‘D-Train’ runs loose in DeKalb

By Jeff Kirik

For NIU freshman Donnell Thomas, “D-Train” isn’t just a nickname, it’s an image he portrays on the basketball court.

As NIU’s latest cage star, the 6-foot-4 freshman prides himself on playing the game with an intense, physical approach. The well-built Thomas was dubbed “D-Train” when he was a youth, and in seventh grade he furthered his rugged image by getting the symbol tatooed on his right bicep.

“It (the nickname) came from my grammar school coach,” said Thomas, whose 212-pound frame makes him look like a football fullback. “He said I moved up and down the court like a train. And once I got going it was hard to stop me.”

Huskie coach Jim Rosborough sums up Thomas’ attitude toward the game as plain “toughness.” Before the 1987-88 season Rosborough said, “Marcus Liberty (former King High School standout) was the best player coming out of Chicago last year, but Donnell was the toughest.”

In response to Rosborough’s praise, Thomas said, “I think it’s true. Talentwise, Marcus has me beat. But as far as wanting to be better and as far as my heart is going to take me, I think I have Marcus beat with that.

“Marcus played a finesse game. My game is more of a banger type game—rebounding, pushing people around.”

Even though the 19-year-old Thomas is one of the younger players on the team, he leads the 4-16 Huskies in rebounding with 8.7 boards per game and is third on the squad with 12 points per contest.

Thomas likes the game of basketball, but his passion is rebounding. He scores many of his points on offensive rebounds and, although he is small for his forward position, he makes up for the height disadvantage by working harder to get to the ball than his opponents.

“My game revolves around rebounding,” he said, adding that he is a good boardman because of his quickness and because he is “hungry for the ball. You always have to keep your feet moving, then slide right in and hope the ball comes to you.

“As far as the future’s concerned, when I’m through, I hope to be one of the leading rebounders here.”

Rosborough does not doubt that Thomas can reach his goal if he can stay healthy.

“He really enjoys that phase of the game, and he really wants the ball,” the second-year coach said in reference to why Thomas is such a strong rebounder. “He wants the basketball, and he works at getting the thing, both on the offensive and defensive boards.”

At the pace Thomas has jumped out to, he should be NIU’s all-time freshman rebounder in the near future. With eight games to go, Thomas—with 174 boards—would have to average 5.5 rebounds per contest to overtake Allen Rayhorn’s record of 218.

That should be no problem for a player who has pulled down an average of 12.3 caroms in his last four games. He is also in range to become the second-best freshmen scorer, with his 239 points closing in behind Kenny Battle’s 544 in 1984-85.

When he’s playing basketball, the D-Train is an intimidating figure, but when he leaves the court, he also leaves the tough-guy image and attitude there. He descibes himself as a “fun guy to be with, with a big sense of humor. Off the court, I’m a sweet, modest guy.”

Thomas grew up in Chicago as an only child. His first love was football, but in eighth grade he decided basketball was his sport.

“One day the (football) team had practice, so I went to the park to shoot a little ball, and when the coach found out, he told me to pack my bags and leave,” he said.

He went on to star for Robeson High School as a cager, averaging 15.7 ppg and 11 rpg as a senior on a team that went 26-4 on the season. That followed a junior year in which he averaged 17.5 ppg and 10 rpg.

The highlight of his high school career was record-breaking 51-point performance against Kelly in last season’s state tournament. This effort came despite his playing only a little over two quarters in the game.

A pre-engineering major, Thomas said academics are one of his top priorities, and he plans to “take care of business on the court and off the court.”

And although on the court Thomas’ all-around game is fairly strong, he knows it’s far from perfect.

“I’m still playing at a freshman pace, trying to rush things and make things happen,” said Thomas, who leads the team with 76 turnovers. “I have to slow myself down and let the game come to me.”

Rosborough agreed that Thomas tends to play out of control at times and added that he also needs “to be more selective of the shots he takes.”

The poor shot selection Thomas has displayed can be attributed to his playing a different position in college. He has had to adjust from being exclusively an inside player to becoming a small forward who plays farther from the basket.

“That’s why I get a lot of my traveling violations—because I’m used to playing with my back to the basket,” he said. “It’s getting better each day at practice. If I keep applying myself and working hard, I’ll take care of that.”