NISKAYUNA — As his players finished warming up for Tuesday’s season-opening game, James Thomas paced behind his team’s bench, unsure what to do with his hands.
He put them in his pockets. Used them to tug slightly on his beard. Ran them atop his shaved head.
“A lot of nerves,” Thomas explained later. “This is my first head [coaching] job.”
Thomas, of course, is plenty qualified for his new role as head coach of the Schenectady girls’ basketball team. A local hoops legend who helped lead Schenectady to the 1998 state championship before playing high-major college basketball at Texas and in the NBA, Thomas’ prior coaching gig was as an assistant for the Maine Red Claws, a minor-league affiliate of the Boston Celtics.
“So I had to change a lot from that,” Thomas said. “I had to change my outlook, my approach. It’s a big adjustment.”
Thomas is also trying to make a big adjustment to the culture of Schenectady girls’ basketball, a program which has largely struggled since making the Section II Class AA semifinals in 2009. Early in Tuesday’s season-opening game against Niskayuna, Schenectady showed the intensity Thomas wants to make a permanent quality. Schenectady used a tenacious defensive effort to key a 9-8 start in its favor, but trailed 17-11 at the end of the first quarter. As things spiraled out of control in what finished as a 68-30 Suburban Council win for Niskayuna, the Patriots struggled to maintain their focus.
“We have to get stronger mentally,” Thomas said. “The program’s been down for so long and they’re so used to beating themselves up when they miss a shot, a block-out assignment, when the other team scores. So we have to get stronger. This game’s about mental toughness.”
Niskayuna (1-0, 2-1) had more of that Tuesday than Schenectady (0-1, 0-1), but the Silver Warriors also had more talent. The way the Patriots attacked the Silver Warriors early in Tuesday’s game, though, impressed veteran Niskayuna head coach Sarah Neely.
“I thought Schenectady came out so well. You could tell they’re playing much better,” Neely said. “Their intensity was unbelievable and they caught us off-guard with that.”
Schenectady freshman Arayana Young was born several years after Thomas helped lead Schenectady to the 1998 state championship. But his reputation and resume, she said, earned him instant respect with his new team.
“It’s been great,” Young said. “It’s an honor, obviously, because you know he went to Schenectady, and then he traveled everywhere and played in the NBA.”
Thomas played professionally through 2015 as a rugged 6-foot-8 forward, finishing up for a team in Venezuela. In addition to coaching within the Celtics’ organization, he’s also spent time mentoring area post players in past summers.
One of those players is Niskayuna senior Olivia Owens, who will play next season for the University of Maryland. Owens, who scored a game-high 28 points, hugged Thomas before Tuesday’s game.
“He’s been a wonderful mentor to me and he’s such a wonderful person — just as an overall person,” Owens said.
Tuesday night, Thomas’ team had no answer for Owens. He’s looking to develop that, but he also wants to help his players away from the court like how his Schenectady coach — Gary DiNola — did with him and his teammates.
“I love kids and I love to help,” Thomas said. “My main goal is to prepare my young ladies for life after [basketball] — that’s why the mental part is key.”
A healthy cheering section turned out for Thomas’ coaching debut, with many well-wishers coming up to him before and after the game. He appreciated that support, even if it added to the nerves associated with the night.
“But the best is yet to come,” Thomas said. “I wish this game was closer, but we’re going to get there.”
Dix 3-0-7, Jackson 2-0-6, Anderson 2-0-4, Lafountain 1-0-3, Young 3-0-6, Petersen 0-2-2, Holt 1-0-2. Totals: 12-2-30.
Greco 0-2-2, Souky 2-2-7, I. Owens 3-1-7, Black 1-0-2, Prian 5-1-13, Kelly 1-0-2, O’Meally 3-1-7, O. Owens 10-8-28. Totals: 25-15-68.
Schenectady 11 9 4 6 — 30
Niskayuna 17 27 16 8 — 68
Three-point goals: Dix, Jackson 2, Lafountain, Souky, Prian 2.