The press called him The Black Panther . In the late 1960s, there weren't many African-American players in the Spanish basketball league, and even fewer capable of Charles Thomas's feline leaps. That two-meter and one-centimeter Texas forward was one of the stars of Barcelona until, in the mid-seventies, his left knee gave him a crack during a game against Real Madrid. From that day on, The Black Panther stopped jumping as before and began to fall. To escape and erase the trail. Charles Thomas became a ghost.
40 years ago, the two-time top scorer in the Spanish league disappeared leaving behind family and friends, a backpack of debt and an even heavier one of frustration, guilt and shame. His last traces were lost in the early eighties, amid rumors that he was left for dead in a knife fight in New York or from an overdose in an alley in Mexico. Until a couple of weeks ago, a former Barça teammate, Norman Carmichael, received a call from a clinic in the city of Amarillo, north Texas. The black panther was not dead, he was having hot soup in a nursing home.
Sitting in a wheelchair with a plaid blanket on his legs, Thomas (74 years old) attends EL PAÍS in the first interview since his resurrection. “My friend told me those stories about him being dead. They are not true. People really like to talk. I've never been into drugs. I only smoke tobacco. ”
—Why did it take so many years to tell someone?
—I went for a walk but I'm back.
The ghost has returned from limbo to become flesh and blood again. It has been a long and winding ride. At one point in the interview, Thomas lifts the blanket that covers his legs and two stumps appear under his knees. "It was because of the cold," he explains before covering himself with the blanket again. Winter in Texas can last up to five months, and Thomas lived on the streets for many years. “It is like living inside a refrigerator. You feel like your legs are ice cubes ”. Things got even more complicated when he accidentally stepped on a rusty nail while working as a carpenter fixing roofs. He says that the doctors who amputated him told him it was due to “rusty nail disease.”
—Do you ever dream that you play basketball again?
—Sometimes. But since I broke my knee I never dream of jumping again. PPT Thomas speaks slowly and from time to time interjects a word in the Spanish he learned in his almost 10 years in Spain. When he says "knee" he apologizes for not being able to pronounce the voiced r correctly. "I have lost some teeth along the way." He does not remember when. Nor how many years did he spend on the streets.
To determine the time when his legs were amputated, he asks about the death of Pope John Paul II . "2005?" Since then he has been admitted to this clinic in Amarillo thanks to an allowance for disabled people without resources. His story up to here is full of holes again. Thomas talks about returning from Spain and getting stuck in the New York airport because "he had lost his documentation." He also speaks of spending several times in jail in Los Angeles: "Two days," "one week," "three months." From going back to a cousin's house in Uvalde, the small Texan town where he was born, going down to Mexico and back up to Texas.
—Did you have contact with your family during these 40 years?
—In the beginning. Then I crossed the barrier where no one helps anyone.
After an injury, Thomas disappeared from public life, until in March 2021, 40 years later, he telephoned his former partner Norman Carmichael. Monica Gonzalez Clifford Luyk's phone
During the game that changed everything, that November 1974, Thomas' defender was Clifford Luyk, one of the historical legends of Real Madrid, who won 14 leagues and six European Cups in his 16 seasons of white. The first half was not yet over when Thomas receives the ball off the post. After a feint, mark the steps before jumping to the basket. Luyk does not bite into deception. Tighten the defense and just before jumping the fateful moment occurs. Knee to knee. Thomas's patellar tendon snaps like a dry branch.
“If I didn't jump, I wouldn't have been injured, but I wasn't afraid. If I could go back, I would not do it again ”, explains the former player. Thomas does not hold a grudge against Luyk: "It's sport." But you wish you could chat with him about the old days. “I wish I could call you. Do you have Clifford Luyk? ”He asks the journalist.
On the wall of the room that the clinic has set up for the interview there is a cork with photographs of the time cut out of the newspapers. Luyk does not appear, but José Antonio Corbalán , another Madrid legend, does. There are photos of Thomas with Sant Josep de Badalona, his first team in Spain (1968), and with Barca (71-72 to 74-75). In one corner, a bearded Thomas in a patterned shirt looks at the camera alongside a mustache in a turtleneck. They look like Starsky and Hutch . The mustache is Norman Carmichael, the other American center of Barcelona whom his partner called a couple of weeks ago to say he was alive.
Thomas keeps the photographs of the time and newspaper clippings of his career. Monica Gonzalez
After the knee injury, Thomas spent a whole year without playing and was transferred to Manresa (75-76). Change of team, change of city and change of friends. He never felt good on a basketball court again and began to go out more with a military friend, who opened the doors of the Catalan night for him. His wife separated from him and took his son.
"How did you feel at that time?
" Something broke inside me. It wasn't just the knee.
“I ran into the law”
The contract in Spain ended and the debts arrived. Had to borrow money from friends. “I was very ashamed. My pride ached because I had been a star. It was as if Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were asking for money. " So he decided to return to the US “I wanted things to calm down a bit. But I ran into the law. It was the fault of the police. They are very abusive towards African Americans and things got complicated when they got out of jail. ”
He worked where he could: waiter, stockman, carpenter. The black panther , who had made millions of pesetas in Spain with his last hoop dunks, was now charging $ 15 a day. "I could not bear it," he recalls hiding his face under the brim of a cap.
His friend Norman Carmichael, who took a couple of weeks to make public the finding that his partner was still alive, has defined him as "a child great ”, endowed with a natural talent but not too lavish in training:“ He told me on more than one occasion that he believed that a player was born with a certain number of jumps. He never wanted to spend them on training. ”
Especially after the arrival in Barcelona in 1974 of the Serbian Ranko Zeravica, with a reputation as a tough coach and who bet on the young people of the house more than on foreign stars. In the three seasons he was at the club, Zeravica opened the door to the extraordinary fifth of Epi, Solozábal, Sibilio or De la Cruz.
Thomas recognizes himself in the phrase of his friend Carmichael. “The Yugoslav coach treated us like robots. I learned to play on the courts in my neighborhood. I did not like at all that training twice a day. Morning and afternoon. You have to dose yourself. The body is wasted. ”
Thomas's hopping tank was used up forever before its time, in a nod to that phrase by Marlene Dietrich in Thirst for evil , Orson Welles's classic film noir set in Ciudad Juárez, the city The borderline of sin and doom that so many Americans, from John Wayne, Charles Mingus, and Thomas himself, have used as a raiding yard since the days of Prohibition in America. fortune teller, she replies: “You have no future. You already used it all. ”
Thomas played pivot in the Spanish league in the late seventies, when no one could fly as high as him. Monica GonzalezThe emotional call from her son Carlos
At another point in the interview in Texas, Charles Thomas's mobile phone begins to ring. It's your son. Baptized Carlos for the happy times in Spain, the last time he saw his father he was less than 10 years old and lived with his mother, Linda, in Barcelona. Carlos had turned the page accepting the version that he had been shot to death in New York for a drug problem.
Today he is more than 50 years old, he has married and lives with his wife and daughter in Oakland, on the San Francisco Bay. When he was told that his father was still alive, at first he thought it was a scam. Norman Carmichael, Thomas's former teammate at Barcelona whom he contacted a few days ago to report his reappearance, assured him that he was no impostor. So Carlos decided to call the nursing home. "He almost had a heart attack," Thomas recalls with a half smile between mischief and suppressed emotion. The Black Panther had just found out that he is a grandfather. His son and his granddaughter are waiting for the covid vaccine to launch the 2,000 kilometers that separate them from Amarillo and meet again more than 40 years later.
Charles Thomas does not mind having passed as a ghost all this time. During his years of bad life on the street, he clung to the Bible. “My last name is like that of the Apostle Thomas, which is not very clear if it actually existed or not. Maybe that's why I became a ghost ”, says the former American basketball player, stroking his beard and, incidentally, recalling the story of the mysterious apocryphal evangelist.
Charles Thomas, in a Barça-Real Madrid, in 1972.
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