MT. VERNON — Daryl Thomas didn’t want his son Kyle to play basketball out of a sense of obligation or feeling that he was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps. The former Indiana forward and captain on the 1987 national championship squad wanted his son to develop a love of the game naturally, because he believed if Kyle’s desire to be great was organic and not manufactured, it would ultimately carry him much further.
So even though Daryl was the coach at Chicago’s Montini Catholic High School himself at the time, and even though Kyle played the game throughout his childhood, the elder Thomas didn’t start working with his son with any degree of intensity until Kyle was in eighth grade and told his father it was time.
“He didn’t want to force it on me,” Kyle Thomas said Saturday after a win in the Havoc in the Heartland event. “He was always like, ‘Look, if you’re going to do this. You’re going to it for yourself because you want to do it.’ It wasn’t really in my eighth grade year when I was like, ‘Ok, I really think I can do this.'”
Daryl developed a plan for his son at that point, which would have included him going to Montini. His instructions at first were intense, but simple.
“He told me, ‘You better get your butt in the paint,'” Kyle said. “… He was like, ‘Look, just work on your left hand.’ Because for the most part, I was always going right. He had me doing left hand drills. Mikan drills. Tipping off the backboard. He had me do a lot of drills, fundamental drills. For the most part that’s really it.”
Kyle didn’t get to see what Daryl’s long-term plan for him entailed, however. Later that school year — on March 28, 2018, right after basketball season — Daryl died of a heart attack at the age of 52.
He got the sense, however, that his dad could see the game was different than it was when he was in school and big men rarely ventured away from the post. So he’s worked on becoming a more versatile big man and earned recruiting attention because of it. The 6-foot-9, 220-pounder, who plays his travel ball with Mac Irvin Fire, is a three-star recruit per 247Sports and has offers from Arizona, Illinois and Nebraska, and he drew some interest from Indiana before the Hoosiers’ coaching change. He missed almost all of the 2020-21 high school season, but averaged 9.7 points and 7.5 rebounds as a sophomore at St. Joseph’s.
“We’re two completely different players,” Kyle said of he and his father. “Him being more of a muscle man in the paint, getting boards. Me being more of a stretch 5. There are some aspects of our game, posts and stuff that I take from him, but we play two completely different types of games. He did have a plan for me before he passed. All I knew was in high school, he was going to coach me to do what he wasn’t able to do for the most part, certain aspects of the game like shooting, ball-handling and all of that.”
When Daryl died, Kyle decided to learn from the man who taught his father. He started his high school career at St. Joseph’s in Westchester, Ill.,, the alma mater of his father as well as Isiah Thomas (no relation), playing for legendary coach Gene Pingatore. Daryl had coached on Pingatore’s staff before moving to Montini, so Kyle already had a good relationship with him.
“He had stories upon stories (about Daryl),” Kyle said. “The one that made me laugh the most was that he was maybe 6-foot, 6-1 when he was a sophomore. He came back junior year, 6-7, 6-8. Ping didn’t even recognize him. There were so many stories. It’s hard to really recall. For the most part, Ping was like a second father. He was the only person I really trusted at that time. It was like, ‘If I’m going to get to the next level, I want him to coach me, because he got my dad to where he got.'”
But not long after he started playing at St. Joe’s, Kyle also lost Pingatore, who died June 26, 2019 at the age of 83 after the younger Thomas finished his freshman year.
Thomas lost his two most important mentors in the span of 15 months, certainly a lot to cope with for a young man of his age. However, that was something else his father prepared him for.
“I wasn’t necessarily ready for it, but I knew how my dad would have acted,” Thomas said. “My dad raised me like, ‘You’re going to lose people. People are going to pass. You cry for a little bit.’ When I first heard about (Pingatore’s death) I stopped crying like halfway through because he would have told me, ‘Boy, stop crying.’ My dad raised me to be more tough, more resilient to certain aspects, especially emotionally. Losing both of them, I was like, ‘OK, everything rides on my shoulders. I gotta take what they taught me and apply that to my game, and to life itself. Everything they taught me about life, the game, school, how to deal with certain things, family, females, friends, all of that. They taught me more life lessons than basketball. And I gotta do it right for them.”
Thomas now has to make his push to the next level at a different high school, as St. Joseph’s is closing down at the end of this year for financial reasons. He said he’s made a decision on his next destination but isn’t ready to reveal it yet.
“I’m going to keep that one a secret,” he said. “I know where I’m going, but I’m going to wait to say it. You just gotta wait and see.”
So he’s going to spend this summer working on impressing coaches for his next destination after that. He’s operating out of the post for Mac Irvin Fire, but his coaches are pushing him to float out to the perimeter as often as he can to show his skills, especially as a 3-point shooter. He’s still getting his strength back from the foot injury he suffered in February, so he’s still a little off, but they expect him to be closer to himself by the July period.
“We’re trying to push Kyle to another level,” coach Mike Irvin said. “I think he’s one of the most versatile bigs we’ve had in our program, and that says a lot with all of the talent we’ve had come out of our program. What makes Kyle special is he has athleticism. He runs the court like a deer. We’re just trying to make sure that happens, and he’s an exceptional shooter for a big, so he fits the big man role nowadays when they have to knock down the 3.”
Thomas hopes he can draw the attention of Indiana, his father’s other alma mater. The Hoosiers were in contact with him while Archie Miller was head coach, but Thomas hasn’t heard from them since Mike Woodson took over. Kyle’s father was too young to be Woodson’s teammate at Indiana, but they have crossed paths.
“I’m hoping to hear from them,” Thomas said. “For the most part, he and my father had a great relationship. They were friends. It would be great to hear from them and find out what’s going on over there, especially because they were in contact with me before even though it was a different coach and different coaching staff. It would be nice just to hear from them.”
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