UBURN HILLS Michigan coach Sue Guevara waited for her former player to come out of the Portland Fire locker room. Stacey Thomas emerged, and the two greeted each other happily with hugs and smiles.
“Tell me what you need,” Guevara said, still trying to take care of her once-leader and still friend. “You need shoes?” she asked, looking down at Thomas” white sneakers.
“No, I”m alright, coach,” Thomas smiled back.
Guevara, who would normally pull for the Detroit Shock in a WNBA game, stood in her Portland Fire shirt. As she cheered on Thomas as a fan (not a coach), the Flint native scored seven points, three rebounds and added one of her specialties a steal.
The Shock nevertheless completed a comeback of an 11-point halftime deficit to win 70-65. Sophia Witherspoon had a chance to tie the game at 68-68 for the Fire in the closing seconds, but missed the three pointer.
“I wish (Stacey Thomas) had the shot at the end,” she said.
Maybe that”s how Guevara would have drawn up the last play a couple years ago at Michigan, but on this Saturday night, Thomas sat on the bench for the last shot.
After starting for four years as a small forward at Michigan and then a year of starting for Portland in her rookie year, Thomas is being introduced to a new responsibility on the basketball team role player.
“This season is the first year of her life when she hasn”t been a starter,” Guevara said. “She”s adjusted to a new role of coming off the bench. Her role, in one respect, is the same as it was here, defensive specialist.”
Thomas made her mark as a tenacious defensive player as a Wolverine. She won the first-ever Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. She also cites breaking the Big Ten steals record as her favorite basketball moment.
At Michigan, she was productive on the other side of the ball as well, scoring 13.5 points per game in her four years. But in her rookie season with the Fire, she managed just 5.1 points an outing. Then the Fire made a few offseason acquisitions, including first-round draft selection Jackie Stiles the all-time scoring leader in women”s college basketball from Southwest Missouri State and Thomas found herself squeezed out of the starting lineup.
“She”s got to become a better shooter for her to be able to get more time,” Fire coach Linda Hargrove said. “Towards the end of last year people really started to play off of her and we couldn”t get the ball into the post.
“That”s something she”s got to get to be really successful on this level, she can”t just take it to the hole every time. She knows that that”s her area of weakness and that”s where she”s got to get better in the offseason.”
Although she doesn”t start, Thomas is proud of her contributions to the team. As someone who comes off the bench, she can be used to try to change the tempo of the game, a pick-me-up for Portland to light the defensive “Fire” under her team”s collective belly.
“I always tell everybody I love defense more than scoring,” Thomas said. “I take great pride in it. It probably started in my college years. It started off with getting a lot of steals and checking the toughest player on the other team.”
As Thomas adjusts to her new title of defensive specialist, she lives up to her reputation by nearly nabbing a steal for every game she plays 27 take aways in 28 games while averaging just 13 minutes a game.
“Stacey is our best perimeter defender,” Hargrove said. “She”s a great athlete on the perimeter, very focused on defense and somebody who”s very quick, can get steals for us.”
Thomas is one of two former Wolverines in the WNBA, with the 1998 Michigan graduate Pollyanna Johns of the Cleveland Rockers being the other.
Both Thomas and Guevara have hope that some other Wolverines will be playing alongside those two in the WNBA someday soon.
“I feel like practically all the seniors have the potential to do it,” Thomas said. “I played with them two, three years and they”re tough.”
Thomas also got to see them play without herself on the court for the first semester of the 2000-01 season as she finished up her Business degree at Michigan. One of those Wolverines she watched from the stands was WNBA hopeful Anne Thorius.
Thorius, who was drafted in the fourth round, was the last cut by the Orlando Miracle, keeping her out of the league for this year. But she signed with a team in Poland and will be trying to improve her game in Europe for another shot at the WNBA.
“(Michigan) lost a really good leader, Anne Thorius. She was the floor general, the pilot of the team, even when I was there,” Thomas said, who spent four months of basketball in Sweden herself before her rookie year with Portland. “I think it”s going to be a great experience (for Thorius). It”s going to put her in the position to score and to work on her defense. Point guards being able to defend is a key thing.”
Thomas was able to stay in contact with Thorius last summer while she interned at Nike in Portland during Thomas” rookie season. Former teammate Katie Dykhouse, who just finished her Michigan career with Thorius, has that same internship this summer, and according to Thomas attends every Portland game.
Thomas still e-mails her old coach Guevara for advice and encouragement as well. But no amount of contact via technology makes up for being back at home with her friends, family and fans.
“It was great hearing people calling my name,” Thomas said, who spotted several signs during the game in her support. “Everyone”s talking about “Go Blue” and “Go Wolverines,” so it was nice. I had a lot of fun.”