Sports

Kings' Thomas uses chip to survive NBA

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Kenny Thomas would never believe it, but someone here sees him as bigger than he actually is.

He always thought they sold him short.

Inside the gym at Albuquerque High School, the teenage boy just out of class is waiting for the 6-foot-7 Thomas to come through the eight-foot door. He leans over to the girl on his right and says quietly, "I bet he has to duck to get through the door. He's huge."

Sure enough, Thomas doesn't have to crouch as he enters. He greets a group of approximately 30 people, a mix of school administrators, students and media. With three television cameras pointed his way, he explains the inspiration behind a college scholarship program he is starting here in what's known as Bulldog City. Once a year a deserving, accomplished, and underprivileged student will receive a financial assist from the Kings forward and his fellow Bulldog alum wife.

To many in Albuquerque, there's nothing negative about their adopted son. In 1994, the then-center left high school in El Paso, Texas, to join a Albuquerque High program that had already won 10 state titles. By the time he had led them to an 11th state crown, it was more than enough to overshadow the transfer-gate that arose when the legality of his move was called into question by the region's coaches.

Thomas arrived down the street at the University of New Mexico at the perfect time, pulling a plummeting program back on its feet and hijacking the record books in four years that included at least one win in the NCAA Tournament every season.

"He was dominating when he was here," said Bob Brown, a local sports television anchor. "He showed up, was a big guy who could play, had skills, and people enjoyed it.

"But he always had a little chip on his shoulder about that, like 'I can't make it in the NBA, huh?' Whenever he'd come back here with his (annual) Kenny Camp (for kids), you always got that sense like, 'I made it, man. You all never thought I would do it and now I'm back.' "

Through all the winning, however, there was doubt surrounding Thomas' future.

Richard Stevens, a columnist for the Albuquerque Tribune who covered Thomas at New Mexico, said there was reason to wonder if Thomas' game would lead to longevity in the league.

"I think Lobo fans have great respect for Kenny and what he did for the program and they look at him as one of the best Lobos ever," Stevens said. "But at UNM, he was a 6-6 junkie center playing with his back to the basket and everybody here realized that he had to go in the NBA, play against the greatest athletes in the world, and to change not only his physical shape but his physical game. There was reason to wonder if he could do it, and he did it. I think what he did was tremendous and hard to do."

Ten years later, not much has changed for the player who often feels undervalued.

The nature of his Sacramento entrance was unenviable to begin with, as he was part of the February 2005 trade that shipped All-Star power forward Chris Webber to Philadelphia.

Now, once again, he's fighting for a starting position he doesn't quite remember losing to the latest offseason signee -- the first being Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 2005 and the latest Mikki Moore during the past summer.

"When it's all said and done, I think it will be clear who's better for us, not necessarily who has the better numbers, but who's the best for other guys," Kings coach Reggie Theus said of the position battle. "Right now, I think Kenny is playing closer to what I expect out of him than Mikki is. ... I think he's playing hard."

And, like always, standing tall through it all.

TIP-INS -- A woman has accused NBA star Jason Kidd of harassing and groping her this month at a trendy Manhattan nightspot. Kidd spokesman Scott Miranda said the accusation was "a complete fabrication and it is sad that someone would make something like this up." The New York Police Department confirmed Wednesday the 23-year-old woman filed a complaint against another club-goer Oct. 11, a day after she said she was harassed and groped at the Tenjune club. The NYPD declined to discuss the case further. A police official confirmed news reports that the woman told police Kidd approached her inside the club and, without warning, grabbed her crotch. She said when she tried to fend him off, he kept grabbing her until she was forced to leave, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation hadn't been concluded. ... Kobe Bryant returned to practice after sitting out the previous three days, and coach Phil Jackson said he expects the Lakers star to play in an exhibition game tonight.

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