned my four-year degree, grew as a man, and put in the necessary work on and off the court, I would not have to worry about money again. I loved his honesty.”

Thomas’ dedication and team-first mentality earned him ample playing time as a Hoosiers starter. He was soon named team captain, earned 1987 First Team Big Ten honors and was a driving force during the Hoosiers’ run to a 1987 National Championship.

Thomas even had the game-winning assist in the championship game against Syracuse, setting up Keith Smart for what’s now known around Bloomington, Ind. as, “The Shot.”

Following an abbreviated NBA career, Thomas traveled through Europe, Asia and South America, playing professional basketball and appearing in countless tournaments. It was an experience he described as “eye-opening and mesmerizing.”

While he felt blessed by the opportunity to showcase his skills, something was missing, and Thomas returned stateside. He admitted that while his competitive spirit still burned bright, it was time to turn the page and do something different.

He eventually settled down in Bolingbrook, married his wife, Marta Thomas, and had three children, Kayla, Kyle and Adam.

Basketball still remains an integral piece of Thomas’ life; he describes the basketball court as his “home away from home,” and the children he coaches and their parents as an “extended family.”

His second home is more like a mansion: Lisle’s sprawling Bulls/Sox Academy offers year-round camps, clinics, private lessons and training in beginner through advanced basketball, baseball and fastpitch softball programs. Their facility boasts three basketball courts, batting cages and weight rooms with state-of-the-art fitness equipment.

Although Thomas is only in his second year at the academy, his coaching chops are well-seasoned. During the eighth-grade club team practice Thursday, the journeyman-turned-coach paced back and forth by the scorer’s table, shouting encouragements as the children ran half-court plays.

After Thursday’s practice, Thomas hung around, speaking with parents, laughing with children and reminding everyone of their log-jammed weekend tournament schedule. As usual, he is the last one to leave the gym.

“This is hard work,” Thomas said. “The practices, the weekend tournaments, private lessons, it’s a lot. But, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. This is what I’m supposed to do. I love giving back to these kids. It’s so great to watch them grow and develop into young men and women. I’m truly blessed.”

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