BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – Leslie Thomas politely asks for forgiveness. His voice is hoarse and raspy. He has been yelling and screaming for two hours straight from inside his Baton Rouge apartment.
He normally attends his son’s basketball games, but did not make the tour here due to COVID-19. So instead he screamed at the television when his 19-year-old son, Cameron, lost 27 points in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday to help No. 8 seed LSU beat the head of Series No. 9 St. Bonaventure, 76–61, in the historic (and nearly empty) Assembly Hall.
The Tigers and their sensational freshman are in the next round, which includes a meeting Monday with the No. 1 seed and the Big Ten Michigan champion, a team some feel is as vulnerable as any seeded team ( the Wolverines don’t have the injured starter Isaiah Livers).
While the Wolverines (21-4) are missing one of their stars, the Tigers (19-9) have theirs humming pretty well. If you haven’t heard of Cam Thomas, that’s fine. Solo is a former five-star draft pick, a first-round NBA pick this summer and the current leader in freshman scoring in the country. Cam doesn’t really care if you know or not, says Leslie. In basketball circles, some often say he slips “under the radar,” and that makes Cam frown.
“Under the radar?”He asks his mom out loud.
There is no more being under the radar. Not here in basketball country playing in the Big Dance and finding a No. 1 seed with a trip to Sweet 16 on the line. The nation tested Cam Thomas on Saturday in a beating from the Bonnies. He rebounded from a 1-of-8 start from the field to make five of his next seven shots, had four rebounds and three assists and made 11 of 13 free throws.
It seems like a fine line, if your mom isn’t Leslie Thomas, an Army veteran, perfectionist, and someone who, in most cases, would be considered Cam’s personal basketball coach.
Cam has learned the game through YouTube clips of NBA players and instructions from his mother. Mom recognizes that her relationship with her son is unusual and unique. They have a link that no word on any page can adequately describe. They are best friends. They are the closest confidants. And yes, they are teachers and students, even to this day.
Cam calls Mom after every game. That includes Saturday, when Leslie opened the postgame call asking her son to guess what he did wrong on the last outing.
“I know, I know,” he said, “I missed those two free throws.”
“Yeah, you missed those two free throws!” She answered.
Leslie is a tough lady. She can usually be heard from the stands barking loudly at her son, sometimes even shouting instructions, her voice rising above all others. Steve Smith, Cam’s high school coach at Oak Hill Academy, hasn’t forgotten.
“She will tell you what she thinks,” says Smith. “I can hear her in the stands at our games making coach comments. Shorten your shot! Go to the basket!
“I thought he had played well some nights, but she disagreed with me. She is his harshest critic. “
Leslie grew up on the Virginia coast and spent four years in the military, one year of which was in Korea as an administrative specialist. She left the military to have her first daughter, Shaniece Collins, and ten years later, while living in Japan, she had Cam.
Cam took up basketball at age 5 while watching his sister, then 15, play basketball at a nearby recreation center. The family erected a goal in the driveway and Leslie, herself a former high school basketball player, began teaching her son how to shoot – first mid-range jump shots, then triples, and so on.
In a year, he could make dozens of free throws in a row. In fact, when he was 7 years old, he won a contest by matching 33 of them consecutively. He was invited to an AAU team and regularly played and beat 9 and 10 year old boys.
She fell in love with Kobe Bryant and urged her mother to transform her bedroom into Kobe World: sheets, blankets, Kobe rugs. The whole room was Kobe. Leslie even painted the walls of the Lakers purple and gold. (In fact, during Saturday’s game, Cam strutted out in bright green sneakers – the Nike Kobe 6 Protro Grinches, Mom says.)
The recreation center, a short drive from their home, became the practice place for mom and son. They went so often that regulars at the South Norfolk Community Center reserved a goal just for themselves. They were there once a day and twice a day in the summers.
While others hired private coaches or instructors to cultivate their son’s basketball skills, Leslie refused. “That’s my job,” he says.
He created a rule of 10 in a row for his son. If you didn’t do anything perfectly 10 times in the recreation center, you wouldn’t be able to try it in a game.
Leslie got used to being the only mother in the recreation center, surrounded by neighborhood children who were looking at her curiously. What is that older woman doing here?
“It was our bonding time. Cam doesn’t talk much. But when we shoot ourselves, he’s engaged, laughing and talking, ”says Leslie. “Many young men don’t talk to their mothers. They are mothers. Why would they do it? We make. We have that bond. “
They still do it. She moved with him to Baton Rouge and rented an apartment. They don’t live together, but Cam is home 90% of the time, she says. She cooks for him, does the laundry, and sits with Cam as he peruses Bryant and James Harden’s YouTube videos. He is always trying to perfect his game by learning new moves.
Other than watching her son’s games or shopping, Leslie doesn’t go out much. She says she is protecting her son. Cam can’t get sick in the middle of a basketball season, after all. Without Cam in Baton Rouge for the past two weeks, she felt lost and alone. She has yet to explore the city and hopes to return home to Virginia next month.
“It’s just me and Cam,” he says. “I really don’t know anyone. I came here to support my son. “
Soon, he will probably make it to the next level: the NBA. He’s 6’4 ”with reach and the ability to score across the court. For 38 years, Smith has been a coach at Oak Hill Academy, a prep basketball powerhouse in West Virginia, and has never seen a player score like Cam.
Three-step back with one hand to his face, 30 feet with two guys on top of him, mid-range jumpers, layups back, retching near the middle of the court.
“I’ve seen things in practice that I’ve never seen before,” says Smith. “He’s got a deep, deep range and he’s strong when he gets to the basket.”
Boo Williams, his AAU coach, recently said The Virginia Pilot that Cam is the best scorer since managing Allen Iverson.
After Saturday’s outing, he averages 22.8 points per game, the fourth-most in Division I and the best for a college rookie. He entered the game with the national advantage in free throw points with 176, and led the SEC in scoring, free throw percentage and making field goals this season. At one point, he made 42 free throws in a row.
It all goes back to someone special. No dad. No coach. Neither brother nor best friend. But mom.
“Excuse my voice,” Leslie laughs breathlessly. “I’ve been screaming here!”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.