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In his first two years at Florida State, Aaron Thomas rarely smiled on the basketball court. Smiling is frowned upon on the concrete of Cincinnati's west side, where Thomas learned to play.
Show your teeth, and they might get knocked out.
But Thomas might have something to smile about this season. The junior shooting guard is fresh off a breakout sophomore season in which he led FSU in scoring, and he is the go-to-player on a team that finally appears to be deep and experienced.
After failing to make the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, the Seminoles are looking to Thomas to help propel them back into ACC contention. If he is successful, it likely will be because of the challenging route he took to get here.
Thomas grew up on the west side of Cincinnati, bouncing from English Woods to the Fay Apartment projects. Those are two of the most violent neighborhoods in one of America's most violent cities. When describing what kind of crime went on around him as a child, Thomas simply said, "All of the above."
"I don't think any part I lived is considered safe," Thomas said.
Thomas stayed out of trouble by staying on the court, playing in street games as often as possible. Even as a younger child, he played with older teammates, going into the lane on concrete outdoor courts where foul calls didn't exist and games frequently ended in fisticuffs.
Thomas found a home among the street ball legends in west Cincinnati. With little effort, he can rattle off a list of people he played with and learned from - none have last names. Thomas would go with them on cross-neighborhood challenges, playing two-on-two against the best players from other areas.
Those players recognized Thomas' skill early on and encouraged it. Thomas said the older players would push him to stick with basketball and stay out of trouble.
He took the message to heart.
"I was the one who wanted to play street ball all the time," Thomas said. "I was just always hooping. I had some friends who tried to keep me out of that other stuff. … They were like, 'Oh he can play. Don't try to do anything to him.'"
Thomas even played in a local church league when he was 12 years old, dominating so thoroughly that his coach called Cincinnati AAU coach Ozzie Davis and told him he needed to meet the rising star. For Thomas, who had a passion for the sport but didn't know how to chase his dreams, Davis was a needed conduit to the larger world of basketball.
"He came to my house and started talking to my parents," Thomas said. "It was strictly basketball and life, and I was like, 'Is he playing with me?' But he's a successful guy, he's got degrees ... (he coached) this pro here, that pro there."
Thomas started working with Davis and his AAU program, the Queen City Prophets, in the eighth grade, and spent most of his time working on developing ball-handling skills to be a guard. During his first two years at Aiken High School, he played in the post as a 6-foot-2 underclassman. As a junior, he exploded on the scene. Thomas averaged 21.4 points and 7.3 rebounds that year and was named the Cincinnati Metro Player of the Year.
Thomas suddenly started picking up college scholarship offers. But his academic transcript was a mess, and he and his family had no experience dealing with college coaches or the recruiting circuit. So after his junior season, Thomas moved in with Davis on the other side of town and transferred to Withrow International - one of the best high schools in the city - to try and get academically eligible for college. The decision wasn't easy for Thomas' family.
"We all came to an agreement, just move with him," Thomas said. "Nothing crazy, just basketball reasons. My mom didn't really understand any of that stuff, like how coaches could come visit at your house. ... She'd come to the games and see me, but she was just there to support me. Once I moved with (Davis), she started understanding more."
It was during his junior season that Thomas started getting phone calls from FSU and Leonard Hamilton.
Hamilton made a fast impression on Thomas, enough that he committed to the Seminoles even before his senior season. Hamilton's pitch was effective, and the prospect of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference was important as well - Thomas said he grew up watching big ACC hoops battles in the 2000s.
More importantly, though, Thomas wanted to get as far away from Cincinnati as he could, despite having an offer from the hometown Bearcats.
As Thomas' reputation on the basketball court grew, he said, jealousy followed.
"My main reason was I couldn't stay home," Thomas said. "I had to get out of Cincinnati. I thought that was best for me. It was crazy out there. If you want to survive in the jungle, you've got to be willing to make some sacrifices. I felt like I would have gotten into trouble if I'd have stayed in Cincinnati for college."
But Thomas' transcript from Aiken was still a problem, and even a year at Withrow wasn't enough to clean it up. So Thomas opted for a year at Brewster Academy, a well-known prep school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
The school helped Thomas get his academics in order, but also provided a culture shock to a kid from inner-city Cincinnati. Wolfeboro is a small, secluded lakeside town known as a vacation spot for the wealthy. The size of the town and the drastic change in demographics forced Thomas to adjust. He was one of the few black students at the school, surrounded by upper-class white students from New England.
Thomas changed how he spoke to blend in. He covered his tattoos as much as possible.
"I'm around these kids whose moms are doctors or brain surgeons, and I was just like, 'Wow!'" Thomas said. "I learned a lot. … There were a lot of good people there. I built a lot of relationships with people."
Thomas also remained committed to FSU during that year and eventually signed with the Seminoles as part of their giant 2012 class. He made an immediate impression on his teammates.
Classmate Montay Brandon encountered Thomas during his first meeting with Hamilton after arriving on campus - in the Seminoles' practice facility, working out.
"My first impression was that he was a hard-working dude," Brandon said.
Thomas quickly developed a reputation as a tireless worker, a good defender, and a quiet person. True to his street-ball roots, he rarely smiled or said much around people he didn't know.
"He definitely was super intense," Brandon said. "He definitely was not smiling. That was out of the question if he didn't know you."
But Thomas opened up to his teammates over time, showcasing a sense of humor and a proclivity for pranks. At first, players never suspected the quiet Thomas of hiding their possessions around the locker room, but now, after two years, it's commonplace for teammates to look to Thomas for a quick joke or sly remark.
Just like in high school, Thomas exploded once he got a chance. As a sophomore last season, Thomas emerged as FSU's leading scorer at 14.5 points per game, as well as the Seminoles' primary on-the-ball defender. He earned All-ACC Honorable Mention and now, he says, he's accepted the moniker of FSU's go-to player for the upcoming season.
"I didn't think I could do what I wanted to on the court," Thomas said. "At this point where I am now, I feel so happy because I worked for where I'm at. I feel like nobody has given it to me. I feel like I've earned it."
And, maybe, Thomas will have occasion to smile.