There is a lot of intrigue around Matt Thomas entering his first NBA season. (Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada)
In Onalaska, Wisconsin, a small town of 18,000 people on the banks of the Mississippi River where Friday night high school sports is what most people center their lives around, they still talk about the legend of Matt Thomas.
They still remember the fundraiser he attended in sixth grade, when a free throw competition broke out and he made 99 out of 100. Or the AAU tryout when elementary school kids were put through NBA-level 3-point shooting drills. Asked to make 15 3-pointers from five different spots in a minute and a half, Matt cleared the drill in 53 seconds.
At the local YMCA, there are still reports of players swishing a game-clinching 3 and celebrating by yelling out Matt Thomas’s name, because he is the iconic sharpshooter who grew up there and led the Onalaska High School men’s basketball team to a 27-1 record and a Division II state championship in his junior season. They still remember when he scored a career-high 50 points in just two and a half quarters in his senior season.
Martha Thomas remembers that game like it was yesterday. She was sitting in the stands, watching her son make jumper after jumper. Two minutes into the game, Matt had 12 points. By halftime, everyone in the gym knew he was headed towards a career night. Head coach Craig Kowal found Martha in the stands at halftime. “I think your record is getting broken tonight,” Craig said.
Martha could only shake her head and laugh. Growing up, she played high school basketball at Wahlert High School in Dubuque, Iowa. Back then, the game was six-on-six basketball. Each team had three designated offensive players. The three defensive players could not cross the half court line. Martha once scored 48 points in a game, a family record that had held up for decades, until tonight.
Martha knew this day was inevitable. At the age of five, Matt was already running around in the backyard roleplaying as a future sports star. Martha scoured garage sales looking for anything her son could use as a costume. “If I found a blanket,” Martha says. “He would turn it into a cape.” In his backyard, Matt scored game-winning touchdowns, hit walk-off home runs and hit buzzer-beating 3s.
By the time he was eight, Matt left baseball and football behind and focused on basketball. Martha laid some concrete in the backyard so her son could have a proper basketball court to shoot hoops. Matt spent countless hours honing his jumper. By the time he turned nine, he had a request for his mom. He wanted to practise shooting 3s, but the court wasn’t big enough. So Martha brought the contractors back to lay down an additional three feet of cement so Matt could have a 3-point line.
The responsibility of managing Matt’s passion for basketball fell squarely on Martha’s shoulders. During Matt’s childhood, his father Greg — who dealt with alcohol and drug abuse issues — committed suicide at the age of 45. Tony, the eldest of the three siblings, was in seventh grade. Matt was in fifth grade. Josie was in second grade.
Martha felt alone, especially when it came to making decisions about her kids, but she knew it was important to make sure their life wasn’t interrupted. “You have three of them going in different directions,” Martha says. “And you wanted to keep life as normal as possible.” So Josie kept going to ballet classes, Tony wouldn’t miss any football practices, and Matt could continue traveling to different states for AAU games.
Martha always put her children first, in hopes they would have the best available path towards whatever they wanted to pursue. Now, inside the Onalaska High School gym against Tomah, Matt is making 3-pointers look like layups. Thirty five points. Forty points. Forty five. Forty six. Forty seven. “Take him out,” Martha yells jokingly. Craig looks at Martha in the stands again. This time, he can only shake his head and laugh. The record is really falling.
Matt finishes with 50 points on 21-for-30 shooting with six 3-pointers, leaving the game for good in the middle of the third quarter in a blowout win. Martha embraces her son afterwards but reminds him that back when she played, there wasn’t a 3-point line, so the record probably still technically belongs to mom.
“Keep working buddy,” she tells Matt.
The legend of The Iceman was born at Onalaska High School. (Courtesy Martha Thomas)