Stefeni Thomas doesn't spell her name Stephanie "because my father wanted me to be different."
So far, Stefeni has upheld her father's expectations, especially with her excellent performance on Wilson High School's girls basketball team.
Thomas, a 5-foot-10 junior forward, averages 17 points, 12 rebounds and four assists per game for the Tigers, who were 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the Interhigh heading into yesterday's game against H.D. Woodson, the nation's top-ranked girls team.
But aside from her impressive statistics, what also makes Thomas different is the unusual past of her father, who did something that many people idolize for its authenticity.
Willis Thomas played with the Harlem Globetrotters.
"Oh, that's been so long ago I've almost forgotten," said Thomas, who joined the team after leaving Tennessee State, which had produced many of the original Globetrotters, including Tommy Gibson, Boyd Bowie, Josh Grider and Clarence Wilson.
In 1954, Thomas began playing with possibly the most renowned Trotter, Meadowlark Lemon. Thomas played with the Globetrotters until 1963.
"The first three or four years you couldn't beat it," said Thomas, who is now the acting athletic director at the University of the District of Columbia. "But, I told myself if I ever got married, I'd quit the road. One summer, I got married and never went back."
Since then, he has had three children, including Stefeni and her brother Willis Jr., both of whom have continued their father's athletic legacy. Willis Jr. played on a high school state champion basketball team in Kentucky. Stefeni is rolling along at Wilson and, although her father takes a low-keyed approach to his Globetrotters past, she likes to keep tabs on his glory days.
"Not many have done that," she said. "I'm happy about it. I keep all the books he was in with the Globetrotters. All the pictures are of him going to the basket. Back then, it was more basketball. Now it's more of a show."
Stefeni can judge the Globetrotters' showmanship because she goes with her father to see them whenever they come to town. It's almost impossible not enjoy the Harlem Globetrotters, but every year watching can be a little different for Stefeni's father since "most of them he knows real well are now gone." Among his former teammates no longer with the Globetrotters are players such as Curly Neal and Gator Rivers.
"I'm through with that. It's historic," said Willis Thomas.
When the opportunities come, Stefeni often plays against her father. However, with her Interhigh schedule sometimes calling for three games a week, her time is now somewhat limited. "I have so many games, I have to use the weekends to read," she said. "But when the pace slows down, we'll get back to the gym."
And when they get back to the gym, Willis Thomas will continue to show his daughter "those fundamental things that might give her an advantage."
"He plays against me a lot," she said. "Once he blocked my shot and I was surprised. He teaches me a lot of little stuff you might be able to get by with at your advantage."
She said she'll probably decide on a college by the middle of next year. "I think she'll be ready next year," her father said. "Right now, she's just having fun and working on her academics. Next year, it'll be a little more work. This year, she's having a ball. And I have plenty of fun when I watch."