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Watching a Giant Be Born: The Scooter Thomas Story

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You hear the story all the time
Son’s gotta pay the price for Daddy’s decisions;
Momma’s working hard, sometimes two jobs
To feed and shelter a baby that doesn’t listen.
Forever fearing that that baby will go crazy,
Fail at school, die or wind up in prison.
A woman can raise a man,
But men make men out of boys,
Just by living…or sometimes by dying.
…It’s just the absence
That grows louder in crying,
Becoming fuel for destruction
As he grows older.
And now, a gone daddy has
Made a boy’s smile
Harder to earn,
And his heart so much colder.
Yea I know the story,
I know the story, like I know myself.

Many can relate. There are so many, in fact, that the story of father leaves boy, and boy grows to destroy (sometimes others, sometimes himself) is as cliché as the phrases, “No regrets,” and “You live and you learn.” For him, specifically, however, the experience has been bone chillingly cold at times—multiple times. Yet here he is standing in a space he’s made for himself, despite. I’d have to call it a “cool.” Not like brisk or oddly mysterious. I mean, “cool” like the kind of guy you discover awesome things about, but only if you ask. That’s the air you feel, or the vibe you get when you talk to Karriem Thomas Sr., better known as Scooter. Scooter made it through the thick of it all…but let’s start somewhere before “Jelly Reem”, his oldest and “Magic Mel”, his youngest. Let’s go back to the first time Scooter and basketball had a love thing.

He started playing ball when he was about 10 years old and was clearly a fast learner. From age 10 to about 15 he killed against and alongside NYC’s young and future stars like Andre Barrett, Kenny Satterfield, and God Shamgod –you know that move, “The Sham”, where you let the ball roll out in front of yourself and snatch it back going the other way…yea, Scooter played with that guy. He was good enough to play with two of NYC’s original basketball powerhouses, The Riverside Hawks and the New York Gauchos. In true New York City guard fashion, he earned a basketball scholarship to high school where he showed out as a freshman. “I was good enough to where I got a scholarship for high school. I was averaging 35 points as a freshman. Then they moved me up to JV, I was averaging 13, then they moved me up to varsity…and I left.” I didn’t know him well enough yet to know that everything he did –including walking away from Varsity as a freshman scorer—had some deep-rooted reason. What I did learn quickly, however, was that it was mainly best to let Scooter explain. “That’s when my troubles came into my life….Because I didn’t have a father figure. So around my way I was the neighborhood hero. I was the one coming back from games scoring 30, 40, you know? So once they moved me up to varsity, I was only averaging about 3 or something like that. I didn’t like to come home—then people wanted to know, “Yo, how much you had Scooter?” So he walked away.

It’s a cycle we see play out often, whether it be on the inner city streets, the back country road, or tucked away in a gated community. Parental neglect affects the son so much so, that he grows to do the same or worse to his own. In many cases, the son discovers that his own father was only doing what he learned from his dad, who most likely didn’t know any better than to be neglectful, himself. Some of us sons make vows –either subconsciously or consciously – to be the ever opposite of their fathers in order to raise a child who is everything he could have been and more. Sadly, many unguided young men try and fail to break the cycle, simply because the right male wasn’t around to influence him in a way that manifested his full potential whilst encouraging him to be a good guy. Like Scooter, I don’t discredit the single-mothers out there who are working hard to raise young men; my mother knows she saved my life time and time again with her dedication and sacrifices. I even appreciate the way my mother used discipline to steer me away from certain things, even though I found my way into other things. Feels like I could let Scooter explain for me, “My mother—she raised me right. You know, she put her hands and feet on us, until we got a certain age. I know a lot of people probably say, ‘How’d he end up in the streets?’ Well, it’s only but so much that a woman can do to raise a young man growing up in the projects, without a man in the house.”

Sadly, the streets became Scooter’s playground and basketball was just something he did. “So I started hanging in the streets, selling drugs. So when I turned 16, I decided I wanted to get my life together. While I was still in the streets at 14-15, I was still playing ball, it just wasn’t AAU or anything like that.” He was still good, he was just playing for some alternative school and playing well, as there was no other way for him to play. In a chance meeting, his school played against Gauchos who had interest in a 6’9 big man on his team. When the game took place, however, the attention quickly fell on Karriem Thomas Senior. He made the traveling team and was on the right path. His team made it all the way to Nationals where they’d play against soon to be Arizona University star and NBA Champion, Richard Jefferson, and lost. His name began to ring bells in NYC’s basketball culture. Then BOOM! …Life happened. “…But, again, no father figure, so it was back to the streets and I started selling drugs again. I caught a case—a shootin’ case, when I was 19. I did five years.” Before I could even gasp at the twist in his story he followed up with more, “So I came home; and I was home for about 90 days, before I caught another charge. Police came in my house, confiscated money and drugs. I did three years off of that. Mind you that’s 8 years altogether.” At this point he had me. I wanted to know more about his story, but also, how he felt and why he kept going back! “I came home from doing that three, got locked up 6 months later, for sales to an undercover cop. The police broke my jaw and everything—I’ve got a metal plate in my jaw, right now. I was home from 2008-2013. But in the midst of that, I started selling drugs again.”

I was lost in his honesty; I felt like I was watching the story of how Carlito Brigante got locked up and sent to prison. Thankfully Erin had the poise to ask about the most important part of his story: Where were the babies in all of this? So he took his story back a bit. “That’s the thing. Mel’s a baby, and Reem’s a young boy at the time. I’m sitting on the couch one day and I’m like ‘damn, my son’s gotta play some basketball. That’s what I did, you know? That’s my first love, not the streets. So I started training Reem. I’m training him and we’re going to through the motions, training every day. Even though I’m still in the streets, making sure he goes to practice and I’m working him out, you know?” I felt like I didn’t know, but I could understand. There was something about doing wrong in my own life while making sure everything is right in my son’s life that felt very familiar. I do it as a father all the time; I’ve even made a phrase out of it that I share with my sons. I tell them their job is not to be me it’s to be better than me. I live that, Scooter lives that. I want to say, that’s how we break the cycle of parental neglect. That’s the proof: making children that are better than ourselves. But this wasn’t about me, “Then when Mel was about 4, so I’d train Reem and I start brining Mel so I can start training him too. So Mel would do some of the drills, then he would start looking at the kids in the playground and I’d tell him, ‘Go head, get out of here. Go play on the swings, you know? But Reem was doing good…,” BOOM! Scooter was arrested again. “Fed’s came to get me. Reem was about 8 years old and Mel was 5—I did 13 years in prison altogether.”

13 years in prison. In the very beginning of the interview, Scooter said that if he would have had a father who was involved the way he is trying to be involved in Reem and Mel’s life now, he would have succeeded more. I hope he soon sees he’s much bigger than that idea. Perhaps it’s not, nor has it ever been, about Scooter failing to find a path to success without a father. Perhaps the story is actually about Scooter becoming a father and creating paths of success for his sons as he blazes his own path where there wasn’t one previously.

Scooter Thomas is walking proof that great skill, talent, and drive are dangerous when they are in the hands of the misguided. He seems to have come out of it unscathed, he’s warm-hearted, very approachable, and great to talk to. The danger, unfortunately, was the effect his time away had on his family. “It affected all the work we’d put in together, you know what I mean?” Reem suffered immediately because while Mom was willing to do all of the work to get Reem all of his trainings etc., he didn’t want her to have to run around and do all that he was supposed to be doing, plus she didn’t exactly have the know-how or the connections. It still amazes me what children remember. Reem mentioned this in his own interview weeks prior.

Though Mel was young, it affected Mel, and therefore, feeling for and missing both of sons affected Scooter. But what would it take to stop him? “When I came home from the Feds (Federal Prison), I was in there and I cried three years straight because (prior to that) that was the longest I was home –I was home from 2008-2013. So now I’ve had a lot of time with both of my boys so it was like, I had a lot more to lose. And I used to know the Feds were coming, because you can just feel it. –Mel used to sleep with me, Reem was old he didn’t want to sleep with me, but Mel always wanted to sleep with Daddy.” At this point in his telling of it, his emotions started to show, but he didn’t pause. He told the story like he owed it to his family to tell of all they went through because of his mistakes. As apologetic as he was, he was nowhere near searching for pity. He was just telling it like it happened, “…I would leave the house, and Mel would sit by the door, until I would come in. So me and Mel would lay down together, and his head would be right here, close you know? And I used to be praying like, God, I know I’m doing wrong. But if you take me away from my kids, please don’t take me way for a long time. So I’d be there holding Mel, and I’d open my eyes, and it’s like he could feel it and he’d open his eyes. And I used to be like, ‘Damn,’ because I knew I was doing wrong, but I was in it! I was getting’ a lot of money!” As if that wasn’t enough of a lesson, he had to face his sons who were finally old enough to understand that Daddy was somewhere else that none of them wanted to be. “I’ll never forget that first visit. I was at MDC. They come see me in the Feds. …So I’m sitting down –and I’m a dude like, I cry! I don’t know about you but I cry, you know what I’m saying?” (For the record, I cry, and that’s not only okay, it’s manly…and womanly!) Scooter fought hard and struggled to be strong in front of his family, painfully holding back a waterfall of tears. “So we were talking, and they just kept looking at me. I tried to man up. Reem cried, but Mel was like me, he was fighting. Then like one tear came down his eye. When I saw that—when I tell you I went back upstairs to take a shower and I lost it! I was like, ‘Damn I can’t believe I did that to that girl and them boys!” I bet it was at this point that the idea of someone else raising his son, rang out like an alarm he couldn’t shut off. “I effed her life up! I left her out here with two kids growing up!’ I didn’t know when I was coming home and all I could think of was who gone raise my kids? I prayed and just prayed, like God please let me know you’re real!” Someone or something was listening because his sentence ended after three years. And he never went back!

What was once a lifestyle is now a lesson he uses to teach his sons and any other children who will listen. “They can’t get over on me, I done seen it and done it all. I’d rather they just talk to me, and that’s how I like it, you know? In my house, all we do is laugh and joke.” Besides the fact that he belongs on with his family and not in the streets or in prison, being locked away taught him, “What I learned from prison, you better have respect for everybody because in prison it’s different. Common courtesy is the key. So I teach my sons: smile, be happy, give your seat up to a lady on the train…I teach my sons, treat people how you want to be treated, you know?” But it wasn’t enough to talk the talk, he had to walk the walk. Scooter got a real job! “I was getting $250 dollars a week. Mind you, I was used to getting money! But I felt good though because I’m like you know what? I’m doing it right!” He eventually would get fired and was grateful that the boss gave him the opportunity.

Somehow or another, he took his Instagram page (@DaCityofGuards_ThomasBrothers) and turned it into a mini-enterprise for selling merchandise and influencing international basketball culture. “I’m a hustler. I just want to be the best at whatever I do. I wanted to be the best even though I was in the streets, but God finally gave me all the right signs for me to leave the streets alone. My mother tried, my family tried…” with people who have abilities as strong as Scooter does to influence and connect with people, they have to sometimes learn from their own experiences before they can hear other people’s advice. It’s actually part of why they’re so great. People like Scooter learn from experiences more than they learn from words. It simply started with him training his sons, posting the videos and discussing the latest in basketball culture. He thinks, and he may just be right, that people simply like his story and support all that he is becoming in spite of all of his mistakes and all of his consequences. Currently, his “Da City of Guards” name brand for basketball apparel is consistently improving and expanding across the AAU culture. People in other countries are looking to get their hands on his custom made and freshly designed compression pants. It started with a friend and streetball coach, Mousey helped him to create t-shirts with his own Da City of Guards design on them. That wasn’t the big step yet, however, “What took it to the next level was a friend of mine from Maryland, his name is Brian…I coached his son, on Instagram and the next time he saw me at a tournament he thanked me and said he made me a pair of socks with my logo on it for me. He said I just made it for you to show you some samples. So I got the socks and I’m walking about the tournament because I’m going to give them to Mel and kids start asking if they’re for sale and I’m like…not yet!” I guess the rest is history.

Talk about a turn-around story. Scooter changed his life for his family first and himself second. Coming home to see how Reem and Mel’s lives and games had suffered redirected the ambition and focus that Scooter always had. He appreciated all the talk about how good Mel was, but he wasn’t impressed. “I saw him playing and I was like that’s not good! He got potential, but he gotta work. You gotta work to be great. It’s good to have potential, but if you don’t work, then you’re only ever going to be a player that they say, ‘If he would’ve worked, he would be much better. Great even.” He immediately took it upon himself to train his sons. With that said, however, he’s not a helicopter parent when it comes to basketball. He prefers that the boys have their own experiences and relationships with their coaches. That is only true, of course, because he feels like he can trust where the boys are playing basketball. The teams and the coaches are a great fit. As big as he is, in terms of influence, he’s still just happy to be able to be a dad. If you look in the crowd of a Jelly Reem or a Magic Mel game, you’ll most likely see Scooter there with his camera. He may seem unapproachable, but it’s because he’s in game mode, parent style. He actually loves to show love to the kids and parents who come to show him or his kids love. “I put myself in these kids shoes too. Like you said it might take me two hours to get out of the building. I was that kid that wanted to say what’s up to Rod Strickland or one of them, so I gotta take that time out too! I get aggravated sometimes because I want to watch my sons game, but I gotta understand that they just look up to me or they look up to Mel or Reem. And it’s not that they don’t care it’s that they don’t know it yet, you know? A lot of people think I’m cocky or unapproachable, I’m just trying to be a dad.” He doesn’t get mad at the negative attention his sons receive either. He welcomes that and any challenges because he feels it makes them stronger. “A kid might score more or Mel may score 5 and a kid may get the best of Mel –Thank you! Win or lose, I just use each game to see what we’ve got to work on to get the boys better.” I get it though. He’s making up for lost time. Not just with his kids, but with his own father. He’s the fatherless-child cycle every chance he gets. Like he said, he wants to be the best at anything he does; I can certainly see why he’s so intense about supporting and raising his own children!

Sometimes you meet people who are bigger, not in size or necessarily in might, but in their ability to reach people. For Scooter, that ability rests in his honesty, respect for all others and open mind. Couple all of that with an unwavering drive to be the best and you’ve got the puzzle pieces to a picture that’s perfect for prosperity! Looks like the kid from the park has finally learned how to put the pieces together the way they were meant to be place. But I say, “No regrets,” and “You live and you learn,” because before those were cliché phrases, they were the words that helped changed Scooter Thomas from the boy he was, to the giant he is. It’s humbling to experience; it seems like he’s just grateful to be here. And from what we can tell, the world of basketball is grateful to have him back. I don’t think they’ll split any time soon!

Scooter tells a story so well it’s only fitting to end this piece with his words, “I’ve been shot, broken jaw, robbed, etc. nothing to show for it, my experience…. So even if my kids don’t want to play anymore, I’mma be upset, but they aren’t going to the streets. Whatever you do you gotta be the best at it! But the streets ain’t even an option for my sons!”

In The Bonus

TBJ: Sneakers or Shoes?
Scooter: Well, I like sneakers because they’re comfortable. I’d say if I was financially stable, I’d be dressing like “Ghost” from Power.

TBJ: Favorite Sneaker?
Scooter: Kyrie

TBJ: Favorite Player right now?
Scooter: Kyrie.

TBJ: Greatest Of All Time?
Scooter: Michael Jordan

TBJ: Greatest Streetball Player of All Time?
Scooter: Skip To My Lou (Rafer Alston).

TBJ: What’s playing in your headphones right now?
Scooter: Lil Baby!

TBJ: 100 points; 30 assists; average 50points a game; or average a triple double?
Scooter: Average a triple double.

TBJ: Favorite Defensive Set?
Scooter: Man-to-Man

TBJ: Favorite Dribble move?
Scooter: Through the legs and go.

TBJ: Toughest opponent of all time?
Scooter: Majestic Mapp!

TBJ: How many stars is too many stars on one team.
Scooter: I don’t believe there’s any such thing. They all gotta buy into the system and their coach has to make it work for the team.

TBJ: What makes a good coach?
Scooter: A coach that teaches. A coach that holds you accountable.

TBJ: Favorite level of basketball to watch?
Scooter: It used to be college because that was my dream. I wanted Dick Vitale to say my name. But as I got older I realized there’s a difference. There’s levels. Pros is just completely different. You might have a dude that kills in college, but when he gets to the NBA he’s only the 12th man. So that’s how talented the NBA is. So I’mma go with the NBA!

(Side Note: I’m definitely going back to compare his answers to Reem’s and Mel’s!)

Double Bonus:

This is a good time to address the elephant in the room. Many people have the opinion that Scooter shows more love and attention to Mel than he does his other son, Reem. While he addressed this in detail and was even able to break down each son’s tendencies and personalities on and off the court, I find it highly inappropriate for any of us to judge or question how he feels or treats either of his children. If we’ve learned nothing else about Scooter, by now, we know for sure there are deep-seeded reasons for everything he does with his boys. Erin and I have consistently said, it’s more fun to be quiet and enjoy the Thomas Family show. (…Which I might add, isn’t a bad idea, so long as we can get the Queen, Momma Thomas to be down, because without her none of Scooter’s, Reem’s, or Mel’s success would have been possible, at all!)