COLLEGE PARK — Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas practically had to shove a basketball into the hands of her young daughter, Alyssa.
"Oh, she threw a hissy fit, kicking, screaming crying," recalls the mother, thinking back on her daughter's reluctance to give up soccer for the sport she'd one day master.
Alyssa Thomas didn't like being thrust into new, uncomfortable situations. As late as an overnight recruiting visit to Maryland when she was a teenager, she clung to her parents rather than bunk with future teammates.
But her mother, a hyper-competitive former college forward, knew what she was doing. As reluctant as Thomas could be off the court, she quickly grew into a multi-talented predator on it — a "Lady LeBron" in the words of teammates and analysts. Now in her senior season at Maryland, she is arguably the greatest player in the history of a star-laden program.
Terps coach Brenda Frese saw that possibility the first time she watched Thomas run lay-up lines before an Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Baltimore.
"We knew we had to have her," Frese says, remembering the rare blend of physical force and basketball skill. "You knew All-American. You knew difference maker. You knew some day, she could have her name and number up in the rafters."
Basketball has acted as a remarkable binding agent in Thomas' world. Her parents met and bonded through the game. She grew up battling her brother, Devin, who now stars at Wake Forest, in countless driveway games of one-on-one. Her devotion to team as a second family steered her to Maryland.
Perhaps most importantly, basketball offered a means of expression for an otherwise painfully shy girl.
"People say when I'm on the court, I'm a different person," Thomas says. "Off the court, I'm shy, reserved. I only open up to a few close people around me. But when I'm on the court, there's no shyness."
Her accolades — including two-time ACC Player of the Year — convey how great a force she is. They do not tell the entire story of her evolution.
It has taken four years, but Thomas seems comfortable as the leader, not just the best player, of a Maryland team with designs on a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Though still no yapper, she's the last word when the Terps need a course correction.
"She's the one who gets at us if we're not doing what we're supposed to do," says redshirt junior Laurin Mincy, Thomas' roommate for four years.
'You've got to go fight'
Thomas really was born into the game. Her mother and father, Bobby, both played Division II ball at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Mom was a rugged rebounder, dad a thoroughbred who could dunk from the free-throw line. They used to rise at 7 a.m. so they could get to a nearby park for the day's first games.
They played one-on-one too, with Tina telling her future husband, "I will hack the heck out of you if you ever try to dunk on me."
"If you guys ever have kids," one of Bobby's teammates told them, "I want to coach them."
The couple settled in Harrisburg, Pa. and raised a family in which competition seemed the chief currency.
"You had to earn every win," Thomas says with an amused expression.
Even in a game of Chutes and Ladders, the parents gave no quarter. "You've got to go fight," Tina told her children. "You've got to go figure it out. Life's not that easy."
Thomas' mother laughs, describing her insatiable need to win. She teaches social studies to fifth- and sixth-graders and if there's a door-decorating contest at the school, she'll spend weeks scheming up the best design.
"My co-workers tell me I'm ridiculous," she says. "And I am."
Thomas laughs about it as well, but it's clear from her friends' descriptions that the ferocity passed from mother to daughter. As an All-American, she probably doesn't have to win every practice sprint to remain in Frese's good graces. Nonetheless, there she was on a recent afternoon at Comcast Center, bolting ahead of her teammates.
Thomas' inner fire also showed up in her relationship with Devin, two years her junior. The siblings played every game imaginable around the family home and at the nearby Friendship Center. Onlookers thought they were twins because Devin — now 6-foot-9, 245 pounds — was so large for his age.
"He was bigger than me but a lot slower," Thomas says. "So I would use my quickness on him, and he'd get frustrated."
They went at it so hard that some games ended in blows. The squabbles got bad enough that they finally stopped playing each other as Thomas entered high school.
Younger sister Alexia, now 12, avoided those fierce intra-family games but now faces the prospect of living up to not one, but two all-state siblings.