For Black History Month, we looked within our own front office and uncovered the inspiring story of longtime team manager and basketball scout Thomas Archie.
There’s a cubicle against the back wall in the Los Angeles Sparks open-concept office. No photos or collectibles decorate the space, but there’s an iPad, laptop and a cup of tea on the desk with a paper nameplate balancing on the cubicle divider that show you it’s occupied.
This is where Thomas Archie, LA Sparks team manager and basketball scout, has invested hours upon hours in collegiate and professional women’s basketball games on his ever-evolving and never-ending journey to leave no stone unturned. His search centers on potential players that may find their way to the Sparks roster in 2017, or as far away as 2020.
This effort isn’t locked into a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. time block. Archie, who has been with the Sparks since they launched with the WNBA in 1997, has evolved his work into his hobby. After handling odd and ends in his first two seasons with the team, he was promoted to team manager in 2001 and added scouting to his responsibilities shortly thereafter at the request of General Manager Penny Toler, who like Thomas, has been a part of the franchise since the very beginning.
“I still remember when Penny transitioned from player to general manager and asked me to be a scout,” says Archie as he smiles in reflection. “My eyes lit up and before I knew it ‘Oh yeah!’ came out of my mouth.
The road to this dream job began years ago and nearly 2,000 miles away in the deep south of Jackson, Mississippi during a time when civil rights were at top of mind daily. Thomas wasn’t fully aware of what he was living through at the time, but when he began the second grade, he and other black kids were some of the first in the city to go through school desegregation, which included busing from their neighborhood all the way across town to a white-only school.
This initiative, which was delayed time and again in Jackson due to white resentment, along with fear from the black community, was one piece of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1970 to abolish the state’s dual school system that kept white and black students separated.
“The thing that really stood out to me was that all the kids getting off the bus were black, but the white kids were all getting out of cars,” said Archie, rewinding his memory back to age seven.
For his parents, this was exactly the kind of evolution they knew would eventually arrive. Thomas recalls a story that his grandmother on his dad’s side told him about the family being descendants of slaves.
“She always stressed to never forget that.”
And then the advice reached even further.
“My grandparents and parents always were telling me to stay focused and that things would be better for me. That was a line I’d hear time and again… ‘Things would be better for me.’”
Thomas’ grandfather on his dad’s side worked in the Jackson hospital laundry room and retired there. His grandmother, who told him about the family descending from slaves, served as a maid for one well-to-do white family her entire life. As his parents grew up and found work, they found themselves in the thick of the 1960’s civil rights movement in Jackson during sit-ins that often turned violent.
“They were hosed down. Sometimes there were even dogs released on them.”
To increase job opportunities and provide a better future, his parents moved the family from Jackson to Inglewood, California. Thomas was only eight at the time, but it was there in South Los Angeles where he’d soon develop a passion for basketball despite a self-described lack of elite playing skills.
By the time he attended Verbum Dei High School, his passion for the game grew into love.
“I remember watching a Lakers playoff game on TV at my friends house when I was a teenager. They were down 27 points at halftime to Seattle and came back to win. I was a fan ever since.”
Soon thereafter, the love grabbed hold of his heart when he made his way to a Lakers NBA Championship Celebration at the Forum. He didn’t have the money to get in, but he wiggled his way through the lines and snuck through the entrance. When he reflects back now, he can still vividly picture it all in his head, as evidence by the breaks in his words.
“The energy inside… seeing Magic, James Worthy… and everyone else,” Thomas’ eyes close briefly and open back up, while a grin stretches wide across his face. “I’ll never forget that feeling I had.
He eventually was able to turn his love for the game into a job opportunity with the Lakers when their physical therapist offered him an internship in 1995.
“I was a gopher. I was the kid that did all the things others didn’t want to do, and then some.”
That type of effort and dedication led to him being asked to return for a second season. He grew to know the Forum building and its staff so well that when the WNBA started up in 1997, there was few better qualified individuals to be selected for the LA Sparks’ initial staff.
As his responsibilities with the organization increased from intern to assistant to team manager, it was conversations on team road trips with then-Sparks head coach Michael Cooper (1999-2004, 07-09) that led to the development of his scouting acumen.
“Him and I would sit in the airport and talk through our game, other games we had seen on TV, and we’d both share our opinions freely.”
Conversations grew so deep that they became something both guys looked forward to on every road trip. The bond Thomas created with coach, as well as General Manager Penny Toler, increased the trust within the basketball operations side to add scouting to his duties. As Michael moved on from the Sparks, Thomas remained, and has now worked with Penny for over 20 years in the organization.
If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed with the Sparks in those 20+ years, it is the competitive fire.
“It’s the trait I’ve always admired in Penny. She had a high-level of competitiveness as a player and it’s the same in her role now as GM. Winning is the upmost important thing to her, and it’s mine, too.”
What has changed though, is the WNBA game from 1997 to now. Thomas mentions the skill level has taken off tremendously throughout the league since the late 90s and lists the Sparks’ Candace Parker and Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne as examples.
“Back when the league started, you mainly had players that only played one position. You were only a guard, or a forward, or a center. Now you have athletes like Candace and Elena, who can play every position one through five. Their explosiveness is easy to spot right away when watching a game.”
What hasn’t changed much is what the WNBA doesn’t have much of: Dunks.
“Take out the dunk,” he answers quickly when the word gets introduced. “Yeah it can be exciting, but it’s still only going to get you two points.
He follows it up by stressing that the WNBA is a truer version of complete basketball as opposed to the NBA.
There’s more passing in the women’s game and play calls run through all of their progressions and options. The men’s game, he says, is a lot of “one on one.” A play starts, but rarely ever fully develops all of its options.
The little intricacies of the women’s game are what he remains so energized by, even after two-plus decades of working within it. The constant e-mails he receives from players, parents, and coaches asking for him to consider so-and-so don’t ever drain him. He responds to each one, often asking them for four specific things.
“I never want a highlight reel, ever. I want full games and there are four specifically: A close win, blowout win, close loss, and a blowout loss. I want to see how a player handles those four situations. It’s very telling.”
Consuming all of this video day in and day out, year in and year out, certainly can take its toll, but Thomas seems immune to getting swallowed up by the grind. He uses the word “fun” over and over again when questions come up about how much of his time he routinely commits to scouting on an annual basis, and if you could hear his voice, you’d easily believe him.
That outlook, in large part, can be connected to the exact life lessons his grandparents and parents taught him.
Stay focused. Do the best you can. Represent yourself accordingly.
Those phrases aren’t written or framed anywhere in his cubicle, but they surely don’t need to be. They’re ingrained in his memory and are the motivating force for him every day.
His grandparents would surely be proud of the man Thomas has become.