Charles Thomas: Where basketball was a matter of life and death

Having spent four years at Arkansas, ending in 2008, Charles Thomas bounced around the circuit but eventually headed to the Ukraine and seemed to make it his home.

Thomas started in South America, playing in Uruguay but after really wanting to make something of himself in Europe, headed to Bosnia & Herzegovina and then he went to Ukraine to sign for BC Zaporizhya where he was an instant hit.

“I had a pretty good career in Ukraine, my first year there I won MVP of the league, the second year I played in multiple European competition, received an injury so it was one of them years of rebuilding,” Thomas told the EuroStep Podcast in a shocking, yet insightful interview.

“Kind of go to my third year in Ukraine where I thought it was a great situation I thought everyone was cool, the management, I knew the coach it was a players coach, I knew him I knew one of the players on the team because I played with me in my first year in Ukraine. I kind of understood him, he kind of understood me for the most part, which I understood.”

Charles Thomas during the 2012 Ukrainian All-Star game.

That relationship with the aforementioned team-mate went from amicable to sour when he threatened to tell Thomas’ wife that he had an alleged fling with another girl for reasons that to this day Thomas does not know and has not discussed with the team-mate but it was an accusation that the American strongly denies.

Thomas did come clean about the whole incident and explained it to his wife but he also had unfinished business with his team-mate and headed to practice to clear the air, but wanted to do it in the most professional manner possible, in private.

“Long story short, we got into it really bad to the situation where I was like ‘I don’t want to be here with this guy, he’s a terrible person I don’t want to play around him, I just don’t want to be in a situation with him’. And it was a very critical time because it was around Playoff time and I remember before it happened, me and him had a conversation where the coach told him that he was a terrible person and everything you do is bad.

“So I had a conversation with him, I was kind of talking to him, man-to-man, me and him in a room, nothing was said in-front of anybody so nobody knew what was said and I told him, man-to-man that ‘your attitude sucks, you have a terrible attitude about everything, I need you to man up and let’s get this done, let’s win this game.’”

Thomas guessed that it was that very heart-to-heart conversation they had, but he doesn’t know if it was the actual reason behind the allegations involving this so-called fling. But while the Jackson, Mississippi native was dealing with scandals regarding his personal life, it was nothing compared to what was about to happen to him.

The team president of the club Thomas was playing for called both players into his office. Thomas stressed that being called into the office by a leading figure at the club is not like walking into an everyday room and he also said that the people in Ukraine and Russia do a little more to get money than “the normal’ as Thomas put it.

Thomas’ team-mate left the room, leaving himself there with the team president and two bodyguards, which made him, feel uneasy. He walked in hesitantly. Nothing though could prepare the forward for what happened next.

“His bodyguards closed the door, there was one by the door, one in-front of me,” Thomas recalls. The president walked over, pulled out his gun, loaded it, cocked it back and told me to leave. I looked at him and I was like ‘you’re going to shoot me?’ That was my question, are you going to shoot me? He pointed the gun at me and told me to leave. Don’t go home, go practice.

“I don’t know the conversation he had with the other player, I wasn’t in the room at the time, I went to practice and shook wasn’t the word I would describe the feeling. I just couldn’t tell you what I was feeling at the time. So I went to practice, went home, told my agent about it and my agent was like ‘What?’

At that time, Thomas was in danger, his agent sensed it and was concerned for the well-being of his guy, so he told Thomas to stay around and he would make some phone calls. The player though was thinking ahead and recalled that even getting on a plane would be a challenge as the club president also ran one of the country’s main airlines and that the plane would not take off unless he gave the go ahead.

Thomas did not get a return call from his agent, went to sleep and when he woke up, he was informed that his team-mate in question had left the country thanks to his agent, leaving the Ukrainian league all-star by himself. How did he find this out? The team president, three bodyguards and the head coach turned up unannounced at his apartment that very day.

One of the bodyguards stood behind the front door and the other two stood right behind Thomas, their breath literally warming the back of Thomas’ neck – but by then – he was sweating anyway.

The president, clearly agitated asked Thomas if he knew that his team-mate was leaving or if he knew anything, to which he replied that he didn’t. Then Thomas was met with déjà vu.

“He asked me if I still want to leave,” Thomas said, but very reluctant in speech. “I said ‘yes I don’t want to be here’. He got his gun from his bodyguard, popped the handle back and looked at me and at that time I’m literally staring down the barrel of a Mac Black 45. And I couldn’t tell you what was going through my head at this time. I got a pregnant wife, I got a daughter at home, I could not tell you at this time what was going through my head.”

“He said ‘play, or you won’t make it home’”.

With no choice, Thomas unwillingly decided to play. Basketball might have given him a career, but with a growing family to think about, Thomas had to get through the season with his club in the Ukraine knowing that if he didn’t: he might not see his family again.

Thomas immediately called his agent, for whom he had not in contact with since the first encounter the day before in the president’s office. After confiding in his agent, Thomas’ heard the most spine-tingling comment that most professional athletes would never see coming.

“He was like ‘hey man, you can play and be the man’

Ever the professional, Thomas dusted himself off and played in his team’s game, where he posted 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. He was indeed the man for his team, but he didn’t feel like it afterwards. Who would? His team ended up losing the series and Thomas recounts how petrified he was. He had no clue what would happen next. But his main goal was to get home. The season was over, his contract was up, and his ordeal was over.

To this day, Thomas never put in a complaint to FIBA for fear of his safety, the $25,000* that he was owed was never paid to him. In any situation, you value your life over basketball and money and he just left.

Despite his horrific ordeal, which he thought he would never recover from.. Charles Thomas will play for Cantu next season and his career is back on track.

It took Thomas four years to be able to talk about the horrific events that happened in the Ukraine. He never mentioned the name of the president or the team that he was involved in where the incident happened. During his time in the country, he had spells for BC Azovmash, BC Dnipro and his final year was with BK Cherkaski Mavpy.

Thomas has gone on to enjoy spells in France, Bulgaria, Israel and now with Italian side Cantu, where he is signed for the upcoming season. But he has more issues that he has to deal with over there, as well.

“The last couple of weeks here in Italy have been really rough, man,” he says. “I’m currently in a hotel where I lived in the last four weeks, the next will be the fifth here. I don’t have anything really mine here. I’m living 30 minutes outside of the town. When I got here they told me that I’d get an apartment, that I was gonna get a car and my medical payment. But after weeks, nothing that they promised to me has arrived. I voiced my concerns via social media a couple of weeks ago, I had a meeting with the team, they told me that they understand the problem and to wait two or three days for the situation to be fixed. But now weeks have gone and I’m still not getting paid and they never kept their word.

“I’m not asking for anything special, just for the things that are actually in my contract. I blame FIBA for that because they never did anything to fix these kinds of situations. Most of these teams they don’t care about you, they just want you to play and shut up, no matter what.”

Listen to the full interview on the EuroStep Podcast below:

Note: (*) indicates that $25,000 could mean €25,000 or any other currency.

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