CHICAGO -- There are days when Deon Thomas wonders where it all went. Days when he actually sits there and tries to figure out how it happened that one moment he was goofing around, watching TV, eating his grandmother's cooking -- and the next moment he was defending himself before the NCAA, at 19 trying to help save his university from basketball extinction.

And all at once, attempting to cope with the idea of becoming a father.

Dominique LaVelle Thomas is 4 1/2 months old. He was born on Aug. 17, right in the middle of a year in which his father barely knew what hit him, one that still isn't over but is, however, getting better all the time.

Thomas currently is the second-leading scorer on the Illinois basketball team, averaging around 17 points and six rebounds per game. Defensively, he has at times in this early season exasperated his coaches with freshman mistakes -- transgressions such as being out of position and getting muscled under the basket. Offensively, more often than not, he merely makes them smile.

"Every day," says Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins, "Deon shows you something different."

Thomas's gifts are those which lesser players may never hope to master. A deftly soft shooting touch. Smooth, often imperceptibly quick, moves to the bucket. An instinct to score and the desire to do so when his team needs it most.

Basketball was never one of his biggest worries. The Conversation That Won't Go Away

Bruce Pearl: "When you went down to the Indiana game, and you talked with Jimmy {Collins} and Jimmy offered you $80,000 and the Blazer, that upset, you didn't it?"

Thomas: "Yeah, somewhat."

Pearl: "Tell me how . . . what your reaction to that was."

Thomas: Nothing, I was just more amazed, you know. . . . You know, I just laughed it off.

It is the conversation Deon Thomas wishes he never had. The conversation -- tape recorded and transcribed by Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl -- which led to the NCAA's investigation of the University of Illinois. The conversation that was eventually deemed insufficient as proof of illicit actions by Collins.

And yet, the conversation, Thomas agrees, that won't seem to go away.

"By that time, by that phone call, I just didn't feel like being bothered anymore," he says. "Maybe I should've said I don't feel like talking, but I was telling him what he wanted to hear, hoping he'd get off the phone."

Thomas says he can't concern himself that some people may never believe that. "I know some people will always wonder," he says, "but I can't worry about what they think because I know the truth."

That knowledge may comfort him now, but it merely frustrated him last winter when the powers that be at Illinois suggested that in the best interest of the basketball program, Thomas sit out his first season. He could practice like any redshirt player, they told him, but he could not play.

"I was torn in half," he says. "One voice was saying, 'Practice because you need it to help you,' and the other voice was saying, 'If they're not going to let you play because of what someone else said, then you don't need it.'"

That attitude has clearly hurt him. Thomas admits he was winded in games and practices at the start of this season and says he still feels the effects of 16 months without organized basketball.

"I know now I should have practiced," he says. "My game would probably be at another level now if I had."

"We all talked to him," Collins says. "The entire staff tried to tell him to use the time to get strong, to stay in shape, to enhance his game. . . . In his mind, he thought he was going to step in and be good anyway, which he has been. But he could have been better."

"His lack of physical strength," Henson predicts, "will affect him the entire year. He can make up for it in the spring, summer and fall. He can catch up. But that will be with him the entire year. He's not going to be nearly as strong as he would've been otherwise. And you never know how that affects the player because if you're physically strong, it can help you psychologically and in a lot of different ways."

He never told his grandmother he wasn't practicing. "When she'd call and ask how practice was going," Thomas says, "I'd say, 'Oh fine.' I knew it would bother her.

"Eventually, I told her, but I'm pretty sure she already knew."Grandmother Gave Thomas Direction

Thomas lived with Bernice McGary, his father's mother, from the time he was 6 months old until he was 7. He returned home at that time to help his mother with his newborn brother but continued to live part-time with McGary until moving in for good again at age 17.

McGary's voice catches when she speaks of her grandson. It is clear, through her words and his, that it was she who kept both the child and young man in line.

"More than anything," he says, "she taught me respect. She taught me if you can't respect others, you can't respect yourself."

Deon's brother, Derrick, now 23, kept him clear of gang activity. "Derrick wouldn't let me get involved," Thomas explains. "Basically, I knew if I did, he'd beat me up."

His grandmother worked on keeping him honest. "Deon keeps a lot of things inside of him," McGary says. "But I always told him ever since he was small, 'Don't ever be afraid to come talk to me, no matter what time, no matter what it is.' "

It is for this reason, she says, that she never doubted her grandson's word about the events surrounding the NCAA investigation.

"I asked him, did he do anything wrong and he said, 'No,' " McGary recalls. "I said, 'If you did, you have to tell me because it's going to come out sooner or later, then I'll be hurt you didn't tell me first.' "Striving to Be Role Model

It took Thomas seven months to tell his grandmother and the rest of his family about his girlfriend's pregnancy.

"I wasn't sure how they'd react," he says. "I was scared. Finally, Coach Collins told me I absolutely had to, that night, no more waiting.

"They reacted a lot better than I thought."

His voice changes when he talks about his infant son. "I knew I had a baby, but it sort of hit me later that I wasn't living for myself anymore," he says. "I had to be a role model now. I had to help give my son the best upbringing possible."

The baby lives with his mother and her family in Chicago. Thomas' grandmother helps out. The couple never married and are no longer together. But they have a good relationship, according to Thomas, and he sees his son as much as he can.

"I didn't have a family around me all the time," he says of his son. "I just want loving faces around him."

"I think you can look at everything that has happened to Deon this year in a positive manner," says Collins, a close confidant during the investigation.

"He's a more positive person, more determined, wiser, and it's better that it came now at a young age than wait until he goes to the NBA, where you make great sums of money and are then struck down. The guys that go that distance then take a fall, take a really hard fall."

Thomas admits to being more wary of strangers and friends alike. It was Pearl who tape recorded the phone conversation without his permission. But it was a Simeon High classmate, a friend, who aided Pearl and, Thomas believes, told lies about him to the NCAA in order to profit himself.

"I wouldn't call it mistrust, but I am more guarded now," Thomas says. "I try to pick out the people I want to befriend. I can't jump into trust anymore.

"I look at things now from a grown-up point of view rather than a teen-ager's, which is how I'm supposed to look at it. I'm only 19. . . . Sometimes I just feel like I'm 35."