Terriel Thomas, a 2013 SOU graduate, never imagined he would earn a living playing basketball in China. “Sometimes, I still can’t believe this is my life,” he said a year and a half ago, after three years in China. “I always dreamed of being a basketball coach and working with kids. And now, I’m doing it in this amazing place.”
The former student-athlete was working for the United States Basketball Academy’s (USBA) training academy. The USBA is an Oregon-based organization that offers young students in China the training necessary to pursue their hoop dreams, and possibly play basketball in the United States.
“I travel around the country and help set up basketball academies, teach other coaches, and even teach a bit of English related to the game,” Thomas said. “These kids are terrific. The people I’ve met in China are wonderful.”
Life in China has been an adventure. Thomas has a job he adores and a blossoming family life that includes a baby girl. “I am very happy, and I truly believe that without SOU, I would not be here,” he said. “I like to say, ‘Chicago made me, Boise raised me, and SOU made me the man I am today.’”
No stranger to making bold moves, Thomas left Boise to play basketball at SOU.
“I come from a really close family,” he said. “Some of us are in Idaho and Illinois, but I didn’t know anyone in Oregon, and it was hard at first.”
He credits a number of people with helping turn SOU into a home and eventually giving him the sense of family he longed for.
Thomas said that while he initially thrived at SOU, there were challenges. Making new friends was harder than he had hoped, and he sometimes missed being among other people of color. The period when Thomas was feeling the most homesick and out of place turned into one of the most pivotal moments of his life.
“I was really struggling, and I started acting out,” he said. “My grades were dropping and I wasn’t getting along with my coach. I was asked to leave the team. I was devastated. Nothing like this had happened to me before.”
But Athletic Director Matt Sayre and education instructor Joel Perkins stepped in.
“Matt made me see that I needed to work things out with my coach, and I needed to figure out what I wanted for the future,” Thomas said. “Joel Perkins was my advisor, and he talked to me straight, too. Just having those two talks changed me. I didn’t have a plan, and I had to make one. I’m glad that I listened to them, and I’m proud that I overcame a really difficult period.”
“I just had to get out there,” he said. “I made a point of saying hello to at least one stranger a day. I attended events outside of basketball and tried to move outside my comfort zone. That helped a lot.”
The fact that his teammates, coaches and teachers stuck with him even when things were hard was the real mark of a family for Thomas. “My time at SOU ended up being some of the best years of my life,” he said.
In his work, Thomas draws every day on what he learned at SOU, not just the academics and basketball skills, but also the loyalty and support needed to make a team truly thrive.
“I want to show the kids and adults I work with how strong a team can be when they trust and love each other,” he said, adding that he’s proud of the young players he coaches. “The classes are intense but these kids are strong players. These kids are amazing.”
Thomas posted recently on his website that 2020 was off to a good start for him “until COVID-19 decided to call a timeout on us all.” He has taken a much more active role in his home life – from doing dishes to changing diapers – and said the pause has helped bring him balance.
“Just like back at SOU (Go Raiders!!!), during timeouts I just watched the board, drank water, looked for my snickers and well, never really actually listened to what Coach was saying … this virus, being slowed down and now having to listen (no distractions) I’m able to play my part better,” he said.
“And being a better husband and father helps me to become a better coach. And better coaches know how to effectively use timeouts and make the necessary in-game adjustments that will lead to success on the court.”
Shared and updated from the Fall 2019 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine