You don’t need to be an NBA superstar to give back to your community. You don’t need multi-million dollar contracts to help guide the youth in your old neighborhood down the right path. Just ask Torey Thomas. This 5-11 and 185lb guard out of White Plains, NY, is making positive things happen in his neighborhood and he is not even a NBA player. Not yet, at least. The former Holy Cross standout, who was in SLAM as a shorty and who Ben caught up with a couple years back, has spent his last two years playing overseas in Sweden and The Netherlands after starring in the Patriot League.

Thomas played his high school ball at Trinity Catholic in Connecticut, making the back and forth commute on a daily basis between White Plains and Stamford, CT via public transportation. It was a sacrifice he had to make but that’s something that he’s been accustomed to his whole life. “I thought it was a good move to go to Trinity for my career,” Thomas says. “I had to get up early so I can leave at around 6:20-6:30a.m. and get to the school at around 7:30 a.m.” Probably the major reason why he decided to attend Trinity Catholic even though it was located in another state was due to the great relationship he built with Jim O’Leary while playing basketball at Don Bosco CYO League in junior high. Thomas not only built a kinship with O’Leary but with his entire family as well. “They really took care of me. The days I couldn’t commute back they took care of me and let me stayed at their house. They had six kids so I was like the seventh. The family really just brought me in.” Even today Thomas and the O’Leary family are just as close as back then. “We always speak. I’m with the family all the time whenever I’m home. I always go up there.”

At Trinity Catholic, Thomas had a great basketball career. He was named the 2003 Connecticut Player of the Year as a senior after leading Trinity to the Connecticut State Championship. That same year he was also named the New Haven Register Player of the Year. Throughout his four years at the school, Trinity Catholic was able to capture the league championship as well as two consecutive state championships. He was also a two-time first team All-State and All-FCIAC. At the end of his tenure at Trinity Catholic, Thomas final numbers were 1,140 points, 527 rebounds, a school-record 689 assists, and most importantly a full scholarship to Holy Cross.

At Holy Cross, Thomas left his name well placed as well. As a senior, he earned the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year. He was second in his team in scoring and seventh in the entire league with 13.7 per game. Thomas led the conference with 2.8 steals per game, which was also good enough for 5th in the nation. He also led the team and was second in the league with 4.8 assists per game. Although under six feet, Thomas had little problem crashing the boards and grabbing some rebounds. He was the third best rebounder for the Crusaders, averaging 4.7 per game. In the entire conference, he finished ranking as the 11th best rebounder. Thomas departed from Holy Cross as their second all-time leader in steals with 268. He also ranks second all-time in games played with 125. Thomas has the fifth most assists in school history with 468 and ranks 10th in 3-point field goals made with 108. He finished with 1,201 career points and 514 rebounds.

Thomas graduated with a degree in Sociology while also studying Pre-law. After graduation, he had to make the biggest decision of his life. Thomas had to choose between putting the ball down on the sideline and moving on with a career or continue to keep the dream alive. The decision was even harder than what it sounds as he had a nice job offer on the table.

“I had a job offer on the table already with Citi Group for when I finish school but it’s nothing like putting that ball in the basket,” he says. “It’s just nothing like that feeling. It’s nothing like the art of the game. I’m still in love with the game. So I couldn’t see my self at this point taking a job even though it was a good job and I had to pass on it. And some people said ‘Oh you would have done this, you would have done that,‘ but the stock market crashed so I could have been without a job. So you just don’t know. You have to take chances and believe in yourself. I believe in myself and I have a good supporting cast around and I feed off of that.”

Soon Thomas landed a contract to play professional basketball in Stockholm, Sweden, for Akropol BBK in the 2007-08 season. He was now playing in the top professional basketball league in Sweden, the Swedish Basketligan. Once again, Thomas rose to the occasion and was a team leader. At the conclusion of the year, he was name the Swedish Player of the Year. Thomas averaged 25.6 points per game, 7.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 3.1 steals per game, which numbers were good enough to finish the season as the league’s leader in scoring, assists and steals. And as you can see by the numbers, the guy can still really rebound at 5-11. His shooting percentages were 51.2 from the field, 43.8 from behind the arch and 81.4 from the free throw line. During the offseason, Thomas signed a contract to play with Etendard de Brest of France for two months.

Thomas spent the 2008-09 season in The Netherlands (Holland) with the Hanzevast Capitals of Groningen, where he averaged 14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game. He scored a season high 27 points on Valentines Day against Den Helder. He was awarded the Defensive Player of the year and made the second All-League team. Thomas led the team in assists and steals. Actually, he also ranked second in the country in those two categories. As a matter of fact, he should rank first in steals as the individual who finished in front of him got caught with marijuana during the season and stats might be disqualified.

Thomas has had to adjust his game to the European style of play while also finding little trouble in making a major contribution. “Its mostly all pick and rolls. So it’s a different game in that aspect. They have a different type of step that you can do, it’s called the ‘European Step.’ Then when you catch, punk fake and then you dibble, you can get called for travel. So you just have to adjust certain aspects of your game that you learn all your life while playing in America. In Europe they make different calls, so that’s the major adjustment,” he explains.

Not only are the calls different. The role of the big man can be as well. “Europe is big on fundamentally sound players. And the big man, at least one big from your team is going to step out and shoot the three or maybe even handle it from the top of the key. So that’s where the Dirk Nowitzkis come in. So if you’re a big man from America, you’re going to go down on that block. So that’s where you see the differences, the way the game is called in certain aspects and the way it’s played,” says Thomas.

But adjusting to the way the game is played and called is not the only change American ball players must make. They also have to adjust to the way of life, which can be challenging. “The lifestyle is hard to adjust when you’re normally going to be away from your family for a while. It’s a different adjustment in that you just don’t know what to expect. Once you get in there, you get into a routine where you are going to practice twice a day. You got to rent a lot of movies and use Skype service, where you can talk to your family and friends for free if they got Skype. So you try to get acclimated that way and you enjoy the experience of being in a different culture. That’s what I enjoy the most, being around different people.”

Although the talent pool may not be as great as it is in the NBA, that doesn’t mean that their practices aren’t very intense. Just ask Brandon Jennings.

“In the mornings you can have some shooting practices or you can have some conditioning practices and then some shooting. In the afternoon, you can have a full practice for a couple of hours. So it depends on the coaches over there,” Thomas explains. “Certain coaches have a different mentality about what’s hard work. College can prepare you for that if you have a good coach that prepares you, practices hard and knows what it takes to get you to that next level. At that level, the biggest part is conditioning to play the game.”

If you have ever seen a European soccer match, you may have noticed how the fans get down over there. They are very loyal to their teams. A little too loyal, if you ask me. And well, in basketball it’s no different. Fans are loud to their lungs throughout the game. Riot control special units are sometimes visible during game as they try to keep things under control.

“It’s wild. The fans are wild. Where I was at this past year in Holland, they are definitely in top of you. It’s packed. Some fans get on the court. It’s like that. I’ve played in Turkey, Sweden, France and Holland in my two years out there. So there is definitely hostility and something that as a player you experience yourself. You see fans waving different flags around,” says Thomas.

“It’s different from a regular pro crowd in New York City where there are a lot of people but they aren’t really on top of you going crazy. They just sitting here watching the game and drinking some beer or soda but that’s not the way they doing it over there. They are getting drunk, going crazy.”

And as if the hostility wasn’t enough, the pressure is also always on you. “There is pressure out there. The pressure is you have to produce and if you don’t produce, they will send you home. So it’s not an easy profession. It’s definitely calmer over here,” Thomas admits.

But being a professional basketball player is not all he does. While spending his summers in White Plains, Thomas gives back to the community by being the face of a non-profit athletic club named N.Y. Blaze, which helps the youth around the White Plains area stay away from the streets and its troubles through education in life skills, homework assistance and a basketball program for the ages of 7-18. The mission and goal of the program is clear.

“We have our summer camp, we have our skill work Monday to Friday at the park from four o’clock till about six. Anytime we are doing individual workouts we have coaches, Larry White, Jeffrey Lee. We have like five different coaches that devote the time into getting kids ready. Then we have different tournaments we go in. Our model is ‘Life skills through sports.’ So we are normally teaching these kids about doing the right thing and giving their integrity and word. The tool we use for that is basketball. That’s what I do and I’m just giving back like that.”

Thomas says that at the end of the day, if he can get kids scholarship opportunities through the game of basketball, then the program is working effectively. “We try to tell them it’s not just basketball. Basketball opens up doors of opportunities. If you really want to do this, you need to take this seriously. Holy Cross is $50,000 a year. That’s $200,000 that people don’t have. I had a scholarship. I was very fortunate. The message I try to send to them is basketball is a tool that you can use and if you have the right people behind you, then you can get a scholarship which turns into a degree,” Thomas explains.

“That in itself is a lot to accomplish. At one point in time you’re going to have to put the ball down. Yeah some people make millions of dollars and become rich of basketball but then life starts again around 40. You have to live and you live of your degree. I always talk about networking and being social with people and that social network is huge and you need to use your tools and use a degree in order to be successful.”

Thomas would like to be even more involved with the program than what he is but he understands that he also has a professional career to take care of. “I had to really to step back and say, ‘Ok, I’m just going to oversee things more than do hands on as before.’ It’s extremely hard because the dream itself of the playing in the NBA is an extremely tough task. But I’m starting to learn the way to deal with the process.”

He has to take care of his body and get it ready for the next season, which interferes with him being as involved as he would like.

“The summer days are huge to me. Three to four days a week I get up at six in the morning to workout. I usually workout in the park where I live. That sun is beaming on you early in the morning and I love to get my agility work in and my sprints in and some shots. Then I go eat and chill out. Then later on, maybe go to a sports club and get some weights in and some more shots. On top of that, check in with the kids that are at our camp and whatever they’re doing because it’s summer time and we got practices with our different age groups. So I’m back in the park with the kids getting things prepared. I can’t coach because then I would have to spend more time with that so I just give workouts and I handle all the different paperwork and the administrative work. I still do all of that because I’m the face behind it.”

So he needs others to step in and help run the program. That’s where Larry White and Kevin Higgs come in, the two guys that co-founded the program along with Thomas. And they aren’t the only ones that he gives credit to in making the program what it is. His props and appreciation goes out to Ivan Jones and Scott Cummings. As well as the director of basketball operations, Jeffrey Lee and the guy who is in charge of scouting and helping getting players into the program, Steve Duncan. Those are the guys he credits for helping make N.Y. Blaze what it is.

Last weekend, N.Y. Blaze hosted a top-notch tournament in which teams from the tri-state area participated. Teams from Connecticut, Mount Vernon, White Plains, Yonkers, the Bronx and Greensburg among others took in the action. It was held at Gardella Park on Ferris Avenue. That’s the same park that Thomas has played all his life and continues to work out in during the summer early hours. It’s also the home court of the N.Y. Blaze.

For the summer, Thomas is playing for Jadakiss’ Team 914 at the Rucker’s EBC Classic, Hoops in the Sun at Orchard Beach, Dyckman Park and will make his debut this Friday at the 145th Tri-State tournament.

On June 15, he participated in a free agency workout with the New York Knicks and they have informed him that he can work with the team during the summer at their practice facility in Tarrytown. As for next season, he has received interest from teams in Israel, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Germany.

Torey continues to work on his game non-stop with the dream to play in the NBA, something that he has recognized as a tough task since his younger days. “I knew it was definitely tough. There are only 30 teams and 15 spots on the rosters. So the numbers don’t lie. I understood that. In order to be in the NBA, you have to do certain things that can stand out. You have to be an adequate player. You have to have some luck besides someone pushing you in the right direction. It’s a dream but dreams come true. I understood that too,” Thomas says showing that he has not lost any confidence. “I’m still working on that as we speak with the intentions of, ‘Listen, my dream is never going to stop.’ I’m still living the dream by playing professional basketball and I’m getting paid to do it. And there is nothing better than doing something you love while getting paid to do.”

And he knows he will always have a team that will support him and be cheering him on with everything he does, the N.Y. Blaze team.

“I have a team that believes in me and believes in what I’m doing and that’s what makes it a great team.”

As for the future, Thomas has no doubt as to where he will stand. “I see myself four or five years from now having a top-notch program around here in the Westchester area and going to national tournaments,” Thomas says speaking of his future aspirations for the N.Y. Blaze. “Basketball wise, I see myself as a Euroleague basketball player, which is the top league in Europe, or in the NBA. I feel like I can be a top-notch player as long as I keep working on my game and getting better.”

So to all the pro scouts out there, keep Mr. Thomas on your radar because he is definitely On The Come Up.

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