Catching up with Kelly Thames
Last week, those who pay close attention to Missouri basketball recruiting might have noticed a familiar name. With college coaches now able to contact prospects from the class of 2022, Cuonzo Martin and his staff reportedly reached out to Kellen Thames, a guard from Pattonville high school.
Outside of St. Louis, Thames isn't yet a widely-known prospect, but he certainly has ties to Mizzou. His father and high school coach, Kelly Thames, played for the Tigers from 1993-1997. The elder Thames played nearly 30 minutes per game and averaged 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game as a freshman. That season, Missouri made history by winning all 14 of its Big Eight conference games. Just last week, the school unveiled "Perfection," a documentary about the season.
Despite suffering a knee Injury the following offseason, Kelly Thames went on to score 1,689 points in a Missouri uniform, making him No. 8 on the program's all-time scoring list. PowerMizzou caught up with him to discuss that magical 1993-94 campaign, his son's recruitment and his take on the Tiger program today.
PowerMizzou: I wanted to start off asking about your freshman season. I know Mizzou just produced a documentary about that year, going 14-0 in the Big Eight. As a newcomer joining that team, before that season did you have any sense that something like that would be possible?
Kelly Thames: “No. I didn’t. Coming in, I was just trying to fit in as far as being a freshman, just doing whatever I could just to get some playing time. So I came in with the mindset that I would come in and do everything I can to help the team win, and as things started to unfold, I started getting more comfortable in my minutes and everything. I knew they had eight seniors on the team and I was going to be coming in and I just wanted to do whatever I can to help them win. So I thought of myself as playing my role, being kind of athletic, getting back on defense, scoring whenever I can, so that’s the mindset I came in with, just whatever the team needed me to do, I wanted to do.”
I know you all didn’t get off to a great start that season, having a scare against Mercer and then getting beat pretty badly by Arkansas. At what point did you all feel like you turned it around and you could make a run in the Big Eight?
“Well, I think everybody always says it, and I said this, too, when we played Illinois in St. Louis. I think that was like a triple-overtime win. That was like the turning point of the season, because when we went to Arkansas, that was their first or second game at the new arena, playing there, and we were just trying to get a feel for ourselves. And I think we kind of turned that corner when we played Illinois in St. Louis, that triple-overtime win. That was a turning point, and we were just going into the conference season building from there and taking it one game at a time.”
One of the most remarkable things about that team in my mind is that you all just didn’t lose close games. You were able to pull out so many games that could have gone either way. What do you think it was about that group that made you all so successful in close games?
“Well, we had a good coach in coach (Norm) Stewart, and then when you have that many seniors on the team and everybody plays their part — like I said, to be honest, it was like a real brotherhood. We liked each other on the court, off the court, we were always around each other. I think those eight guys, those seniors, had been around all those years, that helped, too.”
Obviously one of the more famous games of that season was the one that clinched the perfect regular season against Nebraska. I know that game was crazy, back and forth, there were something like 20 lead changes. Just describe your feeling when you saw Eric Piatkowski’s shot go in and out.
“Well, to be honest, we played a good game, it was back and forth. We already knew the type of team Nebraska was, they liked to go up and down fast, and we already knew that it was going to be the toughest game. But he’s a great player. He’s a shooter, and when he gets his feet set, usually nine times out of ten it’s going in. So that was that one time. I seen the ball go in, like everybody was saying, like it spun all the way in, it was like three-fourths in, and then it came out. That moment, I mean, everything fell into place, and when it came out, it was just, we actually did it. So it was a good moment.”
Do you have any one enduring memory of that season? Is there any one thing you immediately think back to when people bring that year up?
“Man, I just think of that team, it was one of those teams that we never quit. After that Arkansas game, we probably didn’t believe, any of us, that we would do something like that, but we never lost sight of what we wanted to do. We wanted to always prove people wrong. So we were just a hard-nosed, never-give-up, and we did whatever we could to get a W. We came together. It didn’t matter what happened, what came in front of us, it just seemed like we all picked each other up and we played together, played as a team.”
I know certainly within the Mizzou fanbase there’s always been a sense of what could have been with your injury suffered after that year. Have you had to deal with that same sort of sense, and if so how difficult was it for you to overcome that?
“You know, sometimes, obviously ,you think about what could have been or what happened, but I always said — and what I live my life by today — is that things happen for a reason. It’s unfortunate, but I still came back, and I was probably not as high of a percent as I was (before the injury), but I was still real productive those last few years. And it helped that I just wanted everybody to know, whenever I stepped on the court, I gave 100 percent, and that’s what I did. And like I said, things happen for a reason to put me in that situation, and now I’m just building on it, doing what I’m doing now. I’m still around the game, I’m still trying to help kids. Whatever experiences I went through, that’s one that hopefully can guide them and show them that they have opportunities to use basketball as a vehicle.”
What has your path been like since you finished playing at Mizzou? Have you always been around the game of basketball or did you take any time to do anything else?
“Well, after I graduated I played overseas for like four, four and a half years. I was fortunate enough to, before I went and played overseas, I got invited to the San Antonio Spurs free agent camp. And then, again, I played overseas. I played two years in Argentina, a year in Italy and another year in Venezuela. So I played overseas professionally. After that, I came back and I got my master’s degree in teaching and then I’ve been teaching for like 15, 16 years. I teach business marketing and coaching as well.”
As you said, you’ve been coaching for a while. Now you have a chance to coach your son, Kellen. What has that experience been like?
“Well he’s been with me in the gym ever since I started coaching. Ever since he was little, he was always around the game. He’s been with me at practice, so he grew up around the game, coached him in little league and whatnot. … As far as just seeing him grow and mature and do what he likes to do, he hasn’t been forced to do it. He’s been around it, he’s a gym rat, so it’s good seeing the kid develop. He loves it, he has a passion for it, and I have a front-row seat. Like I tell everybody, I just have a front-row seat to see him develop. It’s a good moment.”
How do you feel like his skillset compares to yours?
“Well we kind of have like two different skillsets, because, for one, I was a forward, inside player, but he’s more of a perimeter player, guard. Both of us, we love the game, we have a passion for the game. He works hard, his work ethic is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my son. But just to see him, the last year, like his development from his freshman year, especially last year, he’s like 6-5 now. When he came into high school, he was like 5-9. So last season he grew to 6-3, now he’s 6-5. So just the maturity, his body’s getting stronger and developing and just the skill level that he has, it’s really exciting to see what he has. He’s an all-around player, and he likes to get people involved, scoring, doing what he needs to do. So it’s his team.”
How do you see him fitting in at the next level?
“Like I said, he’s a combo guard, so he can play the one or the two. He can shoot the ball, he can pass it, he can defend, he plays very intense. So like I said, he has the potential to be really — his skill level is really good, and he probably hasn’t even scratched the surface on his potential.”
I know Missouri has reached out since the coaches were able to start contacting 2022 kids. What other schools have expressed interest at this point?
“You know, some mid-major schools, low Division I, a couple of regional schools. With this pandemic, he was really excited to play this summer on the circuit, and I think that you really would see what he had and he would really put his name out there if he had played the circuit. He still has one more year, and then we’ll see, but it’s a good thing because he still has — he’s a young junior, he hasn’t turned 16, so he has a lot of room to grow. So it’s pretty good to see what he’s talked to up to this point.”
With you playing at Mizzou, did that contact from the coaches mean any more to him? Had you raised him as a Missouri fan?
“You know, he knows I played there, he’s a Mizzou fan, and it was good to see. I know the coaching staff, too, so he was just catching up and just talking just in general. But he was excited. Like I said, he still has work to do, it was just a feel-out just to see, and he handled it well. So he just needs to use that as motivation to keep going.”
As you said, you’re not only a Mizzou alumnus but you’re involved as a high school coach within the state. What’s your take on the state of the program right now?
“Man, I think Cuonzo is doing a great job. He’s a great leader, great motivator. Hopefully any parent, if their child is going to play up there, he’s a great role model to have. As far as the season, I mean the last couple years, like he just said as far as the injury situation, it’s just a string of bad luck. … You know, the Porter situation, both of them injured, and still this past season, they’ve got some great young talent, but everybody on the team was injured at some point. Some of their most key players. So what I would suggest to people at Mizzou and Columbia, a fan, just be patient. Injuries happen, and I know that has something to do with it, but they have the potential and they have the team to turn that thing around. Everybody coming back, they’re only losing one senior, they’re going to come back a more experienced team.”