Like riding a bike, once you learn how to tie up shoes at a young age — it never leaves you. It takes seconds, and requires little thought or reaction.
Yet when Jeff Thomas saw the smiling faces staring back at him in Barcelona last week, it brought much reflection and humbled him.
“I never thought I’d be doing anything like this,” said Thomas, a 2014 Norwalk graduate. “Seeing those kids, it’s a reality check.”
As perhaps the most decorated player in Norwalk boys basketball history, Thomas is entering his final year at Division I Georgia State University. He helped the Panthers reach the NCAA tournament last March, where they fell to an Ohio team, Cincinnati, in the first round in Nashville, Tenn.
Last week, the entire GSU men’s program spent a week in Spain, splitting the time between major cities Barcelona and Madrid.
As part of the trip, Thomas and his teammates passed out athletic shoes to families in need of upgraded footwear on Aug. 5 in Barcelona.
For a young man who grew up in Norwalk, working with underprivileged children in a different country was eye-opening on many fronts.
“It’s the natural reaction. You come home from college in Atlanta, and Norwalk is this quiet little town with nothing to do,” Thomas said. “But once you think about it — those kids don’t even have any of this.
“I’m sitting here in a regular, nice house — they all live in small apartments with no cars,” he added. “You see the looks on their faces. They had shoes, but just their reaction to getting a new pair. They were so excited, and so were their parents.”
The distribution of shoes lasted for about 90 minutes. While some of the kids got their shoes, other GSU players were putting on a basketball clinic.
To top off the day, the team stopped for a tour of Sagrada Familiar, a large, unfinished Roman Catholic church.
Indeed, it was a long way from Thomas throwing down a district title game-changing slam dunk as a skinny sophomore for the Truckers in 2012 vs. Anthony Wayne — yet alone a pair of slam dunks in the 2014 Div. II state championship game victory.
“To think growing up in Norwalk that I’d ever be going overseas, it’s really hard to believe,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t about basketball, but yet that is what brought me here.
“This experience got me closer to my teammates, closer to basketball — and showed us how much the kids looked up to us,” he added. “We’re not really special, but those families and their faces … just much bigger than shooting a basketball.”
Thomas, also the first All-Ohio first team selection in Norwalk history, said the Panthers took in many of the usual sites in the two Spain cities. The team also played a pair of exhibition games, falling by five points and winning the other by 15. He scored 22 points in the two games.
Last season, Thomas started in 30 games and averaged 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds for the Panthers. He should reach the 1,000-point mark at GSU this winter, much like he did at Norwalk (1,352) while helping author 57 wins in a row — the ninth-longest streak in Ohio history.
“When I leave GSU, I want people to talk about this next season as one of the best we’ve had,” Thomas said. “I think we have that potential to be recognized as one of best here.
“By doing that, we need to win the (Sun Belt) regular season and conference tournament — and make a run in the NCAA tournament,” he added. “We all feel like this team can do that.”
But whether it’s on the court or humbling moments like the ones in Spain last week, Thomas always keeps the Maple City close to his heart.
In fact, for those who looked carefully, when Thomas arrived to the arena prior to the NCAA tournament game vs. Cincinnati — he was wearing a Summit Racing cap.
It was a nod to Summit Motorsports Park, one of the immediate calling cards Norwalk residents use when telling someone from out-of-town where the city is in Ohio.
“And underneath, I was wearing my back-to-back NOL champions Norwalk basketball shirt,” Thomas said. “I wanted to rock Norwalk before the game.
“It was just a reminder of that winning culture — we won a lot of games in high school,” he added. “I always try to rep Norwalk, our small little town. I’m honored to be one of the few from Norwalk to play Div. I basketball. I can show younger kids if they work really hard at it, they can do this, too.”