Christi Thomas had already interviewed once before for the Jackson County girls’ head basketball coaching position.
When the post came around a second time, the former WNBA player knew it was meant to be.
“God doesn’t do that to you for (just) any reason,” Thomas said.
Thomas is Jackson County’s new coach as school announced the move via social media on Thursday night.
With Thomas, the Panthers have landed a coach who succeeded at each level as a player and looks to mold Jackson County into a winner in her first head-coaching assignment. She spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Cherokee Bluff.
Thomas, who played for three different WNBA teams over seven seasons, said she’s excited about the young talent rising through Jackson County’s program, the closeness of the job to home (she grew up in Buford) and the chance to spread her love for the game throughout the community.
And a head-coaching job, after carefully planning her time as an assistant, is what Thomas has dreamt of.
“It’s what I’ve been working on,” she said. “I’ve actually taken my time in deciding to be a head coach because I wanted to learn how to be a coach. Just because I could play the game doesn’t mean I could coach the game … I’ve put myself in a position to learn from some really great teachers.”
To that end, Thomas served as an assistant for Perimeter Christian Schools, the Cambridge High School feeder programs and Northview High School and then two seasons at Flowery Branch, where she helped the Falcons reach back-to-back Final Fours (2017 and 2018), before moving on to Cherokee Bluff (where her younger brother plays).
Few can boast the credentials Thomas had as a player.
She was a basketball star at Buford High School, where she was named Ms. Georgia Basketball in 2000 and amassed 2,174 points in her prep career.
Thomas went on to a standout career at the University of Georgia from 2001-2004 under coach Andy Landers, earning all-SEC honors each season, before becoming the 12th pick of the 2004 WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks. In addition to her WNBA career, she played overseas in Spain, Russia, Latvia, Italy, Turkey and Israel.
Asked to reflect on her days under UGA coaching legend Andy Landers, Thomas remembered the strong bonds of his teams.
“The biggest thing that I learned and what I’ve taken from there is the woman that Georgia molded me into being, the sisterhood that was created by wearing that ‘G’ and putting Georgia across our chest and to have a father figure like him (Landers) that instilled values and hard work and competition into us … that’s who I am and that’s what I want to instill in my girls,” Thomas said.
Her WNBA career then allowed her to play alongside the best players in the world as she rattled off a who’s who of the women’s game.
“I don’t even think I understood the magnitude of what I was doing while I was doing it, quite honestly,” Thomas said. “In retrospect, looking back at it, to have played with alongside Lisa Leslie, Lauren Jackson, I can’t even put that kind of stuff into words because I was able to learn from some of the greatest in the game of basketball — Chamique Holdsclaw, Nikki Teasley, Tamecka Dixon … I could go on with the list of people I’ve been able to be around.”
Playing overseas proved to be a fulfilling experience to round out her career. Experiencing different cultures was one aspect, but she came to realize “basketball really is basketball” during that time.
“Even though you can’t speak the same language, you still can in a way,” she said. “To be able to a part of so many different teams and understand team chemistry and to have been coached by so many different coaches … I think I have a unique perspective that my life has given me that a lot of coaches don’t have, and I think I use that to my advantage.”
Thomas said she hopes her experience gives her credibility with parents and players.
“First and foremost, I hope it gives me a leg up with the parents,” Thomas said. “I know sometimes they can be your hardest critic and your best fan. But for them to understand that I really do know what it takes to master each level … and I don’t say this in a bragging way, but I didn’t just play at all these different levels. I succeed at all these different levels.
“To be able to do that and speak basketball and work ethic and character, character, character to these women and these young ladies is something that I think God has put me in a unique position to be able to do.”
Thomas inherits a Jackson County team that went 7-22 but reached the state tournament last year under interim coach Julie McCutcheon, who stepped in after the abrupt resignation of Aaron Schuck two games into the year.
Thomas said she knows the players “have had a rough go of it.”
“They had a coaching change in the middle of the season and they showed some resilience in being able to pull together some wins and being able to compete in the region,” Thomas said. “I know that they’re hungry for basketball, and that honestly is all that matters to me right now.”
Thomas assumes her first head-coaching job as uncertainty grips the nation and world with the outbreak of COVID-19, which has forced the cancellation of sports across the board. The GHSA called off the remainder of the spring sports season and a starting date for summer practices and workouts for basketball — and all other sports — is uncertain.
Thomas, like all other coaches, doesn’t know when she’ll meet her team face-to-face. But she does hope to take advantage of modern technology with a Zoom meeting (a video conferencing app) as a way to introduce herself to her new charges.
“So I can show them my face, answer some questions, get to know them a little bit, ask them some questions,” she said. “I’m really, really excited, but again, with the way that things are, it’s kind of an uncertain time. I’m just trying to be respectful of the situation that’s going on right now.”
But whenever she can get started, she’s eager to get started. Thomas looks forward to a new phase of her basketball journey and doing it at Jackson County.
“I didn’t make this choice lightly,” she said. “I’m not somebody that rushes into decisions like this. But I really, truly felt like something special is going to happen at Jackson County, and I really felt that was the place for me and where God was leading me … I’m just really excited.”