Basketball and Coney Island seem to go hand in hand with each other. Books like The Last Shot and flicks like He Got Game, introduced the world to the tiny sector in Brooklyn that has produced the likes of Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Lance Stephenson and the fictional Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Jamel Thomas aka “Five-Thirty” also rose up from Coney. Cousin of Starbury and older brother of Bassy, Jamel is a 6-6 forward with a sweet stroke and bulldog-like toughness. Thomas never reached the same level as his famous family members but he still had a long and successful career.
Teaming up with God Shammgod and Austin Croshere at Providence, Five-Thirty helped take the Friars to the Elite 8 in the 1997 NCAAs. Though he was an All Big East selection his senior year, NBA scouts labled him a “tweener” and he went undrafted in ’99. Thomas had brief stints with several NBA teams but spent the majority of the last decade getting buckets in some of Europe’s top leagues.
In September 2008, Thomas released his autobiography, The Beautiful Struggle. The book focuses on him overcoming tragedy and a series of obstacles while growing up in Coney Island. It also talks about him raising Bassy as well as discusses his shaky relationship with Steph.
Bounce caught up with Five-Thirty last week to talk books and ball.
Bounce: So what are you up to nowadays?
Jamel Thomas: I just got home from Greece – I did a workout over there. Right now I’m looking for a job in Italy or Cyprus. That’s about it. I’m still playing European ball, and you know, I’m just enjoying my life.
Bounce: You grew up playing at the Garden in Coney Island with your cousin Stephon Marbury. Tell us about the style of play on that famous court?
JT: Playing at the Garden was like playing the Knicks when they had Patrick Ewing and Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley. It’s just a tough playground to play in. Skills won’t get you over, it’s all about heart inside that court because you got older guys like 30 years old playing with guys that are 15. And they just beat the young guys up and that’s what makes guys like Stephon, myself and Sebastian tough. You know, you could have all the talent, but the Garden gives you that heart that you need.
Bounce: While you and Steph were coming up, who were some the better guys at the Garden?
JT: Oh man. Daryl Flicker, (aka Russell Thomas from the Last Shot) rest in peace. We got a guy named “Strawberry”, Mike Spencer. Tiny Morton, who is the coach right now at Lincoln (HS). All of Stephon’s brothers. We just had a bunch of guys like Derrick Brown, who came from that tiny area in Coney Island that played in that Garden, then just got extremely better and were able to take advantage of basketball to go to universities and colleges.
Bounce: Were you and Stephon a great two man combo? Were you guys like the Stockton and Malone of Coney?
JT: For sure! Me and Steph? Yeah…that’s what we was too (laughs). Because back then I played center – I played the five. We’d run pick and rolls and he would dump the ball down low to me and I’d dunk it. It was just fun playing basketball that way and he helped me a lot. If it weren’t for Stephon, I probably would not have become the star I am today. He helped me a lot on that court.
Bounce: How tight were you two off the court?
JT: Off the court? That was my brother, we were like twin brothers. People are going to read in the book that I was more like the lazy kid and more aggressive when it comes to the streets. And I just stay in the house and don’t get up to go to school the next day and he’d come knocking on my door. ‘Come on 530, get up man, we got school!’ And this is like in fifth grade! (laughs) So, you know, he was like my big brother, he gave me a lot of motivation, make sure I don’t mess up when I was young.
Bounce: You’ve been to the Elite 8, played all over Europe and even had some stints in the NBA. What was your favorite basketball memory to this point?
JT: Well of course it was three-point shot that I hit against Arizona. I woke up the whole Coney Island as well as all of New York and Providence as well. And playing with the Portland Trailblazers in 2000, when we lost against the Lakers. Even though I didn’t play it was like a dream come true because I was playing with Scottie Pippen at the time. And I couldn’t even imagine that at all because I used to look up to him and Michael Jordan. And Italy and Greece – those are the two countries where I mainly played in. The support system that’s over there like the fans, they’re just by your side win or lose.
Bounce: Tell us about the Beautiful Struggle.
JT: The Beautiful Struggle, the Beautiful Struggle. Well this book is basically about my life story. In the media right now is what I wrote about Sebastian and Stephon. Basically it talks about myself when I was younger, being motherless and fatherless and taken into this new family. My biological mother was murdered and at that time I didn’t understand what was going on. I’m not the only kid that lived that way, in environments like mine. So I think it’s going to be good to help them. People are going to read a lot about life before it gets to basketball. In the beginning I talk about the household, the things that go on inside. Not to put anyone down, but this is what I had to overcome. I say it’s a blessing because the drug use in the house and our hygiene wasn’t clean – I had to learn that elsewhere. The book talks a lot about basketball, it talks about disappointment. It talks about the great times I had and my dreams getting crushed. It also talks about how you get up when you fall on the floor.
Bounce: When did you decide to write this book?
JT: Well I started to write this book two years ago. I was waiting to get the blessings from my Jewish parents. They helped me become the man I have become today. They took me in at the age of 15 when I was in high school, when I was self destructive. Once they gave me the blessing, I started writing two years ago.
Bounce: It’s no secret that your relationship with Stephon has digressed over the years. In fact, you talk about it in your book. Where does your relationship stand with him now?
JT: I’m not here to bash Stephon. Basically what I talk about in the book, was basically he was in the NBA. I feel he was supposed to help me out to get there. The way he went about it was wrong, he left me out to dry. Basically I didn’t have anybody to represent me when the draft came. What people are going to read in Chapter 7 “The Hidden Truth”, is never put your trust in another individual’s hands. That’s all it is. I’m not blaming him, I blame myself. But I just tell the story how it happened and how I feel about him. I know Steph’s a good guy, I know he’s a great guy. It’s just that the people that he put around him after he got drafted, that’s what maybe changed his character. But hopefully now, hopefully he can read this book and understand what he put me through and some of my family members and surround the good people back around him so he can be the Stephon that he was when he was younger.
Bounce: Aside from Steph, it has been reported that you and Sebastian’s relationship has also soured recently. Anyone who has seen the documentary Through the Fire or read the book The Jump, knows how influential you were to him. What happened?
JT: It’s like with parents, they try their best to help their kids grow up to be successful. And sometimes the kids don’t appreciate everything the parents did and get rebellious. That’s my little brother. He’s just rebelling, he’s at his rebelling stage right now. What I need to do is whenever he needs me, just be right there ready for him and try to help him out. The relationship is not what it used to be, but I won’t let it escalate to anything further than that, because that’s still my little brother and we have a connect through my mother his father. So I don’t think that’s going to go as far as it went with myself and Stephon.
Bounce: Now that your book is out, you are officially now an author. Is there more writing in your future?
JT: I’m writing another book and it’s called The Voice of Coney Island. It is about kids and the older people in Coney Island who are willing to help those kids. They are just going to be using me as the so-called voice. I’m not the actual voice.