Soft-spoken Thomas center of attention for WWU's 'Big Blue of '72'

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 17, 2013 

Some 41-plus years have passed since the last time Rudy Thomas donned the basketball jersey of his alma mater, Western Washington University.

Although his memories lack the level of detail they once did, the 68-year-old Thomas needed little spurring on to conjure what he remembers of the 1972 basketball team that finished fifth at the NAIA National Championship tournament.

"We were some place we had never been before," Thomas said, referring to the team that was two wins away from a chance at the national championship.

Thomas has always found himself venturing where very few had gone, just as the trek that brought him from Georgia through Washington, D.C., to Bellingham when he was barely in his 20s. But now, some 41 years later, he finds himself undertaking a similar journey - one to the WWU Athletics Hall of Fame.

But he won't be alone.

Thomas, along with Scot Swanson, Lori deKubber and Brandi Stevenson, will be inducted in a 5:30 p.m. ceremony Saturday, May 18, at the Bellingham Golf and Country Club. Only 120 others have been chosen to join the selective fraternity since the inaugural class of 1968.

Disbelief overcame the former basketball star upon hearing of his induction in a phone conversation with Paul Madison, WWU's Director of Sports Information.

"(Paul) called me about a month or so ago and told me I had been selected, and I told him, 'You got to be kidding me,' and he confirmed it," Thomas said.

The emotions thereafter needed little explanation.

"Amazing, surprise... excited," Thomas said of his reaction.

Thomas was a key cog for the team nicknamed the "Big Blue of '72," commanding the paint with his 6-foot-8 frame. Although anyone would be hard pressed to find a 6-8 center nowadays, Thomas' size was depicted best in the team's portrait taken all those years ago.

Flanked on either side by men not nearly his stature, Thomas stood at the age of 25 very much the center of this team. No other player stood taller than 6-5.

"He was our gentle, soft, big guy in the middle that set the tone," Mike Franza, a former teammate of Thomas, said in a phone interview. "Rudy was always someone down there pounding it and getting rebounds."

Thomas finished his second season as a Viking averaging 15.4 points and a team-leading 10.5 rebounds per game, including 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds at the NAIA national tournament. Thomas will be the fourth member of the team to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining Franza, guard Gary White and head coach Chuck Randall.

While Thomas was every bit a talented player, it stands to reason that his presence off the court was equally as important to a team that went on to set nearly every major school winning record after posting a 26-4 campaign while winning 21 games in a row at one point.

"He just had this great grin - very infectious, and you just have to like the guy," Tom Mount, a member on the '72 team, said of Thomas in a phone interview. "He was just a nice guy to be around. ... You just wanted to be around him."

Albeit having a soft-spoken, gentle demeanor, Thomas wasn't without a charm that drew those around him closer while also supplying a few laughs along the way, Franza said.

"He was always debonair," Franza said. "He might walk right up as we would be in the airports, and he might take his hat off and go right up to the pretty girl and say something. Always soft spoken, and saying 'My aren't you a lovely one,' or something to that effect."

That type of lighthearted personality was needed, Mount added, because Thomas never put himself above anyone else.

"He's not about Rudy," Mount said. "A lot of athletes today, they love themselves. But Rudy was the complete opposite. He wasn't about Rudy, he was about everyone else."

The ever-sterling Thomas spent much of his life beyond WWU being the loving person his teammates knew him to be, but on a different stage.

Despite playing briefly for one of the two traveling teams for the Harlem Globetrotters after the 1971-72 season, as well as a short stint professionally in Mexico, Thomas found his calling teaching children the game of basketball first in Seattle and then in Bellevue.

"All I know is I was having fun with kids, and trying to let them know that if they need help, someone is always there to help them," Thomas said. "I am more of a teacher, not so much as a coach. The level I am at, it is all about teaching, and that is what I enjoy most."

This past December, Thomas retired from his position as the recreation program coordinator at the Crossroads Community Center in Bellevue, where he spent the past 25 years mentoring children.

It comes as no surprise to his former teammates that Thomas found his way in the world helping.

"I just imagine the kids being enamored with him," Mount said. "He is just a pleasant guy, and it was a great fit for him."

So, too, is the WWU Hall of Fame.

Reach Alex Bigelow at alex.bigelow@bellinghamherald.com at 360-715-2271.

WWU ATHLETIC HALL OF FAME

INDUCTION CEREMONY

Class of 2013: Lori deKubber, Scot Swanson, Brandi Stevenson, Rudy Thomas

When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18

Where: Bellingham Golf and Country Club

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