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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Charles "Red" Thomas

Sport: Basketball

Induction Year: 1969

 

A half century after he became the first basketball All-American in the history of Northwestern State University, and more than 20 years after he became the second basketball player inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, Charles “Red” Thomas acknowledged the probability that he owed both distinctions to a broken nose.

It happened in March of 1941, when a school then known as Louisiana State Normal sent its basketball team to Kansas City for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament.

Josh Briley, Normal 's 6-foot, 9-inch center, scored 24 points and Thomas, a 5-5 forward who was the smallest starter in the tournament, added 13 as Coach H. Lee Prather's Demons scored a 50-43 victory over the Warrensburg (Mo.) Teachers in the first round. But an unknown Warrensburg substitute came off the bench and threw a punch that splattered Thomas' nose all over his face.

When the Demons returned to their hotel, a female doctor was summoned to attend to Thomas' nose. She inserted sticks into each nostril, lined them up and literally hammed the nose into place with a mallet.

The following day, Texas Wesleyan overcame a seven-point halftime deficit to eliminate the Louisiana team 56-47 as Briley scored 17 points; Wiley Cummings added 12 and Thomas tossed in 11. But the wire service account of the game noted, “Charles ‘Red' Thomas won the crowd's approval by playing with his broken nose taped securely to his face.”

Briley was the Demons' leading scorer that season. When Western Kentucky scored a 67-46 victory over the Demons in the semifinals of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament a week before the NAIA tournament, Briley scored 18 points, Briley added 10 and C.L. Starnes scored seven. Thomas had three points that night.

While the spectators and sports writers were impressed with the courage Thomas displayed in the loss to Texas Wesleyan, Prather wasn't especially impressed with his team's performance. He loaded the players into two cars after the game and drove back to Louisiana – pausing only for gasoline and restroom stops.

 

A few days later, Walter Ledet – Thomas' roommate at Normal – walked into their dorm room holding a Shreveport newspaper. “Congratulations,” he said. “You're an All-American.”

The article noted that Thomas was a second team selection to the 10-player all-tournament squad, and was also selected “most valuable player to his team.

It was a remarkable honor for a player who (1) didn't go to the school on a basketball scholarship, and (2) didn't break into the starting lineup of the basketball team until Eugene McElroy was sidelined by illness.

In a sport usually dominated by giants, two little men who didn't lead their respective teams in scoring, 5-9 Sparky Wade of LSU and Thomas – led the Hall of Fame parade.

Hoe Aillet, then an assistant football coach on Harry “Rags” Turpin's staff, recruited Thomas out of Texarkana Junior College for Normal – as a football player.

When he arrived in Natchitoches , there was some question about his eligibility. Thomas scrimmaged against the varsity in the Demons' perfect 1939 season, but didn't dress out for those games.

One day, he watched Prather's basketball team practice – and wasn't impressed. “I can player better than any of those guys,” he loudly announced. The coach overheard the remark, and challenged the little redhead to dress out and back up his brash words. Although he was wearing shoes that were two sizes too big, Thomas was unstoppable that day. “I never played that good, before or since,” he recalled.

A few days later, Turpin and Aillet informed Thomas that he would be switching from football to basketball.

Two months after the 1941 NAIA tournament, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Navy – and six months later, the United States was at war. He played on a Navy team that included two other redheads who later became famous pro coaches – “Red” Holzman (Knicks) and “Red” Auerbach (Celtics).

Thomas married the former Sadie Grezaffi, a 1942 Louisiana Normal graduate, in 1943. They had nine children and – nearly 50 years later – 20 grandchildren.

After World War II, he coached all sports at Bastrop High for five years and then returned to his alma mater (its name had been changed to Northwestern State ) to succeed Prather as the Demons' head basketball coach.

In his very first season, he moved John “Hound” McConathy to the post position and McConathy shattered school scoring records with 562 points, an average of 21.6 per game, to become the school's second All-American.

Later, Thomas' teams shared Gulf States Conference championships two years in a row. His 1952-53 team posted a 22-10 record, including a victory at Texas A&M. The Demons were 23-9 a year later, and opened their 1954-55 season with a victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville . In 1955-56, the Demons swept two games from defending NAIA champion East Texas State and also handed 1956 NAIA champion McNeese State its only GSC loss.

The highlight of his final season was a 103-75 rout of LSU in a tournament at Shreveport . No other team scored 100 points against the Tigers that year.

After seven winning seasons, Thomas took a one-year sabbatical to complete work on his doctor's degree. Then he chose to go into administration, saying he was tired of the hypocrisy and cheating in recruiting.

He eventually became Northwestern State 's Vice President of Academic Affairs when Dr. Arnold Kilpatrick, a former coaching rival at Northeast State College was the president.

Thomas stayed in contact with basketball by scouting for the New York Knicks.

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