Rudy Thomas could wax philosophical about the game of basketball all day, if you let him.
No surprise, really, since the Bellevue resident has spent the better part of 50 years shaping his life around the game. From successful college player, to living out of a suitcase with the Harlem Globetrotters, to nearly 30 years teaching and coaching kids of all ages, Thomas has dedicated his life to basketball.
Thomas, 68, is about to put that life on hold. On Monday, Dec. 31, he will retire as recreation program coordinator at the Crossroads Community Center in Bellevue, a place he called his second home for the past 25 years.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do. I have no plan," he said. "(The year) 2013 is open. I'll just play it by ear. I do know I'll volunteer whenever I can."
In addition to his title at Crossroads, Thomas also instructed basketball for the Bellevue Athletic Club, directed the Northshore Basketball Association’s youth basketball clinic, coached AAU basketball and ran LocalHOOPS in the area for several years.
All told, thousands of children have absorbed the wisdom and kindness of a man who spent eight years on one of the Harlem Globetrotters’ two traveling squads in the 1970s.
“Everything I’ve ever heard about him has been positive,” said Robin Haaseth, community services supervisor for the city of Bellevue. “He’s so humble, the kids love him, the parents love him. We won’t be able to replace Rudy, that’s for sure.”
Thomas just shakes his head when reflecting on how he reached this point.
With baseball being his first love, Thomas was drafted by the New York Mets when he was still in high school. He didn’t take the money, and instead enrolled at North Carolina A&T. After just one year, he switched to basketball.
What followed was something Thomas never could have envisioned.
Thomas transferred to Western and was an integral member of the 1972 squad that reached the quarterfinals of the NAIA national tournament. (The team, known as “Big Blue of ’72,” was honored in early 2012.) That same year, he was invited to Chicago to try out for the Harlem Globetrotters, earning a spot on the squad that traveled to smaller cities all over the country. “Meadowlark” Lemon, “Curly” Neal and some of the other well-known Globetrotters were part of the team that toured the larger U.S. cities and truly trotted across the globe.
Thomas’ coach was none other than Marques Haynes, widely considered the best dribbler to play the game. Thomas estimates the Globetrotters played 200 games a year during that time.
“When I was a kid, I remember seeing them on TV, thinking, I never, never could be a part of something like that,” he said.
After retiring from professional basketball in 1980, Thomas made his way back to western Washington, eventually landing a job with the city of Bellevue.
Quietly going about his business of molding young lives all those years, Thomas never realized he had made such an impact until he announced his intention to retire.
John Steinberg attended one of Thomas’ camps when he was a young boy, developing the skills and attitude to play high school basketball at Sammamish High. In the ultimate show of gratitude, Steinberg's essay to get into the University of Chicago was all about Thomas. Steinberg describes Thomas as a father figure in a video tribute of Thomas put together by the city of Bellevue. (Watch it here.)
“Those are the kinds of things I look back on and realize the impact I had on these kids. That makes me feel really good,” he said.