PORTSMOUTH — For DeLano Thomas, just about any postgame interview or press conference — or even his tweets — this past season was pretty much the same.
So too was his speech at Wednesday night’s celebration ceremony inside Waller Gymnasium, in which Thomas and his Bears celebrated their return home — after winning the program’s first-ever NAIA National Championship.
But hey, when you’ve won count ‘em 27 consecutive to end the season, why change — or even waver.
Thomas, completing his fourth season at Shawnee State and with the national championship to go along with his NAIA National Coach of the Year honor — tweeted anytime the hashtag #BeDifferentBeSpecial.
And indeed, these Bears were different.
And truly special.
Undoubtedly, like the 1998-99 Shawnee State women’s basketball National Championship team which was inducted a decade later into the SSU Athletics Hall of Fame, the 2020-21 Bears are sure to someday themselves be enshrined.
But Thomas insisted in each interview the overriding theme for the season wasn’t about basketball —because that took care of itself in the form of a 31-2 record and 27 straight wins.
Thomas talked regularly about he and his team “staying in the moment”, simply focusing only on the game in front of them that day or night, never mentioning what needs to happen down the line —for the Mid-South Conference regular-season championship, the MSC Tournament, and ultimately the National Tournament.
Although his messages made for shorter times in front of the microphone, an average of five minutes or less, Thomas’ words were more important than any interview length —as they clearly resonated with the Bears all season.
“It’s all about the guys, getting them to understand this moment right now. It’s great to have won 13 in a row, but it’s all about the next day and the next game coming up,” said Thomas, after the Bears defeated Grace Christian in the Sean Elliott Classic back on Jan. 25. “We’re trying to stay positive, keep our mind on the right things, but at the same time, enjoy the moment we’re in.”
Six weeks later, more of the same.
“Honestly, it really wasn’t about basketball with this group. Every day in our preparation for the last 11 days, it was all about us and trying to get these guys to understand this moment that we’re in and locking in on it,” said Thomas, in the postgame press conference following the Bears’ NAIA National Tournament Opening-Round win on March 13. “Stay together. Just stay together in this moment.”
And finally, a week ago on Wednesday night —in front of Bears fans gathered inside a socially-distant Waller Gymnasium, which was actually the first time in over a year in which basketball fans were allowed inside the James A. Rhodes Athletic Center.
Unfortunately, spectators were not permitted this past season to attend Shawnee State home games —as part of the health and safety protocols set forth in response to the coronavirus threat.
“We’re all here. We’re all here in this moment,” Thomas told the crowd. “I may have gotten Coach of the Year and all that, but this was never about me. It was about these young men behind me and these coaches. What made these guys truly special was that we were coaching these guys, and it wasn’t about basketball. We coached these guys about staying together and staying in the moment. That’s all we ever talked about. We said it in different ways, sometimes yelling and sometimes not, but that’s what we coached these guys about this year.”
And the players, to their credit, kept listening to their coaches’ instructions.
Game after game.
Win after win.
And championship after championship.
Sometimes, the shortest of messages — no matter how redundant or even mundane — can go the longest of ways, generating many miles.
For the Bears in 2020-21, Thomas’ talks did just that —and the mileage to Kansas City and back in the form of an NAIA National Championship was the end result.
Thus, why change?
Or even waver?
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved