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Canada basketball
Tim Hutzul

Fred Thomas: Canada's Forgotten Legend



Feb 23, 2021

I consider myself an avid sports fan, the kind who has (mis)spent countless hours watching, reading, writing, and arguing about a multitude of athletes and sports related topics over the years.  

Whether it is because in the mid-80’s I could name 98% of the players in the NBA, the fact that I wrote my undergrad thesis on the social impact of the first two African-American heavyweight boxing champions or that I once startled poor Mike Smrek, Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame 2019 inductee, by running up to him at Toronto’s Eaton Centre to say hello (at a time when hockey was undisputed king of sports in this country and the NBA Finals were still shown on tape delay only a few years before) — some may have called me a sports nerd. It is a badge I wear with honour.  

That said, every now and again you stumble across a fact that is so extraordinary, so unbelievably amazing that it makes you question your sports bona fides, makes you wonder how every kid in the country has not heard and can’t recite the story in question.  

The story of Fred Thomas, Canada’s Bo Jackson (only with more sports) is that kind of story.

Several months back I came across a brief biographical sketch of Fred Thomas on the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame (CBHOF), celebrating Fred’s induction in the class of 1995.  Although brief and short on details, his story sounded interesting — voted the second best Canadian basketball player of the first half of the 20th century after Norm Baker (CBHOF 1979), it noted that Fred had also played for the Toronto Argonauts and the Harlem Globetrotters.  A two-sport athlete — that piqued my curiosity.   I wondered why I had never heard of him and filed away the name “Fred Thomas” for future late-night research never expecting the unbelievable story that research would reveal.

About a month later, I finally found the time to investigate the life of Fred Thomas.  It did not take long — one of the first results was a wonderful TVO article by Sam Riches entitled “The Greatest Canadian Athlete You’ve Never Heard Of”, an article that has led to a mini-revival of interest in a seemingly forgotten Canadian superstar.  

Fred’s accomplishments leapt (jumped doesn’t do them justice) off the page — one of Canada’s greatest basketball stars, Fred had also played baseball in the farm system of the Cleveland baseball team and briefly in the Canadian Football League (CFL).  A three-sport star in an era of institutional racism in sports and limited opportunity for black athletes.  Pretty incredible stuff — but there was more to come.  

Riches next paragraph was stunning, considering this was my first exposure to the Thomas story. In 1994, Fred was one of only two international inductees into the Afro-American Sports Hall of Fame.  Fred, a seemingly underappreciated and forgotten (outside of Windsor) Canadian athlete and the other man, an athlete “so beloved in his home country” noted Riches, that he had been declared a “national treasure”.   You might have heard of the athlete honoured with Fred that day, Brazilian soccer player Pele.   One beloved and celebrated the world over, a living legend, while the other forgotten in his own country whose induction into the Windsor Sports Hall and Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame would unfortunately come posthumously. Not Canada’s proudest moment.

(Photo Courtesy of the University of Windsor)

Author William Humber has argued that “racial barriers prevented Thomas from becoming a national star”, and sadly contributed to keeping his story “on the margins” of Canadian sporting history.  What a shame, for the story of Fred Thomas deserves to bask in the spotlight, to be celebrated for the achievement it is.

Thomas enrolled at Assumption College (now the University of Windsor) following the World War II, where he had to battle prejudice and stereotypes in the armed forces to become one of the first black Canadians to earn his fighter pilot wings—one of the many racial barriers the soft-spoken Thomas would help break down during his remarkable life.   After the war, he played for years under Canadian coaching legend Stanley “Red” Nantais (CBHOF 2001).   Nantais, who was part of the Canadian team that won the 1936 Olympic Silver Medal (CBHOF 1981) and coached the first two Canadians to play in the NBA (more on that later), called Thomas “as great as anyone in Canada”.    Thomas finished his college career with more than 2,000 points, the third highest career total in North American collegiate sports at the time of his graduation.  Seventy years later, Fred Thomas is still Windsor’s all-time leading scorer.

Thomas’ impressive university career was capped by his leading Assumption to a narrow, thrilling 49-45 victory over the best basketball team of that era — the Harlem Globetrotters.  It might be hard to imagine from the perspective of today, but the Globetrotters of the 1940’s routinely beat top college and pro teams.  For a little perspective, it is worth noting that just a few years later the Globetrotters would defeat the reigning champion Minneapolis Lakers in back-to-back games before the largest crowds in basketball history (to that point in time).

The Lakers were led by George Mikan, a giant centre and future league MVP, who won multiple scoring titles and is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Mikan was named by the NBA as one of the 50 best players of the league’s first 50 years and his statue stands in front of the Minnesota Timberwolves arena.  Recalling those games author Eric Nasbaum has argued that the Globetrotters victories over the Lakers forever changed the game of basketball and was a key factor to the subsequent integration of the NBA.  Nasbaum’s article also sets out how the Globetrotters were able to use stifling defence and double-teaming to shut down future NBA legend and MVP Mikan.  A couple of years earlier, the Globetrotters had employed the same tactics against Assumption-- but had not been able to stop Fred Thomas.

(Photo courtesy of the Harlem Globetrotters)

The Trotters drew their own conclusion and approached Thomas for a try-out, following which Fred spent several seasons playing for them and their affiliated clubs.   Despite his considerable exploits and obvious talent, the NBA never came calling.  Two fellow University of Windsor players — who although gifted did not enjoy the same level of collegiate success as Thomas (after all locally this period of Windsor basketball was know as the Thomastic era) — Hank Biasatti (CBHOF 2001) and Gino Sorvan (CBHOF 2002) became the first two Canadians to play in the NBA, each enjoying brief stints with the Toronto Huskies. Several years later in 1950, the NBA colour barrier was broken by several players, including former Globetrotter Nathanial Clifton.  Denied the opportunity due to the league’s whites only policy and racial quota system following limited integration, Fred Thomas might have been the first Canadian superstar in the NBA.  What a shame we never found out.

The basketball chapter of the Fred Thomas story alone should have made Fred a household name amongst Canadian sports fans, but the additional chapters to his athletic career make his relative obscurity even more difficult to fathom, a sad commentary on the lack of attention from Canadian society.  

Every school age kid who loves sports knows the name Jackie Robinson, the pioneer who broke baseball’s colour barrier, an achievement immortalized in movies and rightfully honoured on an annual basis.  Far less known, is that — according to the Society for American Baseball Research — the first black Canadian offered a professional major league baseball contract and the first to break the colour barrier in minor league A-Ball was none other than Fred Thomas.   Offered a contract by Cleveland, Thomas played in their farm system, as well as for several other Negro League era teams, playing alongside or against baseball legends such as Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell.   Upon returning to Canada, Thomas enjoyed tremendous individual and team success in Ontario’s Intercounty League, hitting .383 during one season.  Team and personal success seemed to follow Fred Thomas wherever his talents took him.

If all of his basketball and baseball achievements weren’t impressive enough, Fred Thomas was also a pioneer in the integration of the Canadian Football League, becoming the second black player and first black Canadian to play for the Toronto Argonauts (almost 75 years after the teams founding).  Unfortunately, his CFL career was cut short by injuries and Thomas did not have a chance to leave his imprint on the CFL. Like the victory over the Globetrotters, the achievement of making a CFL roster is even more remarkable than it may appear to the modern eye, as CFL teams of the era often attracted top US college and pro talent with competitive or higher salaries (which may seem inconceivable to today’s sports fan).    

A multi-sport trailblazer, the success and accomplishments of Fred Thomas should be known and celebrated by every Canadian sports fan as the subject of annual articles, documentaries and even children’s books.  Sadly, perhaps still the victim of the racial bias that made him largely invisible in his day outside of Windsor, Thomas is neither a member of the Ontario nor Canada Sports Hall of Fame (whose honoured members, incredibly, include a horse but not Fred Thomas).  Thankfully, the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame inducted Fred in 1995.

Fred, a humble man, became a coach and teacher for over two decades inspiring several generations of kids and athletes, treating all equally with the respect he had too often been denied himself. His hometown of Windsor held a celebration of his life in the early 1980’s at which 400+ people came to honour a tremendous athlete, citizen, coach, teacher and friend.  

(Photo Courtesy of the University of Windsor Archives, Tony Techko Collection)

As documented in the fabulous TSN short entitled “Fabulous Freddy”, Thomas humbly accepted the honour noting how lucky he was to have so many come out to celebrate him.  A few months later Fred Thomas died.

Fred Thomas might be Canada’s best kept sports secret, “The greatest Canadian athlete” as Sam Riches wrote “that you’ve never heard of”.  

A multi-sport superstar athlete, who overcame racism to serve his country as a fighter pilot, a man who broke down multiple racial barriers in sports with a quiet determination and a beloved role model to children he dedicated the last decades of his life to coaching and teaching.  A life undoubtedly well lived, that made significant contributions somehow largely lost in the shadow of societal indifference and racism.

That is our collective loss, not Fred’s.

His is a story that deserves to be told time and time again, a story that deserves to be celebrated, to be applauded. Please tell a friend about the remarkable Fred Thomas.  Check that, tell several friends.  Some stories and lives deserve the spotlight.

The story of Fred Thomas, member of the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame class of 1995, certainly deserves to be centre stage.  We can’t change the past that obscured his memory, but that is no excuse for all of us not to work towards correcting that mistake in the present.

When Canada talks about its greatest athletes, Fred Thomas should be part an important part of the conversation.

Tim Hutzul is Senior Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary with Shawcor Ltd. and is also the pro bono Corporate Secretary and Legal Advisor to Canada Basketball.