Saturday, February 6, 2016

Thom Leaves Lasting Legacy En Route To Hall Of Fame

When Bill Thom arrived at Croton-Harmon 30 years ago, the boys basketball program was in a downtrodden, dungeon-dwelling state.

The interest was lacking. You could hear chirping crickets and pins drop during home games.

They struggled mightily just to stay above sea level.

In fact, prior to Thom's arrival, the team hadn't even registered a .500 season since 1957.

 Nearly 400 wins and 13 league titles later, Thom has altered the ailing culture at his alma mater for good.

The seasoned coach, who will be inducted into the New York State Hall Of Fame next month, will coach his final regular season game against Hen Hud tonight.

Thom invested a great deal of his livelihood into Croton-Harmon, where he coached baseball for 20 years along with football and even Cross-Country at one point.

And with Thom retiring from his teaching position this spring, this is it.

"It's been said before by all the great coaches that a true coach is a teacher," said Brendan Coxen, who played under Thom and graduated from Croton-Harmon in 1998.

"We would do classroom sessions before other schools would be doing classroom sessions and video sessions. This was back in '98. We'd have special meetings. All of that engaged every type of learner out there, every type of athlete who played for (Thom). It gave us the ability to really understand basketball differently and in other ways besides just having practice and running through drills."

Thom made Section 1 basketball a lifestyle. His cold New York winters were spent in the cozy confines of a gym, as he was constantly coaching or scouting or keeping tabs on the area's talent crop.

Thom's style redefined Croton. He presses from inbounds to inbounds if he has to. He assesses the personnel and adapts to the the thoroughly scouted opponent, rendering his coaching style ever-evolving.

During his summers in Empire State Games and the BCANY Hoops festival, Thom installed high-powered pressure all across the court. His teams were predicated on defensive toughness.

He utilized a furious-paced offensive attack with emphasis on kicking in the extra pass.

Bigs who walked into Croton-Harmon lackadaisical and lazy were suddenly workmanlike.

Guys who could shoot the lights out but had a tendency to coast on defense were suddenly jolted into focus, accountable on both ends of the floor.

Under Thom, the program took athletes and morphed them into well-rounded ball players.

As best evidenced by his teams in the aforementioned BCANY tournament, the finer point of Thom's trade is eliminating star power and enabling everyone to buy in.  

"One of the most memorable aspects of this whole experience is just the relationships you form with other coaches," said Thom.

"A guy like Henry Sassone, who came in at the same time as I did, there are great memories going against him. We've had some chess matches over the years. Glenn Jensen from Pleasantville, there's a guy who can coach his tail off. Gary Craft from Valhalla. Otto and Steve Turk. They were just good coaches, one after another. As a young guy, I was trying to just be a sponge and pick everybody's brain."

From an X's and O's perspective and the small-school talent at his disposal, Thom got the most out of his players.

"His greatest accomplishment is not all the wins or the league titles or the trips to the County Center," said Greg Muller, whose team earned a berth in the 2000 Section I/Class C title, falling to man-child Kyl Jones and Pleasantville.

"It's the fact that he truly created a program at a small school in a small town. Everyone that has played for him holds a very strong sense of pride that they got a chance to put on that jersey. That's because of him. As his career winds down and he's inducted into the state Hall of Fame, the thing that he should be most proud of is he truly created a basketball family in a small town. It's not easy to do anywhere. To do it in Croton, that's certainly impressive."

Thom's involvement with Section 1 and willingness to go above and beyond your typical small school experience helped build up the program.

"He made us feel like playing for Croton is the best place to play, the best place you would ever want to play," Coxen said.

 "I think the way that he does that is he does a lot of extra special things. He'll get big games at a University on a college floor. We'll take a travel upstate to play a bigger school. He'll get us revved up to knock off a larger school. You'll do some aerobics classes at 6 a.m. You wonder why you are there at 6 a.m., but you know what? No one else is up at 6 a.m. so we worked a little bit harder than everybody else here.

 It was kind of that mentality that he set up for us. A lot of people took that with them when they left the program."

Thom rattled off Elton Brand and Butch Graves as two of the most prized and dominant players he has seen during his time in Section 1.

When asked about the wildest game he's ever seen, Thom referenced Beacon's 2003 County Center playoff upset over Peekskill.

That game saw Josh Fullerton drill a 15-foot buzzer beater to bury the Rodney Headley-led Devils.

Peekskill prepared for the final play as if high-scoring guard Roberto Maclin would have a set play for him to score. Most people in the gym figured Maclin would take that final shot.

Fullerton ended up being the unlikely savior in a pulsating game.

The moment Thom said will stay with him for a while occurred last March, when Clarkstown South guard Conor McGuinness hit a buzzer-beater to deliver a 61-59 victory over Arlington in the AA semifinals at the County Center.

It triggered chills in Thom, because McGuinness' father (local Rockland County boys/girls basketball pioneer Joe McGuinness) had been battling cancer.

"Seeing Conor hit that shot, it was just storybook," Thom said.