Salina — Just as he was pulling himself away from a group of adult fans, a couple of kids came calling for Billy Thomas.
After that, there were fans walking by offering handshakes, old supporters from his Kansas University past. When he made one last dash to get back to his seat, a row of well-wishers was waiting for Thomas under the south basket at the Bicentennial Center.
"I'm overwhelmed," Thomas said.
Thomas was once a major player for the Kansas Cagerz, the kind of hero people don't soon forget. He was the go-to man for the United States Basketball League squad in the team's first two years in Salina. He supplied them with stability at the guard spot and the kind of three-point shooting that makes people marvel.
For as much as he gave the Cagerz on the court, he gave them just as much away from the court. Last Friday night, at halftime of the Cagerz' game against the Oklahoma Storm, team officials honored Thomas by retiring his No. 12 jersey and hanging it below the arena scoreboard.
"This ranks as the most special night for me in my basketball career so far," Thomas said.
Looking back, Thomas said one game sticks out.
"There was a game I had here, against Oklahoma, where I had four points at the half then I scored 25 in the second half and the crowd got real crazy," Thomas said. "That was one I remember vividly."
Thomas, who lives in Lenexa, led the Greenville Groove to the NBDL championship last winter.
But his performance with Greenville this season in the NBA-sponsored minor league left Thomas with loftier goals. He was the leading scorer in the NBDL playoffs, averaging 24 points over five games, and also led Greenville in the regular season with a 14-point average. He was MVP of the playoffs.
"That was really big, man, to get back into the mainstream of being with players on the verge of making the NBA," Thomas said. "That's always been a dream. I was very fortunate and blessed to have that opportunity that I could lead a team to a championship."
Thomas will head to Toronto next month for a mini-camp with the NBA's Raptors. He also has spoken with the New Jersey Nets, Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks about playing with their summer league teams and getting an invitation to preseason camps.
Thomas, who also has played overseas in the Philippines and for the International Basketball League's Cincinnati Stuff, said his game has continued to grow since his college days, when he was known primarily as a perimeter shooter.
He left KU in 1998 as the school's career leader in three-pointers.
"My body is stronger, and I'm physically able to take the ball to the basket," he said.
"I can make plays instead of just being a shooter. I'm just more of an all-around player."