Corey Thomas isn’t going to let anything stand in his way when basketball season rolls around.
Thoughts of the roar of the crowd and jovial camaraderie with his teammates at Cherokee Bluff High is what has kept him going during a run of bad luck.
He’s come too far since a gruesome broken left leg injury on Nov. 30, 2019 during pregame warmups against Denmark, which kept him off the floor for 26 of 30 games during his junior basketball season.
The Bears went on to win their first playoff game in school history in 2020.
Thomas was relegated to dealing with the complex emotions of wanting to be on the court, while being the program’s biggest supporter from the bench.
That is tough enough for a 17-year-old to process: trying to figure out ‘why me?’
Then the COVID-19 pandemic swept through our country, extending his isolation and making it difficult, at times, to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
However, Thomas now has medical clearance to play basketball this season at Cherokee Bluff.
He’s bound and determined to make it count.
“When I get back on the floor, I’m going to look like a different kind of monster,” said Thomas, who was averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds a game before his injury last fall. “I can’t allow anything to keep me from having the best season of my life.”
Thomas, who already holds a scholarship offer from Middle Tennessee State, started walking on his own March 13. That was the same day the Georgia High Schools Association put a two-week halt to spring sports, in accordance to orders from Governor Brian Kemp, and two weeks before the rest of the spring sports were called off permanently.
Thomas is currently away from school campus until October 6, after coming in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, despite his own negative test result for COVID-19.
Last fall, Thomas was injured when going through routine drills. The star basketball player for Cherokee Bluff was told by doctors that a rapid growth spurt left his bones weakened up his long frame, which is why his tibia almost pierced his skin after he came down from a dunk and went straight to the ground.
The Bears’ coaching staff and his family ran out on the court to tend to their injured basketball star when the ugly accident took place on their home floor in Flowery Branch.
Because of the adrenaline, Thomas didn’t feel a lot of pain, right away, but knew he landed wrong.
“I was like, ‘what’s going on?’” Thomas said.
Students and fans were left grimacing in disbelief, based on the fearful reaction to the people on the court, including medical personnel, and left with the sense that Thomas’ season was finished.
It was a tough pill to swallow for Cherokee Bluff coach Benjie Wood who hated to see one of his players so passionate about the game unable to get up on his own.
“Corey was the heart and soul of our defense and shooting about 70 percent from the field when he got hurt,” said Wood. “Plus, everyone on the team really enjoys being around Corey.
“He’s a big goofy kid, but a lot of fun to be around.”
Right away, Cherokee Bluff’s big man inside the paint was transported to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton and underwent surgery to help put him on the path to full recovery. It wasn’t until June that Thomas was given a clean bill of health by doctors to resume playing, Wood said.
Cherokee Bluff’s coach said Thomas was looking at game tape as soon as he woke up the next morning in a hospital bed.
Despite being on crutches and still shaken up from his season-ending injury, Thomas came for the Bears’ home game a week later against Winder-Barrow.
There, he was in for a big surprise: students were all wearing shirts in support of Thomas with his No. 4 front and center.
It lifted the big man’s spirits but couldn’t take away the sting of not playing basketball.
He was touched by the gesture from his friends, but admitted to being a bit uneasy about being the center of so much attention.
“I’m a very happy person but not super emotional,” Thomas said.
As many kids during the lockdown, Thomas had to find a way to fill his idle time. Coupled with an injury, he had to keep it from becoming mentally overwhelming.
Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months without the comfort of being around his teammates or playing basketball.
Thomas found solace in video games and took up reading books, which is something he never previously enjoyed before basketball was suddenly ripped away for the majority of the season.
Thomas said his constant companion during rehabilitating was his big sister, Christi, who was an assistant girls basketball coach at Cherokee Bluff and is in her first year as head coach at Jackson County.
Even though the siblings with a 20-year age gap share a love for the same sport, he said most of their talks had nothing to do with hoops.
“Having played at a high level and injured myself, I’ve been there,” said Christi Thomas, who was a first-round pick in the WNBA draft in 2004 out of the University of Georgia. “When he got injured like that, I tried to give him books to help him.
“We talked a lot about faith and having to draw on something bigger than yourself. I told him he had to fall into the word.”
The older of the Thomas siblings, who played at the highest level for more than a decade, has high praise for her younger brother.
“His IQ and skillset is so much more advanced than mine at 16 or 17 years old,” Christi Thomas said. “And he has better court vision and passing ability than I ever had.”
Corey Thomas also said that Wood was right there for him, while waiting eagerly to gain clearance to play basketball again. They would go to lunch regularly, just to chat, which Thomas said was a boost to his spirits and a reminder that everything was going to be okay.
“Coach Wood has been incredibly supportive,” Thomas said. “He’s so down to Earth and we can talk about anything.”
Thomas also found solace in shooting the basketball at Cherokee Bluff during his rehabilitation, along with a facility called The Lab in Buford.
Thomas first picked up a basketball when he was in kindergarten and right off the bat was good, thanks to a glaring size advantage over the other boys on the floor. He entered high school at 5-9, was 6-4 at the end of his sophomore year, then hit a rapid growth spirt in the 11th grade.
Thomas is skeptical about being done growing, despite being told by doctors that his growth plate is closed.
With only five weeks before Cherokee Bluff’s scrimmage against Class 7A Grayson, Thomas is counting down the days until he can suit up and play with his friends.
The Bears, which enter 2020-2021 with a good chance to be the best team in Region 7-3A, will open the regular season a week later against Hart County.
Thomas is going to make sure his final season is his best at Cherokee Bluff.
He’s come through too much to let it go to waste.
“I envision my brother having a breakout season because he grew so late and not a lot of people know who he is,” Christi Thomas said. “I’m very proud to be his big sister and he’s my favorite person in the world.”