January 27, 2023
How Lisa Thomas grew from well-rounded athlete to well-rounded human
Thomas blazed a trail uniquely her own, propping the door open for women in three arenas where the door is too frequently closed
Clichés become clichés for a reason. Like the, “you never forget your first love” cliché. It may feel universal to the human experience, but for those who find they don’t fit neatly into the box laid out for them by the universe, it may feel restrictive. Lisa Thomas has a first love, and a second love, and a third love, and she doesn’t want to forget any of them.
As a child, Thomas excelled at tennis, then opportunistically wandered through the door when basketball came a-knocking. Later science rang her bell, and again, Thomas answered the call. Three loves to her name, all of which prefer to command the singular focus of their participants; but Thomas resisted the pressure to specialize, and resisted another of society’s clichés — that you must dedicate your life to your “one true love” in order to succeed. Instead Lisa Thomas blazed a trail uniquely her own, propping the door open for women in three arenas where the door is too frequently closed in their faces.
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In a recent interview with The Next, Thomas elaborated on her life’s winding journey. “I started as a tennis player, and was very good,” Thomas said.
For most folks the story would begin and end with such a sentence. Pick a sport, realize you play the sport pretty well, continue playing for the remainder of your athletic career. But for Lisa Thomas, starting tennis at age eight, playing in tournaments all over the country, and becoming nationally ranked was simply Act I. Her story continues, “When I got into high school, I had grown to about 6’2, 6’3, and our tennis coach was also the basketball coach. And she, you know, basically said, ‘No, you’re gonna play basketball too.’ So, that’s how I got into basketball.” Thomas played both sports all four years, winning city and state championships in both sports during that span.
Hyper-specialization and generalization
In the modern era, youth begin specializing in their sport of choice as early as age 12. Rather than adding new sports to their schedules, they start the process of culling sports that once brought them joy. A nationally ranked tennis star taking up basketball at age 14 comes across as unserious in the current climate of youth sports. Today, the adults ranking children for future recruiting purposes assign the “bad makeup” label to such behavior.
David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene and Range, has written extensively about the push and pull between hyper-specialization and generalization. He opens Range by comparing and contrasting the development of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Woods began swinging a golf club at just 10 months old and did little else for the remainder of his childhood. Meanwhile, Federer played any and every sport available to him, refusing to fully yield to tennis until his teenage years. Many in the youth sports industrial complex argue that Federer is the exception, and Woods the rule. “The professed necessity of hyper-specialization forms the core of a vast, successful, and sometimes well-meaning marketing machine, in sports and beyond.”
However, Epstein’s deep dive into the research suggests the opposite. He finds that, “[e]ventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a ‘sampling period.’ … [T]hey gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.”
Thomas lands firmly on Team Roger over Team Tiger, and not just due to her affinity for tennis. She notes that between “tennis and basketball, there’s kind of a natural progression, because the footwork is almost exactly the same. And, you know, in tennis, footwork is probably one of the most important aspects of the game.” Additionally, playing both throughout high school and college allowed her to stay physically fit without the negative ramifications inherent to playing the same sport year round. Throughout her years playing both sports, she avoided major injury, noting that “tennis is kind of a, a more of a fast twitch sport, than basketball is. … I never really had any sort of downtime in that respect, so I was always fit. And I was always using different muscles. So yeah, I never got any kind of repetitive motion injuries.”
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Thomas’ endeavors as a multisport athlete might not have been an outright strategy at the time, but her approach proves prescient today as many prominent figures in athletics and sports science now advocate for young athletes to diversify their portfolios. Geno Auriemma, head coach of the UConn Huskies, spoke to reporters about the increasing rate of injury amongst players on his team and came to the same conclusion.
“We’ve all talked about it with doctors and specialists and people who do this stuff and said, ‘Never in history have this many kids been so sheltered in terms of one sport and that’s it.’ All year round. Almost like there’s no offseason,” Auriemma said. “I don’t like it, but that’s the world that they live in and a lot of kids, not just [at UConn], they go to college with pre-existing problems that now you gotta deal with. So, it’s just a different world and it’s unfortunate.”
In addition to avoiding injuries, Thomas’s time spent on the tennis court provided the opportunity to strengthen her mindset and discipline within the context of an individual sport. In playing tennis she learned to problem-solve and make her own decisions on the court.
“A lot of self-motivation is self-confidence,” Thomas said. “To be good at tennis, you really have to believe in your abilities to be good at tennis. And so as an athlete, I think that transfers to any sport, whether it’s individual or team.”
Toward the end of her high school career Thomas again approached a crossroad where she faced the choice to specialize or traverse a less conventional path as a multisport athlete. Growing up, scholarship opportunities for women’s basketball players didn’t really exist, so early on Thomas contemplated the choice between going pro in tennis straight out of high school, or continuing her education; but regardless of her choice, basketball wasn’t a factor.
Then in 1972, not long after Thomas’s freshman year of high school, Title IX was introduced, expanding the availability of scholarships for women’s basketball players. “[T]he year I graduated, ‘75, was really the year that Title IX really came into being for college, or for graduating seniors and college athletes, and that they started offering women full scholarships to college to play sports. And so I actually started getting recruitment letters from universities. I never dreamed that would happen. Some of my teammates and I went on recruiting visits to universities. I mean, it was really exciting. And so that moment, or that time, literally changed my life. So I chose University of Illinois in Chicago, which was the city I lived in, and received a full four year scholarship to play both tennis and basketball.”
Were it not for Title IX, Thomas and basketball may have forever remained high school sweethearts, but nothing more. A love forgotten.
When sports choose to exclude women, they simply take their talents elsewhere. In the ‘70s there existed a clear progression for woman athletes wanting to pursue a professional career in tennis. As Thomas points out, the overlapping skill set between tennis and basketball implies that those who excel at tennis, likely also possess an aptitude for basketball. But why play basketball when there’s no future for you in the sport? Many of Thomas’s peers likely chose the route Thomas nearly took herself, and devoted themselves to the tennis court rather than the basketball court because tennis provided visible role models and higher heights to aspire to. The talent of those women grew the game and enriched the quality of competition. A missed opportunity for basketball.
Title IX and the WBL
Instead of her basketball career flaming out, Thomas joined the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) Flames, where she amassed 1,211 career points and 403 field goals, while also recording 1,065 rebounds. During the ‘76-’77 season she posted what was at the time the second best single-season rebound mark with 363. She also set the (since broken) single game records for points and rebounds at 42 and 36, respectively. Thomas was named co-captain her junior year and captain her senior year. In the midst of a dazzling college career, Thomas was invited to the 1976 Olympic trials, which was in her words, “an event that I never even dreamed of happening for me. And so that event, being on the court with the best players in the country, and the best coaches was, again, kind of a life changing event. Just gave me confidence and belief to know that I was also one of the best players in the country.”
Armed with said confidence, Thomas rounded out her college career watching her Flames teammate, Toni Sachon (now Paolini) get drafted into the newly founded WBL to play for the Chicago Hustle, which again altered the trajectory Thomas had envisioned for herself. The prospect of professional basketball was new and exciting. Reflecting on that point in time, Thomas recalls, “I was a science major in college and had actually intended to go on to medical school. When this came up, and then started thinking, well, you know, I wonder if I’d be able to play in this league. And then of course, the following year in ‘79, I was drafted by the Chicago Hustle.”
For many college athletes, getting drafted into the pros is a dream come true and saying yes is a no-brainer. For an athlete like Thomas, with other options available, both academically and athletically, joining a league just getting started, that stood on legs wobblier than a baby giraffe, the decision came with risk. As a young tennis player, winning national titles at age 12, Thomas had several role models to inspire her game and pave the path to a professional tennis career. In an interview with the southern California chapter of the United States Tennis Association, Thomas cites her tennis influences as “the early Black women on tour Althea Gibson, Lorraine Bryant, Ann Koger, Kim Sands, Leslie Allen, Zina Garrison and others who inspired me and also helped me along the way. Quite a few of these players I competed against early in my career, and am still friends with to this day.” On the basketball side, professional role models were more difficult to come by, so in signing her contract with the WBL, Thomas decided to become the basketball role model that hadn’t existed for her.
Again, new sports leagues don’t operate under ideal circumstances. Low pay and rough travel conditions were the norm. Since she was drafted by her hometown team, Thomas was able to save money by living at home. As her parents observed the tough situation she’d signed herself up for, they questioned whether this was really what she wanted to do, but by her logic, “You know, it was the beginning of something. And as an athlete, I guess I just thought, you know, there’s always some sacrifice when you’re the first one, and I think we were all willing to make that sacrifice … We wanted to do this, we wanted to do this for women’s basketball for women’s sports. You sacrifice for your sport anyway, if you’re serious about your sport, whatever sport it is.”
Thus, the women of the WBL gladly provided their service to the sport, but when the league folded after just a few years, Thomas recalls “that was a difficult transition for everybody, and you don’t quite see or recognize the significance of really what you did at that point.” As time passed and the ABL came along, followed by the WNBA and Thomas saw women’s basketball played on her TV, she began to realize “that, yeah, I was really a part of history, a part of women’s sports history, basketball history.”
Looking back now, it’s easy to connect the small sparks created by the WBL to the eventual launch of the WNBA and its rising stars. While on the Chicago Hustle, Thomas played alongside Donna Geils (now Orender), who from 2005 to 2010 served as president of the WNBA. The Hustle’s play-by-play announcer was Les Grobstein, who went on to become the longtime radio voice of the Chicago Sky. That same Chicago Sky won the WNBA championship in 2021, much to the delight of one of their loudest supporters, current DePaul head coach and former Chicago Hustle head coach, Doug Bruno.
Following the Sky’s 2021 WNBA championship win, Bruno told reporters, “Watching the Sky win, I was just so thrilled for the sport of women’s basketball,” Bruno said. “What I watched on that Sunday, what has been my passion ever since my first DePaul women’s game made me realize women’s basketball is for real. Looking up at Wintrust Arena filled to the rafters with fans cheering on a champion even though the [NFL team] Bears were playing just a few miles away—that was such a glorious moment for women’s basketball. It’s what I envision how the sport should be.” Lisa Thomas, her teammates, coaches, and broadcasters had a vision of what a women’s professional basketball league could look like, and while it was unfortunately delayed, it could not be denied.
In her current season of life, Thomas coaches tennis. She cites her experience in the WBL as the reason that she really wants to “go after young girls and get them involved in sports. I mean, sports, really, for me, not only changed my life, but just made me a successful person. To be able to do that whole experience, to be able to deal with whatever comes up.” And while Thomas clearly understands that lessons learned within sports translate to life lessons outside of sports, she also wants girls to realize they belong in sports as much as anyone else. She states her mission as a coach is “to encourage them to play and to be proud of what they do, of being athletes, that they [are] really athletes, because again, that’s a message I think that at least back then that girls did not get. You are an athlete, like boys are athletes, you’re an athlete.”
While Thomas takes coaching very seriously, it is technically a side hustle. Following the end of the WBL, Thomas went back to school and obtained a Master’s in biochemistry, bringing another of her lifelong loves back to a position of prominence. For the next 37 years, she conducted medical research, studying inflammatory bowel disorders and the microbiome of the human gut, and during that time she produced 56 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Again, Thomas quickly notes how her diverse background supported her success as a scientist. “It made me much more confident in my abilities, confident in making decisions and thinking and problem solving. I mean, you know, you have to do all those things in sports.” In addition to skills acquired playing the sports themselves, Thomas already knew all about existing in a male-dominated industry. She refers to science as another old boys club where brilliant women “don’t get the recognition that they should, don’t get the same kind of funding, don’t get the same respect from men that do less than them. … So I think sports prepared me for that, and I was never intimidated.”
Conclusions drawn by Epstein in Range back up Thomas’s lived experience. Not only do athletes benefit from playing multiple sports, but elite performers in a variety of fields benefit from cross-discipline knowledge. “[T]echnological investors increased their creative impact by accumulating experience in different domains, compared to peers who drilled more deeply into one; they actually benefited by proactively sacrificing a modicum of depth for breadth as their careers progressed. There was a nearly identical finding in a study of artistic creators.”
Moreover, specialization doesn’t only lower the ceiling on individual performance within one’s specialty, but Epstein warns it also introduces risk to the larger system within which the specialty resides. Each specialized group zooms in closer and closer without ever zooming back out to look at the big picture, which in turn creates “a ‘system of parallel trenches’ in the quest for innovation. Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.”
Lisa Thomas toiled in multiple trenches throughout her life. She hopped from one to the other, and back again, despite what conventional wisdom and clichés might have had her do. When the existing trenches revealed themselves as substandard, she dug new ones and continues to ensure everyone coming up behind her knows where to find them. Not only does Thomas reject the notion of “one true love,” she left a trail of breadcrumbs for the rest of us to love deeply and broadly too.