By Rob Kaminski
MHSAA benchmarks editor
It was between seasons for WNBA player Stacey Thomas. She sat in her Northwestern University basketball office, where she worked as the Wildcats' director of basketball operations, and listened to a message that she’d heard somewhere before.
“It was before a game in 2004, when an official for that night’s game – Marvin Sykes – stopped into my office and was chatting up officiating,” Thomas recalls. “He gave me recommendations for different associations, and various contacts, and that's when I actually registered and started reading rules books and studying mechanics.”
Suffice to say, basketball was her life. From her days as a prep standout at Flint Southwestern to a brilliant career at the University of Michigan, and ultimately to the sport’s pinnacle with a six-year career in the WNBA, Stacey Thomas had achieved hoops success beyond her wildest dreams.
Yet, it was two instances off the court – mere blips among the thousands of chance meetings and casual introductions in one’s lifetime – which steered Thomas where she is today. Ironically, it’s still on the basketball court.
The conversation with Sykes was the second moment, and it struck a familiar chord with a message she had heard years earlier as a collegiate player in Ann Arbor.
“The first time I ever thought about officiating was when I was playing at the University of Michigan. A little bug was put in my ear during the preseason when officials come in to talk about officiating, the rules changes, how the game is going to be called; that sort of thing,” Thomas recalls. “It was Patty Broderick (professional and collegiate official who currently serves as Coordinator for the Women's Basketball Officiating Consortium). And at end of that talk she told us how officiating could be a great career and a way to stay in the game.”
In the short term, however, Thomas had other ways to stay in the game. You could even say, she stole her way into extending her playing career. As a Wolverine, Thomas set a Big Ten Conference record with 372 career steals, 157 more than any player in U of M history. Her 1,556 points rank fifth in the Wolverine books.
Those numbers and her work ethic led to six seasons in the WNBA, highlighted by a championship with the 2003 Detroit Shock. Thomas played 175 games over six seasons with four teams. And, when her days in “The League” were done, Thomas’ skills took her overseas to stints in Sweden, Turkey and Latvia over three years.
All the while, however, Thomas had her sights set further down the road, for when the game stopped. As it turns out, it hasn’t stopped at all.
“As the years went by and I decided I was done playing, I thought about what I really wanted to do. I knew I wanted to stay in basketball,” Thomas said. “I was an assistant coach at Central Connecticut State in 2004; it was a good experience, but I liked the administrative job at Northwestern better.”
And, of course, there was always that officiating thing she’d heard about.
“While I was looking, I thought maybe I needed to really explore the officiating option,” Thomas said, and she now enters her sixth year as an MHSAA registered basketball official. “As involved as I was with basketball, it gave me the opportunity to stay in the game and be surrounded by the game. It’s a source of pride, and for me it’s the ongoing concept of getting it right and always striving to be better. I want to be professional, set goals and be the best official I can be.”
In other words, she approached officiating in the same manner she attacked opponents on the basketball floor. It’s still the game she’s known her whole life, just from a different perspective.
“As a player, I was around a lot of different coaches and a lot of different teammates, and they all have their own personalities. Understanding that really helped in the transition to officiating,” Thomas said. “You learn to pick your battles and to take things in stride. You can't take things personally. Some coaches try to rattle you by being vocal and boisterous, and others are sarcastic and joking. As a player or as an official you have to read personalities. Playing the game helped me learn how to react, speak to them, and communicate.”
At times, her fame comes into play as well. It’s not easy to hide when officiating in the same state where Thomas’ star began to rise, and coaches often remind her that she used to be on the floor reacting to, rather than blowing, the whistle.
“I am a very laid-back individual, and it takes a lot for me to get rattled, so I use that to my advantage. I might hear from certain coaches, ‘Come on, you played in The League; they didn't call that in The League,’” she laughs. “I just take it for what it is, whether they are trying to get under my skin, or be humorous. I know as an official to just let them have their say.”
The former prep all-stater who finished second in Michigan’s “Miss Basketball” voting as a senior in 1995, also was a three-time high jump champion and ran cross country at Southwestern. She hasn’t totally left track and field behind either, as she is a registered track & field/cross country official with the MHSAA as well.
Thomas, who now resides in Novi, regularly works boys and girls high school basketball in the Metro Detroit Area, and runs on Michigan’s community college circuit and at the NAIA level in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference. The competitive fire that drove her as a player transfers to her uniform in stripes, as she eventually hopes to land NCAA Division I assignments.
“My playing experience helped me learn that you’ve got to pay your dues. You’ve got to work hard and have patience,” Thomas said. “I know that there are plays I have to still see over and over and over, so I will get them right on a consistent basis. I need to get to the camps, continue to learn the rules book, and my time will come. The more games, the more reps, the more situations, the more you learn.”
It’s a quality and regimen she tries to impress upon up-and-coming officials, and she also expresses that it’s important the many benefits of officiating aren’t lost in the quest for top games.
“I’ve developed so many friendships and made so many friends by getting into officiating. What better way to have an impact on a sport?” Thomas asks. “I tell people to have fun, enjoy it and work hard. Most of all, I always tell them being compensated is a bonus for doing something you love to do.
“Sometimes the younger officials get too caught up in what other officials are doing,” she continued. “Who’s got the big games, the pay rates, and so on. I played in The League, and I knew going in I wouldn't just come in and have the best games. You’ve got to put the time in.”
Thomas has noticed impatience not only among young officials, but in the playing ranks as well.
“On certain levels, the speed and physical nature of the game has increased,” she said. “There’s all this talent, but at the same time the players have become a little bit lazier compared to back in the day. Years ago, kids had more passion for the game, because nothing was given to them. They were better listeners to coaches, peers and parents.”
When Thomas shares the floor with today’s high schoolers, they are definitely getting her best effort and maximum attention. She understands what’s at stake, and what the high school game is all about. It’s why she accepts games nearly every night of the week during the season, and why she relishes those weeknights in the gyms.
“First of all, it's a special time in their lives, and it’s their turn to shine and to play at a high level and to be seen by their classmates and by the community,” Thomas says. “There’s nothing like that seven o’clock rivalry game, with a big crowd packing the gym, and it’s a close game and you are right there in the fire. It’s an adrenaline rush that pumps you up. Those are the games you strive for.”
Thomas has been on the floor for plenty of those games, and will have countless more in the future. That’s what makes it most special to know where she was this June when she could have been elsewhere. Thomas spent some time at the Healthy Kids Club in Detroit, helping director Mariah Lowson with basketball leagues for kids who ranged from 8 years old to high school age. Officials paid $20 to attend the camp and gain experience that will help them down the road. It certainly doesn’t hurt to see someone there like Thomas helping out.
“The nice thing is, it’s younger kids in the league, so young officials would not be intimidated,” Thomas said. “The motivation for them is to do well in these games, understanding that they can make money doing peewee leagues while continuing to learn. There were some kids as young as 13 or 14 years old, up to 17 years old, working games.”
And there was Thomas, right on the court as she’s always been.
PHOTO: Stacey Thomas drives to the basket as a member of the WNBA's Detroit Shock.
NOTE: This is the seventh installment in the series "Making – and Answering – the Call" detailing the careers and service of MHSAA officials. Click the links below to view others or the blue "Officials" tag at the top of the this story for the entire series plus other Second Half coverage on the subject.