John Thomas is the first person to admit he’s made some mistakes in life — even big mistakes. But the 43-year-old former basketball star says it is his mistakes that make him better qualified to communicate with today’s youth and offer them advice and an outlet that might change their course in life.
Thomas, better known as J.T., said he served time in prison for destruction of evidence relating to cocaine, something he now admits to selling but never using in his past life as a drug dealer. After serving five years on a 10-year sentence, Thomas said he left the West Tennessee State Penitentiary and turned over a new leaf on life.
In his high school days, Thomas was a rising star in basketball, having played at Bradley Central High School before transferring to McMinn High to play basketball there in his junior and senior years. He was named Player of the Year in 1990 and signed a basketball scholarship to play at Chattanooga State Community College, where he earned a degree in business management and accounting.
“After my freshman year I led the whole junior college level in the state of Tennessee in scoring with 32.7 points,” Thomas said. “At the summer league I was picked up by the Atlanta Eagles and played two years.”
But Thomas said he broke his ankle in a high school alumni exhibition game that derailed his career and sent him on a downward spiral that resulted in him looking for an easy way to make some fast cash. Thomas admits that his association upon returning to McMinn County had an impact on his decision to sell drugs.
“I changed from the person I was brought up to be,” Thomas admits. “It’s like I didn’t want to be a failure. Even though I had money, my friends were saying I needed to invest my money into cocaine. I saw how much money he was making and I wanted in on it.”
That decision eventually landed Thomas in prison then on probation, ruining any chance at pursuing a professional career in basketball. Looking back on his experience, however, Thomas said he now has something of value to give back to the community. He has life lessons, advice and encouragement for a younger generation who can make different choices and find a life of success instead of turning to a life of crime.
“The biggest change has been the way Cleveland and McMinn have embraced the fact that I have changed. They supported me throughout the last 11 years,” Thomas said. “No one has really been negative. It’s all been positive. Everyone has been encouraging me to keep going, to keep talking to the kids and bringing the community together. It’s been a challenge because of the goals I set in 2002, when I came out of prison. I’ve been trying so hard to reach these goals. I’m so determined to have my own business to have something to give to my kids. Sometimes I feel like I haven’t been that father that I always dreamed I would be when I got out. I love them so much.”
To change that, Thomas established J.T. Productions & Entertainment, which will host its first Summer Jam for youths 21 and under every Friday night through September at The Venue Creekside in Cleveland. According to Thomas, the event will offer youths a safe place to dance and enjoy live music and entertainment.
“Parents can be assured that the facility will be safe,” he said. “A professional security team has been hired to monitor the activities and the Cleveland Police Department will be doing several walk-throughs.”
Thomas said his past experience has given him a different perspective on life as well as how to assist young people coping with peer pressure and similar temptations to his own as a younger man.
“Whenever you start sinning and get caught up in the world, you can lose yourself fast,” Thomas admits. “I felt like that’s what I did — because I was so good at basketball and was put up on a pedestal. Then when I got hurt there was no basketball, no nothing. I was so afraid to be a complete failure. I wanted to be a success at something. But I had to realize that what is more important is looking to God. When I got into my Bible, everything changed.
“I would like to tell the young people who see their friends or family members heading down a different road — that don’t mean you have to take that road, too. I feel I can reach more kids where parents and preachers can’t. By telling them about the streets, about crime — because I have friends and family members who have done just about everything — I feel like I can encourage them.
“Many kids nowadays don’t listen to their parents or preachers, because they feel they have not been out there. They think they don’t know how they feel. They’ll listen to a person who has been there. I feel I can be that role model and say, ‘Sometimes it’s OK to fail. Failure isn’t fatal.’ I want parents to understand that they can count on my support.”
Having put his past behind him, Thomas said he is looking toward the future — a future that involves community involvement, reaching out to youths and a new business venture that could bring something beneficial to Cleveland and offer security to the people he loves.