Anyone who has ever been to a Duke basketball game knows how overwhelming the sounds and sights can be. The student section is littered with millennials adorning Prussian blue body paint, all screaming obscenities at the top of their lungs. Yet young Asha Thomas sat in the middle of this chaotic scene, at a game pitting Duke against rival North Carolina, where her brother Quentin Thomas played, completely unfazed.
Asha made the trip to Duke with only her father, John Thomas, on account of her mother’s distaste for the aggressive crowd. Seated in the front row directly behind the Tar Heels’ bench, John noticed a look in his daughter’s eyes.
“She had this intense look like she could be out here,” he says. “She was no more than 7 at the time, and I just said to her, ‘Could you play in this atmosphere?’ And she said yes.”
After pausing briefly, John added: “And she did.”
Loretta Thomas, Asha’s mother, likes to say that Asha was practically born in a basketball gym. Loretta frequently attended her son Quentin’s high school basketball games while she was pregnant with Asha and even went into labor during one of his tournaments.
“That’s pretty much all she knows,” Loretta says. “Going to games as a little baby — a toddler — warming up with her brother on his teams, whether it was (the American Athletic Union) or the high school that he played for, sitting on the bench with him, watching him practice.”
Asha’s roots in playing basketball can be traced back to her home in Oakland, where she remembers shooting a miniature basketball into a tiny basket attached to a mirror near the front door when she was just 3 years old. In fact, Asha’s family still lives in that house — they’ve lived there since before Asha was born, so the house has been a fixture in her life. Growing up in Oakland, Asha was witness to the types of hardships that the city’s name often evokes.
“Oakland, it definitely made — at least a part of it — made me who I am today,” Asha says. “Growing up seeing different adversities and dealing with it. You may not be in the actual adversity, but you see it and you’re close to it.”
As Asha grew older, the little hoop at home was no longer enough so she asked to play at the park. Basketball became a family affair, with John frequently accompanying her to the courts to dribble or shoot. Before college, John was Asha’s “coach outside of her coach,” conducting research in his spare time to help her improve. He would collect noteworthy YouTube clips to show Asha, typically footage of prolific NBA point guards such as Chris Paul and Tony Parker, showcasing specific skills that he wanted her to incorporate into her game.
Quentin, whom Asha cites as her biggest fan outside of her parents, was also an important figure in her development as a basketball player. In Quentin, Asha saw an older yet approachable figure whose guidance she could trust because he had already experienced all the tribulations of learning basketball that she was going through.
“When he was in North Carolina, I would try to get on the court with him and we would play one on one,” Asha says. “It was just for fun, I didn’t take it that seriously. But just to be on that court with him, it was eye-opening. There’s not that many kids that can say that they’ve done that with their brother.”
Asha’s organized basketball debut came at the age of six, when she began participating in weekly youth matches held Saturdays. The teams in these games were mainly composed of boys, which appealed to Asha’s competitive nature.
“It was majority boys, I think there was probably a handful of girls,” John says. “She enjoyed that, and it was to the point she didn’t want to play with girls. She wanted to play with boys and she made that clear.”
Competing with boys at an early age is something that Asha credits to helping add aggressiveness to her game. Asha believed they presented a higher level of competition, which meant there was more to be gained from playing with them.
She only began to appreciate the legitimacy of women’s basketball after joining the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU, widely recognized as the most prominent amateur basketball circuit in the country. Asha quickly became invested in AAU basketball after she took notice of the level of talent present in the league and stuck with the program until the end of her junior year of high school.
As Asha rose up the ranks, her parents became worried. They were supportive of all her basketball endeavors and excited by her success, but they were concerned that their support may have been misconstrued by Asha as pressure.
So, when Asha went to Oregon for an AAU tournament after her freshman year of high school, her parents didn’t join her. This was their way of checking whether Asha’s involvement in the AAU and her pursuit of basketball were products of genuine interest or an attempt to appease them. Even though Quentin enjoyed tremendous success in basketball and played at one of the top collegiate basketball programs nationally, Asha’s parents didn’t expect, or even want, her to do the same if it wasn’t from her own interest.
“I had it in my mind that she might just wind up just saying that she doesn’t want to play anymore, and leave it alone,” John says. “And I would’ve been fine with it. I thought that that would be the case and I told some other people who were close to the family. I said that to them, and they said there’s no way, it’s in Asha.”
When Asha joined Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private Catholic school in Oakland, it was because she wanted to. According to her father, Asha was vocal about her desire to go to Bishop O’Dowd because of its reputation as an academically challenging school. Her parents knew little about Bishop O’Dowd, but Asha would go on to help form a basketball powerhouse that ultimately put it in the spotlight.
In the latter part of her freshman year of high school, Asha began receiving attention from collegiate basketball programs because of both her personal and team success. Letters began pouring into her home, and she received phone calls from coaches who expressed interest in her. As she went through her sophomore year, the attention from recruiters intensified and her stock as an athletic and high IQ point guard continued to grow. The cherry on top: Asha won back-to-back state championships in her first two years.
“It was great to get that attention, but it was mind-blowing like: you really want me?” Asha says.
In her final summer of AAU, in a tournament her team was hosting in Walnut Creek, California, Asha received an unexpected setback. During a game in the tournament, she exploded for a layup and as she did, she felt an unfamiliar sensation in her left knee. It wasn’t pain though, and Asha didn’t hear a pop — both seemingly reassuring signs.
A closer look from a doctor revealed, however, that she had torn her ACL, albeit in an atypical manner. She was stunned.
“You don’t think this can happen to you,” Asha says. “It was just like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to make it without basketball.’ And it was like I just lost everything. I just lost everything.”
After the initial shock of her freak injury, Asha later tweeted that she accepted that her injury must have happened for a reason and that she was willing to grow from it, her father recalls. Asha couldn’t be a contributor on the court, but her leadership and support were felt by her teammates and keenly observed by her coaches.
While Asha was sidelined, however, her team struggled. She fought the urge to speed up and possibly compromise her recovery but was, to the surprise of many, back to playing within nine months.
During her recovery period, Asha committed to Cal, after narrowing down the field of schools she was interested in to just Cal and Washington. She opted for the local choice, where she felt the academic rigor and networking opportunities that would be available to her would be incredibly valuable. At the end of her senior year, she competed for her third state championship in Cal’s Haas Pavilion and emerged victorious, giving her team an inspiring end to a tumultuous season.
It’s hard to follow up winning three state championships in four years. As a young team, the Bears enjoyed success in the early, nonconference portion of their schedule before their inexperience and injuries caused them to drift near the bottom of the Pac-12. Losing wasn’t something Asha was accustomed to, but these losses were constructive for her.
“She’s on herself more,” Loretta says. “It has nothing to do with the team. She’s on herself. ‘What could I have done to win this game?’ or ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have helped my teammates?’”
With a record of 4-14 in conference play, good for 10th in the conference, the Bears didn’t appear in any postseason projections, and entering the Pac-12 Tournament, few saw the Bears as a threat. Cal miraculously advanced to the semifinals of the tournament, upsetting second-seeded Arizona State in the quarterfinals. The Cinderella story ultimately didn’t come to fruition — the Bears suffered a devastating defeat to UCLA in overtime — but it let the team end the season on an uplifting note.
“After doing that run this past weekend and coming home, she’s like, OK, we’re ready for next season,’” Loretta says. “So they have to get those bumps and bruises out of the way. They realize now that they can do that together. I think this brought them closer together as a team.
The Bears’ home crowds this year can’t be compared to those of the Blue Devils, but the discomfort of losing is a more unsettling feeling than the taunts of overzealous college students. It’s a struggle, but if her 19 years have taught her one thing, it’s the ability to deal with struggles.
Kapil Kashyap covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]