“Disbelief” was Jim Thomas’s reaction upon learning he was selected for the Robeson County Sports Hall of Fame.
Thomas and six others were inducted on April 17 in ceremonies in the Angel Exchange at COMtech. Timmy Worley, Taft Wright, Pat Townsend Willoughby, Kelvin Sampson, Dick Taylor, Lenwood Graham and Thomas comprised the third class of the hall.
As Abdul Ghaffar (UNCP class of 1991), chair of the board of directors, said: “These are role models; these are the people who made us proud with their athletic accomplishments and their life accomplishment.”
Thomas was the only person in the building who was surprised at his selection. On the way to the induction, guests drove past the offices of the Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship, UNCP’s business development outreach that Thomas has funded.
He is an attorney and successful Los Angeles real estate developer, credited with changing that city’s skyline. At age 16, Thomas and his family left Pembroke, a place that keeps drawing him back. His philanthropy at UNCP includes a distinguished professorship in entrepreneurship, a scholarship that honors his parents and contributions to the basketball program.
Basketball is another defining element for Thomas, who was a basketball player at Pembroke High School and Catawba College. But it was his ownership of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings that interested the gathering on Sunday.
“I’ve never met an owner of a professional sports franchise,” said emcee William Freeman in introducing Thomas. “I’m humbled.”
After the induction, Thomas offered remarks on behalf of the new class. He thanked the Sports Hall of Fame for its work.
“This is very important work that you do to celebrate individuals from Robeson County for their achievements,” Thomas said. “It is a very important thing for a community to celebrate its own and to take pride in itself.”
“It was a real eye opener to see who I was to be inducted with,” he continued. “I had no idea we had so many outstanding people in Robeson County.”
Thomas owned the Kings for nine years and discussed how his “boyhood dream” turned into a nightmare of salary caps, injuries to key players and the reality that “you can trade bad players for good ones.” However, Thomas got some draft choices, made some good trades and a cellar-dwelling team almost became world champions.
“It was a very exciting teams that came very, very close to winning an NBA championship,” Thomas said. And it was the thrill of a lifetime.
Thomas was joined by Kelvin Sampson (class of 1978), whose father, Ned (class of 1958), was in the first class in the Hall of Fame. Sampson’s wife, Karen (class of 1977), accepted for him because he was wrapping up the season as assistant coach of the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA.
Timmy Worley of Lumberton is perhaps the greatest athlete in county history. He was an all-state performer in track and ran the football for Lumberton High School, University of Georgia and Pittsburgh Steelers, who selected him as the seventh pick in the NFL draft.
Pat Townsend Willoughby (class of 1976) was a two-time all-state selection in basketball at Littlefield High School. She coached for 10 years at Parkton and Lumberton. With her husband, Paul (class of 1973) , she started with one McDonald’s restaurant and they now own six. The Press Box in the Mildred Johnson Football Stadium is named for the Willoughbys. They contributed to several scholarships, including the Tunney Brooks Endowed Scholarship, UNCP’s largest in athletics.
Dick Taylor is also well known for his philanthropy. UNCP’s track is named for him and his wife, Lenore. Earlier he was known as one of America’s premier runners and is in UNC’s Track Hall of Fame. He continues to compete, winning more than 200 gold medals in the Senior Games. Taylor will leave UNCP’s Board of Trustees in June and join the UNC Board of Governors.
Lenwood Graham (class of 1978) played on Maxton High School’s legendary teams of the early1970s. He was all-state in football and basketball and won a state championship in track too. He was most valuable player in the state championship basketball game with 36 points He was a standout at UNCP in basketball and track.
The late Taft Wright may have generated more interest than any inductee. This legendary baseball great was brought to the attention of the Hall of Fame by Ed Glover and Neill Thompson of Lumberton. Born in Columbus County and a member of the North Carolina Hall of Fame, Wright batted .311 over 11 year in the Major Leagues. He was on three MVP ballots and batted a league best .359 in his rookie year. Legendary pitcher Bob Feller called him one of the toughest outs in baseball.
Glover and Thompson remember Wright. “He was my mentor, and my father was his agent,” Glover said. “He gave me one of his gloves. Taft was a very nice guy who visited my mother whenever he was in town.”
Thompson saw him play in Chicago for the White Sox against the St. Louis Browns. “We went back in the locker room,” he said. “I still have the baseball that was signed by the entire team. That was one of his last games in the Major Leagues.”
Family members Caroline Staton and Ella Little accepted the award on behalf of the Taft Wright. “He was something else,” Little said, “a lot of fun to be around.”
More than 100 friends and family turned out for a reception followed by the installation. The Hall of Fame is located on the second floor of Angel Exchange. For more information, please contact Abdul Ghaffar at 910.671.7827 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.