Gordon Thomas with his 2018 Amityville High School New York...

Gordon Thomas with his 2018 Amityville High School New York State Basketball Championship ring at Premier Basketball NY in Hauppauge March 11. Credit: Barry Sloan

In all his years dribbling up and down the court, jumping high and shooting baskets, Gordon Thomas knew he could count on his father cheering him on from the stands.

Starting as a competitive basketball player at St. Patrick’s CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) in Bay Shore, Thomas went on to be a standout student-athlete at St. John’s University and was a New York Knicks draft pick in 1979. And whether it was a local gymnasium or Madison Square Garden, he said his father was “always there.”

A fixture in the community for decades, John E. Thomas Sr. was the first Black officer in the Village of Brightwaters Police Department and among the first Black officers in the Suffolk County Police Department when it formed in 1960. He was a detective in the Community Outreach Bureau until his retirement in 1998.

“My father was the Jackie Robinson [of the police force],” said Thomas, 66, of Bay Shore.

Det. John E. Thomas, Sr. was "the Jackie Robinson [of...

Det. John E. Thomas, Sr. was "the Jackie Robinson [of the police force],” his son, Gordon Thomas said. Credit: Thomas Family

He fondly recalled his father being a gifted athlete himself, participating in the Police Olympics and pole vaulting into his 70s. But as the years went on, he said he noticed his father’s memory starting to slip, to the point that he wouldn’t remember a visit from his son earlier in the day.

In 2005, at 79, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, his son said. 

“It was really discouraging seeing him decline,” Thomas said. “All of a sudden he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk, and then he was in a bed and couldn’t get out of it.”

Then it was Thomas’ turn to be there for his father. He educated himself on the disease and eventually became involved in the healthcare industry as an account executive and in marketing and community relations. He also began supporting the Long Island Alzheimer’s and Dementia Center in Westbury, where he now serves as a board member.

Their brains may be broken but their hearts aren’t.

Gordon Thomas, basketball coach

Credit: Barry Sloane

“Their brains may be broken but their hearts aren’t,” he said. “You have to love them and you need a lot of patience. The one thing I always tell families is get educated.”

In 2010, after his father died from Alzheimer’s — the sixth leading cause of death for adults in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Thomas said he was determined to “do something in his memory” to help raise money and awareness.

For 14 years, that something has been the Alzheimer’s All-Star Basketball Classic, annual fundraising competitions that pit the best high school players in Suffolk against the best in Nassau.

2 FUNDRAISERS A YEAR

The main event consists of girls’ and boys’ all-star games held the last weekend in October. Over several tryouts across the Island, four teams of 12 players are selected out of nearly 100 to represent their counties and compete in front of classmates, parents and even college coaches in search of prospective superstars.

The other event, which will be held this year on Thursday at Brentwood High School’s Sonderling Center, is the Slam Dunk & 3-Point Shootout, a battle between the counties. The top dunkers are chosen through video submissions and the shooters through Newsday’s “Top 100” lists, said Thomas, who has coached for Amityville Memorial and Southampton high schools.

With an admission fee of $10 for those age 10 and up, all proceeds from the events go to the Long Island Alzheimer’s and Dementia Center. The money helps fund the center’s offerings, including pet and art therapy, support groups, counseling sessions and caregiver training courses.

According to Victoria Cohen, the center’s executive director, Thomas has contributed $5,000 to $10,000 per year through the all-star games and $3,000 per year from the Slam Dunk & 3-Point Shootout.

“Gordon knows and understands the need for families to have these kinds of services, because if you didn’t, you’d be going through this disease without help,” Cohen said. “He’s so enthusiastic and does a tremendous job getting the community and these high school students together and bringing awareness to them, because at this moment it’s not going away.”

And while providing a special day for young athletes — who can go home with trophies, college recruiter information and bragging rights — Thomas makes sure they know what they’re playing for.  

ALZHEIMER’S AWARENESS

Ahead of the competitions, he said he gathers players and their families for an “Awareness Night,” where speakers educate them on Alzheimer’s, and they can try on equipment that simulates what a dementia patient experiences by altering their physical and sensory abilities.

They’re able to take this equipment off ... but the Alzheimer’s patients can’t. 

Gordon Thomas, basketball coach

“The beauty of that is they’re able to take this equipment off ... but the Alzheimer’s patients can’t,” said Thomas. He recalled a basketball player from Baldwin who experienced the tour and became emotional, as her grandmother had the disease. “She said, ‘Now I really understand what Grammy is going through,’ ” Thomas said.

Thomas Matonti, 17, a senior at Kings Park High School who has participated in the shootout and played on last year’s Suffolk team, said, “Coming into it, I didn’t know about Alzheimer’s and how many people are actually affected by it. The entire message was very special and informative.”

Among the hundreds of athletes who have participated in the competitions are Lester Quinones, a Brentwood native and current NBA shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco; Celeste Taylor, who was awarded MVP of the 2017 Alzheimer’s game for Nassau and was just drafted to the WNBA’s Indiana Fever; and Jordan Riley, a competitor in the 10th anniversary game who has gone on to make his mark in Philadelphia with Temple University’s Owls.

A particularly memorable moment came in 2013 when Thomas said he asked Valley Stream South’s top three-point shooter, Diego Maldonado, to participate. He won not only the shootout but also the slam dunk contest by leaping up, passing the ball between his legs mid-air and slamming it down through the net. The gym erupted and it was captured on video.

“I mean, holy mackerel,” Thomas said, laughing. “A month later, I get a call from ESPN and they want to put his dunk on their Plays of the Week.”

Herman Lamison, head coach for Southampton and a village police detective sergeant, has been involved in the fundraiser since its start. He currently coaches the Suffolk boys team.

He said he connected with Thomas because his mother died from Alzheimer’s.

“It’s rewarding and means a lot to know you’re giving back through something you love to do ... it’s a memory of my mom for me, personally,” said Lamison.

Thomas, who prioritizes respect and the importance of academics, said, “I love being able to pay it forward because I’ve been there, and I want these kids to understand what it takes to get there and to be upstanding young people in the community. I try to prepare them for the future.”  

PLAYING AT ST. JOHN’S

In 1975, Thomas, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard and senior at Bay Shore High School known for his high jumps, read an article about an all-star game against the Russian Junior national basketball team taking place on Long Island.

Encouraged by his coach to try out, he said he made the team and played so well that he caught the eye of one of the scouts there, St. John’s coaching legend Lou Carnesecca. He wound up getting recruited with a four-year scholarship, he said.

“I felt like I was in another world,” Thomas said of his freshman year at St. John’s, during which he played the first of several games at Madison Square Garden. “I’ll never forget that feeling of running out of the locker room and onto the court and playing in front of 19,000 people. That adrenaline is going through you, and it’s like a high.”

That first year, George L. Johnson — a sophomore forward/center who would go on to play in the NBA for seven years — took him under his wing.

Gordon Thomas, a basketball player for St. John's in the...

Gordon Thomas, a basketball player for St. John's in the 1970s, is pictured in photographs provided by the family. Credit: Thomas Family

He remembered Thomas being “personable, athletic and eager to learn,” and modeling himself after his idol, New York Nets’ star and Roosevelt native Julius “Dr. J” Erving. 

“He was fun to get along with, and he cared about people,” Johnson said. “Everyone wanted to be around him.”

Under the guidance of Carnesecca and teammates like Johnson, Thomas soared as a player, competing during the NCAA tournament in the Elite Eight in 1979, the same year that Magic Johnson of Michigan State faced off against Larry Bird of Illinois State in the Final Four.

“As a kid, I would take my dad’s trophies and pins from the police department to show-and-tell, and after that season was over, my dad wanted me to come by the Third Precinct in Bay Shore to show off to all the police officers,” said Thomas.  

NBA DRAFT

His family had more to celebrate that year, as he was selected by the Knicks in the 10th round of the 1979 NBA Draft. Signing a contract with the team, he said he played well in the intensive one-week rookie camp alongside top players, but the competition was tough and higher picks were chosen instead.

“[Knicks coach] Red Holzman said, ‘Son, you had a really good camp, but . . . ’ and my heart fell out,” Thomas recalled. “This was my dream, and all of a sudden the carpet was pulled out from me. . . . So that’s what I tell my players: After a while, it’s inevitable that ball is gonna stop bouncing, so what are you gonna do then? My parents and mentors always stressed the importance of education.”

It’s inevitable that ball is gonna stop bouncing, so what are you gonna do then?

Gordon Thomas, basketball coach

Thomas pivoted, earning a degree in business administration from St. John’s and then playing basketball in Caracas, Venezuela — one of two Americans on the team — against Puerto Rico and China, among others, for years.

When he returned home, he said he started a family and worked in real estate before switching to sales within the telecommunications industry and then the medical field. And he stayed true to his first passion, coaching for the Amityville Warriors, where he was named Suffolk County Coach of the Year and New York State Coach of the Year. He later joined the coaching staff of the Southampton Mariners.  

THE CLASSIC’S FUTURE

As he continues to keep the legacy of his father and all Alzheimer’s patients alive, Thomas has built his own.

Looking toward the future, he hopes to one day expand the Classic into a Long Island versus New York City game and eventually into a tristate competition. He’s seeking sponsors to potentially host the game at Nassau Coliseum, provide more opportunities and accolades for the players involved and, in the end, contribute more funds to the Westbury Alzheimer’s center.

Johnson, who has been heavily involved in the Classic, isn’t surprised that his friend has pursued such a mission for all these years. “It speaks to Gordon’s selflessness,” he said. “He’s always looking to include others and spread the wealth.”

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