Lance Thomas learned about leadership from the best, but it wasn't always easy. Indeed, his struggles brought their own own hard-won lessons.
Thomas, a McDonald's all-American at Saint Benedict's Prep in Newark, was co-captain of the Duke basketball team that won a national championship 10 years ago this April. But as much as he was schooled in the art of winning by legendary coaches Danny Hurley and Mike Krzyzewski, the 6-foot-8 forward perhaps learned even more about strength and resilience in the years following college, when he went undrafted and had to claw his way up to forge an NBA career many felt wasn't in the cards.
"My last game in college, I won the national championship. I was the captain of that team. I'd think I would have at least had an opportunity to play [in the NBA]," Thomas tells Muse one afternoon this winter at his office in Tribeca.
Instead, he was forced to work his way up from the D-League. After playing the better part of two seasons with the Austin Toros, he was signed by the New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans), where he played on and off for three seasons. After a stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he joined the New York Knicks in 2015, eventually becoming co-captain.
Amid his share of doubters, Thomas fashioned a successful career largely through hard work, self-belief and persistence.
"Mental toughness, not taking no for an answer, setting realistic goals for myself and sticking to them, even when things didn't look like they were on the up-and-up," he says of what carried him through the hard times. "I think it's important for kids to know it's OK to fail. If you fail but you know you gave it everything you had, that's all you can ask of yourself. Any regrets, that's the worst feeling. I don't want anyone to have that."
Thomas brings up the subject of kids because that's where his mind is these days. He wants to give back to young people—to teach them the priceless leadership skills he was taught growing up. Except he's not doing it through basketball but through a different sport entirely, one you might not associate with an NBA player who grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey.
He's doing it through fishing.
The Early Years
Thomas has been a competitive fisherman for several years now. He's built his very own brand and sport-fishing team, Slangmagic, and has also launched a burgeoning youth program that teaches kids leadership skills through fishing. But as a kid, being out on a boat was furthest from his mind.
"I didn't even like the water," he admits. "I didn't mind being in pools, but I never thought I would be fishing. I was running around the park with my friends, playing basketball. The only time I went inside was to eat or sleep. That was my childhood."
Not until he got to Duke did Thomas experience fishing for the first time. His best friend there, Kenjuan Nichols, took him on trips to Falls Lake, not far from Durham, where they fished for croaker and crappie. Even then, Thomas didn't exactly take to the sport immediately—at least, not every aspect of it.
"I remember not wanting to touch the bait," he says with a laugh. "Never wanted to touch the worms. It got to a point where we were catching them pretty good, and Kenjuan was like, 'I'm not going to keep putting the hook on for you. You have to do it yourself.' I hated to do it. But fast forward to now, and I'm grabbing sharks by the gills."
What Thomas did find appealing about fishing was the release from the high-pressure atmosphere of Duke basketball.
"I liked the tranquility of being out there," he says. "I was playing for the most-watched sports team of that time. We were on TV more than the Lakers, and this was when Kobe and Andrew Bynum were on the team. We were always in the national spotlight. Those trips became a way for me to decompress, to get grounded, collect my thoughts and refocus."
This small epiphany would come into sharper focus later on, as Thomas considered ways to give back to the community—and to kids who grew up in the kind of world he did. But first, his love of fishing would grow into an obsession, largely thanks to his time spent in New Orleans, where he experienced a whole new side of the sport—the pure adrenaline rush of chasing yellowfin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico.
Heading out into the Gulf for the first time, Thomas hooked a 107.5-pound yellowfin—and suddenly realized why fishing is considered a sport and not just a pastime.
"That's actually a nightmare for your first fish," he says. "I had no idea what I was doing. It felt like a car going 60 miles an hour the opposite way. I was just holding on, like, this isn't going to stop. When it's making that initial run, there's nothing you can do. I was literally holding on for dear life."
His fingers started to cramp, and he awkwardly held on to the rod.
"My whole body locked up. I started cramping up from head to toe," he says. "I fought this fish for maybe 45 minutes. I got it up to the surface, and once they got a gaff in it, I couldn't even celebrate. I was like, 'Somebody get me a water.' My buddies wanted me to pick the fish up for a photo, but I don't think I could've picked up a bag of potato chips at that point." (He did eventually hoist the fish for a pic.)
Still, he was hooked.
"I said to myself, I want to learn how to do that. I want to learn how to target these fish. I want to know how to properly fight them," Thomas says. "From then on, I was infatuated with the whole process of being out there, and I've been learning ever since."
Once Thomas got the fishing fever, he went all in. A couple of captains in the Gulf, Brett Ryan and Andy Cook, took him under their wing and taught him the ropes. Thomas bought his first boat in 2014—a Sea Hunt Gamefish 25—and the chase was on.
"It was powered by two 200 Yamahas, outboards. I was in the game with that," Thomas says. "I did a lot of lake fishing. I fished Lake Pontchartrain. I wanted to crawl before I could walk. My friends and I would pick days I could go out offshore—weekends when I didn't have a game, and then all summer long."
The trips were appealing in a number of ways for Thomas, who is renowned for being a true competitor on the court—his hustle and drive are perhaps the most admired parts of his game—but also likes to get away from the pressures of the limelight to recharge.
"It checked off a lot of boxes for me," he says. "First, it was fun. Second, it was challenging. Third, it was really competitive. And the other thing is, it really brought me peace and tranquility. These are all the things I prioritize in life—being able to be happy, to half fun, to compete. And I try to have a peaceful life and bring a little joy to everyone who comes into contact with me. Those four things are what I stand for as a human being, so it was a match made in heaven."
By 2016, he had upgraded to a 32-foot Yellowfin center console. He and his friends—including Nichols and a number of others—also took the huge step of forming a competitive fishing team. They called it Slangmagic, which had been Thomas's handle for years (it had even been his AOL instant messenger name).
Slangmagic was different from other teams from the beginning, and not just because it was led by an NBA player. They chose a stark black-and-white branding scheme—very different from the splashy, colorful treatments that are much more common in the Gulf—with the team name rendered in an elegant scripted typeface. Thomas, who was a visual arts major, was always into black-and-white photography and saw the Slangmagic branding as an interesting way to stand out.
"A black-and-white image gives you a different mood. It's like vintage photography—everyone interprets it differently," he says. "There's a lot of storytelling in black-and-white imagery, and I've always been intrigued by it. I also love cursive. Fishing is not necessarily a sleek, elegant sport, so this gives us a different look and feel. A lot of teams have bolder fonts. It's right in your face. You have to really look at ours to read it—you can't do it from a distance. That's what I want—for people to pay attention to the detail we put into what we're doing."
Slangmagic won the first tournament they entered—the Faux Pas Lodge Rodeo in Venice, Louisisana—for an impressive mahi-mahi.
"We won some money on that fish. We got trophies for it. It was a really good feeling to compete and actually produce," Thomas says. "They called our team name, and it was the first time we'd heard it said outside of us saying it. It was just a local bragging-rights tournament, but we had skin in the game and that's how it progressed."
Fast-forward to the summer of 2018, and Thomas picked up an Invincible 40-foot catamaran, which turned out to be a game-changer.
"It does a lot better in rougher seas," he says. "The beam of the boat was 12 feet, so we gained another 3 feet there, which gave us a lot more room to move. When it came time to sleep at night, everyone had their own part of the boat; we're not on top of each other. It was like night and day. So with that, we went out to the bigger tournaments."
That summer, they competed in the Gulf Coast Triple Crown, which is comprised of five tournaments and is considered one of the premier championships in sport fishing. "I wanted us to all experience it," Thomas says. "I wanted to be able to fine-tune the way we fish, what works for us. Everyone's approach is different. It was definitely fun, and a learning experience."
Giving Back to Kids
Thomas is now devoted to building out the Slangmagic world. After five years with the Knicks, he's without a team this season—he did attend the Brooklyn Nets training camp this fall, but didn't make the team. And while he hopes to return to the NBA, he now has extra time to devote to this other sporting passion, which extends beyond fishing itself and into philanthropy.
Over the past few years, Thomas has invited a dozen kids per year to be part of the Slangmagic experience through an ambassadors program connected to his Trust Your Work foundation. The kids get Slangmagic gear and tips for fishing, but Thomas also teaches them leadership skills. It's an ever-growing part of Thomas's world, and just the kind of philanthropy he always envisioned doing.
"I've always wanted to figure out a way to use sport to better the lives of kids," he says. "I've had basketball, which opened up so many doors for me. It gave me the opportunity to go to one of the best universities in the world, for free. It's given me discipline. It's given me accountability. It's given me the opportunity to become a leader, to express myself, to provide for my family."
Fishing can do something similar, he believes, but perhaps for a different type of kid.
"I think about the kids who aren't your stereotypical athletes," says Thomas. "If you're not a basketball player, or a football, baseball, soccer player, you're not really considered an athlete to your peers, right? But just because you can't run, jump, or do that kind of stuff at an elite level doesn't mean you're not an athlete. Fishing is a skill sport. I want to give kids who might feel left out of the sports world, in middle school or high school, a chance to be part of something. I want them to home in on who they are, what their values are, the goals they want to achieve, and how to become a leader."
Perhaps even more than specific fishing or basketball skills, leadership is something Thomas can certainly teach young people.
"I learned from some of the best," he says. "Under Coach K, under Danny Hurley, under Monty Williams—coaches I really, really respect and who've had a big impact on me as a human being. I'm not afraid to have difficult conversations with people. I'm not afraid to tell people the truth. I'm not afraid of correcting something before it turns into a bigger problem. A lot of people in positions of leadership don't possess those qualities. Whatever they're trying to build is eventually going to collapse. These are skills I want kids to understand at an early age. It's something that comes fairly easy to me because I live it. And it isn't something I want to take to the grave with me and not share."
The kids in the program have monthly video calls with Thomas to go over a theme for the month—for example, the do's and don'ts of social media, how to give back to the community, creating a list of things they want to accomplish in life, how to build a personal brand. They also have his cell phone number and can reach out to him at any time.
Last July, the 2019 group all got together in person for the Slangmagic Youth Leadership Extravaganza—which of course included fishing in the Gulf. "It really opened our eyes and showed us why we're doing this," Thomas says. "Just to see the smiles, the laughter, how much they appreciated the experience. It was really heartfelt. After that, we were like, 'It's time to step up our game. We can make this so much better.' "
Over the weekend, Thomas put out a call on Instagram for kids to apply to join the 2020 class of ambassadors. He and Stephanie Thorburn, Slangmagic's COO, are in the final stages of getting Trust Your Work approved as an official foundation, which will help with fundraising to grow the program. (To date, Thomas has paid for everything out of his own pocket.)
Thomas wants to eventually expand the group of ambassadors, but for now, a dozen is a good number. "We like to individualize a lot of things for them," he says. "We don't want to just throw out something for the masses. We want to make sure it's special for each kid."
A Future in Fishing
If Lance Thomas's path to sport fishing seems like an unlikely journey for an NBA player, maybe that's a good thing. As he sees it, part of the goal of this new life is to shed more light on a sport that doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves—and isn't on the radar of a lot of kids.
"Slangmagic was started by someone who didn't have a fishing background growing up. I think there's power in that," he says. "When people see it, they're probably like, 'He must have been fishing since he was a kid.' That's not the case. I discovered the sport as an adult, and it's done a lot for me. I want to be able to make it appealing for those who may have never thought they wanted to do it, and to show them it's fun."
Being able to impart his lessons in leadership at the same time is a bonus. And whether or not Thomas signs with another NBA team, he can look forward to years—decades—of competing, and just enjoying himself, out on the ocean.
"When you think about fishing, people might think you're sitting on a lake all day, waiting for a bite," he says. "That isn't how we fish at all. I want people to see how much fun we have. I want them to see me bringing other people who have never fished before, and see their excitement about it. We just want to show the joy we have just being out there."