The latest uniform belonged to the Cleveland Cavaliers. It looked good on Malcolm Thomas. But he knew it was temporary. He was wearing this jersey in hope it would lead to one that lasts.
“I’ve been everywhere,” Malcolm Thomas was saying last month after an NBA Summer League game in Las Vegas. “I’ve been a lot of places.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
Thomas, according to his Wikipedia page, had changed jobs 20 times. This was a phenomenal number for an American who had been a professional since 2011. He was only 28 years old. He had moved from one team many more 20 times, actually, based on his routine of commuter shuttling between the NBA and the G League.
“I can’t give up,” he said, smiling. “I can’t quit. We’ll just keep going until it happens.”
“It” was a fulltime career in the NBA. The lure of it had led him to a half-dozen leagues across five countries. He had been paid to play in Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. Now he was back in Las Vegas, a 6-foot-9 combo forward hoping to be discovered by the same NBA teams that had been following him for years.
“Malcolm Thomas, I know that name,” said Masai Ujiri, the president of the Raptors, as he sat courtside in Las Vegas. “Malcolm Thomas, Malcolm Thomas,” Ujiri said. “I think we had him. Did we?”
“We looked at him,” said Toronto GM Bobby Webster.
“That’s right,” Ujiri said. “I went somewhere and saw him.”
“I met him when I played in Maccabi,” said Thomas of their encounter. In 2012-13 Thomas was averaging 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds for Maccabi-Tel Aviv in Israel, where his coach was David Blatt. “I think it was at a game. He was there to watch some player. But, no, he never signed me.”
Find a place to live, learn the playbook, get to know the teammates, get to know the coaches – the routine has transformed his pro career into a series of global pickup games. When Thomas makes it onto a court somewhere, anywhere, his job to description is to stay put. With every game, every practice and every play he is fighting to extend his career.
There are no shoe contracts for players like Thomas.
“I’m actually very bad at packing,” he said. “I overpack all the time. I bring a lot of clothes, a lot of shoes – a lot of sneakers, and that takes up all the space, really. I bring a bunch of game shoes. I don’t bring any fashion shoes.”
The tens of thousands of miles that Thomas has traveled can be summed up in a few paragraphs. He was born near the campus of the University of Missouri, where his father (also named Malcolm Thomas) had been a 6-foot-7 honorable mention All-American. The nomadic son emerged as a high school star in San Diego. Thomas averaged 12.5 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman at Pepperdine where, ominously, he was not meant to stay for very long.
“I went to Pepperdine with a couple of guys that I went to high school with, and it was just a crazy year,” Thomas said. “My coach quit, there was a lot going on. So, I just wanted to come back closer to home.”
“I can’t give up. I can’t quit. We’ll just keep going until it happens.” — Malcolm Thomas
The 21.1 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.9 blocks that he generated in one year at San Diego City College inspired Thomas to enter his name in the 2009 NBA Draft. He changed his mind, withdrew from the draft, and had a pair of all-conference seasons while helping Kawhi Leonard drive San Diego State to the NCAA Sweet 16.
Leonard went No. 15 overall to the Spurs in the 2011 draft. Thomas, who went undrafted, wound up in Korea.
“I didn’t know they were looking at me in South Korea,” said Thomas, who averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks for the club Mobis Phoebus. “Usually when a guy doesn’t get drafted, you think it’s over. I was like, OK, now let’s focus on another way to make money.”
He thought those first few months would be the outlier of his basketball career. They turned out to be the start of a long trend.
“I ate a lot of Pizza Hut,” he said. “The language barrier was definitely the first thing that stood out to me. I had an interpreter. His name was Gil. He was a good guy. He’d learned English in college and loved basketball, so they hired him. It’s kind of hard to go through an interpreter to say what’s going on during the game. But for the most part, it was good.”
He was far away but not alone. “My stepdad and my daughter, Mikeala, were there with me,” Thomas said. “She turned 2 while we were there.”
His own biological father had not always been involved in his life. So, Thomas was insistent on being a parent to Mikeala. “She’s been to South Korea and Israel with me,” he said. “And then most of the places here in the U.S. that I’ve played, she came.”
His run in Korea ended prematurely – the club wanted an older player – just as the NBA lockout was ending in 2011. Thomas wound up signing with the G League’s L.A. D-Fenders, who would emerge as his safe harbor.
“I think I’ve been with them four times,” he said. “It’s close for my daughter to come up and watch me, so it’s been a great place for me.”
The Spurs reunited him – in 2012 and again in 2013 – with Leonard, though Thomas spent much of those times with their G League team in Austin. “That organization helped me in so many ways in the short time I was there,” Thomas said. “I owe them a lot for teaching me how to be a professional.”
“As athletic and bouncy as he was, and he played hard — those are the guys that can sometimes take big steps,” said Spurs GM R.C. Buford. “At the time, he hadn’t developed a lot. You were waiting to see what he could do.”
Over his first four professional seasons, Thomas appeared in 40 NBA games – averaging 1.9 points in 8.2 minutes – for the Spurs, the Warriors, Bulls, Jazz and 76ers. His heart was broken when he was waived by Chicago in summer 2013, after he had turned a pair of 10-day contracts into an extended stay.
“But then my foot got messed up,” he said. “I got close with all the guys. Everybody liked each other. I really wanted to be there.”
An injury in the Philippines doomed his 2016 signing with the club Meralco Bolts. He spent last season in China with Jilin Northeast Tigers. An issue with his clearance from FIBA postponed his Summer League debut with the Cavaliers, but over the next three games he generated 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 points and 1.3 blocks in 16.7 minutes. Then, just like that, it was time for him to leave again. The Russian club BC Khimki announced that it had signed Thomas to a two-year contract.
“Malcolm Thomas is an elite rebounder,” coach Georgios Bartzokas said on the Khimki website. “He is very fast and athletic. We believe that he fits excellent to our team.”
Another country, a new team, and the dream lives on.