Mike Powers
VCNB Sports Writer


“Is this Mike Powers?” a voice on the phone wondered. “Old-school Mike Powers?”

With that, I was relieved knowing that Kenny Thomas, the University of New Mexico basketball great and former NBA player, remembered me.

Thomas and I hadn’t talked in 20 or so years, but his association with the I-25 Kenny Thomas Showcase in Valencia County, which was recapped recently in the News-Bulletin, brought our orbits together again. It gave me a chance to find out what KT has been doing since his NBA career ended, reminisce about his playing days, and get his impression of all the changes in collegiate athletics.

Our paths first crossed in 1994 when Thomas, now 45, transferred from El Paso to Albuquerque High for his senior year. At that time, I covered sports for a local television station, which included play-by-play duties for UNM basketball. Even as a 17 year-old, Thomas was intimidating, carrying a solid 6-foot, 7-inch frame and a serious look on his face. But that scowl would melt into a big smile and laugh at any moment. A big kid in a big body.

“This is a place that I call home,” Thomas said of New Mexico, even though he now resides in Sacramento. “I have a lot of history here, obviously.”

That history started with a state championship at Albuquerque High. Soon the highly-recruited Thomas accepted a scholarship to UNM, which surprised some observers.

“It just felt right when I was in the state championship in front of 18,000 people. Why would I leave that? That’s ultimately why I decided to stay. It came down to all those people in the Pit.”

Many consider the four years Thomas spent at UNM as the best span in Lobo basketball history.

“Going to the NCAA tournament all four years of my career — we had that 40-something home court winning streak. And being ranked in the top 25 all four years at UNM. Mike, I could keep going if you want me to?”

Go ahead.

“… Only losing three games in four years (in the Pit.) I have all the records.”

Not quite all the records. Thomas is the Lobos’ all-time leader in rebounds and fouls and is second in blocks and scoring, only 62 points behind Charles Smith, according to UNM statistics.

“It would have been nice if they (UNM) had given me a heads up,” that he was closing in on the record. “Trust me, two games and I would have probably got that.”

Thomas would have likely coasted to the scoring record if he hadn’t sat out the first eight games of his freshman year because of an eligibility dispute with the NCAA.

Julia M. Dendinger| News-Bulletin photo
Mike Powers and Kenny Thomas talk about “old times” during a recent visit.

The landscape of college athletics has changed dramatically since those years, with the advent of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) opening the door for athletes to get paid.

“I’m happy these kids are being able to get a chance to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that. I feel this should have happened a long time ago because institutions are always making profits off the kids.”

Would it have changed where Thomas went to school if NIL was available?

“Who knows? I think this market (New Mexico) would have totally taken care of me if I had an opportunity back then.”

Even though the college days are far behind, the friendships remain.

“I still talk to Clayton Shields, Royce Olney. I ran into David Gibson just recently in the last few months. Just being able to connect with those guys is nice,” Thomas said about his former teammates.

During a News-Bulletin Facebook Live, Thomas said he is still on good terms with Dave Bliss, his coach at UNM who was later involved in a scandal at Baylor University that ended his college coaching career.

“There was a time, when we were here, Lobo basketball was very significant. And I love the fact that it’s getting back to that,” Thomas said, mentioning recent large crowds.

Thomas is also glad to see that current coach Richard Pitino signed a contract extension. Thomas is also pleased with the success of Lobo baseball and golf this spring.

In the 1999 NBA draft, Thomas was the 22nd overall pick by the Houston Rockets. In addition to the Rockets, KT played with the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings, owned at the time by Albuquerque’s Maloof family.

“Oh, geez, man. It was surreal. It was priceless. I played against some of the greats. I played with some of the greats.”

Thomas rattles off names like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Alan Iverson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan, “one of the best I’ve ever seen, especially his footwork.”

While never an NBA all-star, Thomas averaged double figures in scoring five different seasons and a double-double with Philly one year.

“There are no regrets. 11 years went by pretty quick. It was great.”

These days, Thomas doesn’t have an off season.

“I have multiple things going on.”

There is KT Legacy Consulting LLC, television work with the Kings and the Sacramento NBC television affiliate. Thomas touts his ties to an artificial turf company and development of a wine brand, KT Legacy Wine.

The “Thomas brand,” as he puts it, can be followed on Twitter and Instagram @kennythomasnba or on Facebook at KTlegacy consulting.

There’s also public service. “I’m on the board for Black Leadership at UNM, an ambassador for Make a Wish New Mexico and on the board for the African American Chamber in New Mexico.”

When Thomas was in Valencia County for the tournament that carries his name, it was plain to see he hasn’t been forgotten. Adults and youngsters swarmed Thomas, seeking pictures and autographs.

If kids were not exactly sure who this tall guy was, Thomas suggested, “Go ask your parents. They know — it still feels good to get the love and respect coming back to New Mexico.”

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Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.