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It’s like something out of a movie. It all started in early March, when Norman Carmichael, the legendary FC Barcelona basketball centre and captain (1968-1978), received a phone call as he was driving his family to his home in Northwood, near Dallas. “It was Charles’ nurse calling to say that he was alive and wanted to talk to me. She told me he’d been living for the last five years in an old people’s home in Amarillo (Texas). I told my wife that I thought it was a sick joke. Charles had been dead for years.”
It was a shock. For his ex-wife Linda, his sons Carlos and Mat, nobody had heard from him for forty years. And for Norman Carmichael and other friends he’s had at FC Barcelona and other teams in Spain (Sant Josep and Manresa), and for everyone who had heard of the 2.01 metre centre who made up for his lack of stature with a most unorthodox jumping style for the era. He was presumed dead although nobody knew the cause. Maybe shot in a gang dispute, stabbed in the street, an overdose… But no, Charles Ray Thomas was alive, 74 years old, and missing both legs, amputated due to poor living. And now he had decided to be born again.
“I couldn’t believe it when I spoke to him, I thought it was somebody pretending to be Charles, but I could see he knew things that only he could know. We spoke for about ten minutes before I said I had to hang up, because I had to ring his son Carlos.”
Family in shock
Carlitos, as he was known in Spain and who was just ten when Charles disappeared, was in a state of shock when Carmichael told him that he had just been speaking to his father. “Carlos is a good kid. We have kept in touch ever since and speak twice a month. Now he’s trying to come to terms with all this … It’s very strange when you assumed your father was dead and suddenly he’s alive again! I haven’t spoken to Linda … Charles abandoned them. I can forgive him because he’s my friend, but my reaction was different to his family’s.”
I thought it was somebody pretending to be Charles, but I could see he knew things that only he could know.“ Norman Carmichael
Norman felt like turning the car around and driving the five or six hours to get to Amarillo, but “I have a responsibility to my family and what with Covid. Now I have been vaccinated so I can go see him. I have so much to ask him! But face to face, not on the phone.” He plans to travel on April 14 and is counting down the days. “For ages I’ve dreamed of bumping into my old friend in the street. Now the dream is coming true!”
Thousands of miles away in Barcelona, plenty of people were stunned to see Carmichael’s Facebook post once he was convinced that Charles Thomas was indeed alive. “It was all thanks to the nurses, who did the impossible to find me, get my phone number and track me down online.”
Manolo Flores, vice-president of Barça’s Basketball Veterans Association, says that “his son Carlos sent me a message a long time ago to say that his father was dead.” Flores is now in contact with Carmichael and discussing what to do about their reborn friend. “Charles is in a public residence and Norman says he’s fine, Sending him money could be damaging, because he could lose his state aid. We have to help him emotionally, to rebuild his self-esteem and remind him of the time he played basketball.”
Charles Thomas, en el Palau Blaugrana.
Looking back on his time with Thomas, Flores says “I was young but had a good relationship with him and his family. Charles learned Spanish very quickly. He wasn’t much of a talker but he picked up sentences. But his wife Linda was very sociable. I was in touch with her for a while.” Aíto García Reneses played alongside Charles Thomas at Barça and remembers “a very special player. He has such a strange but powerful jumping style. Then came the problems, I retired from playing and he was at Barça for a few months after that. Years later, his wife Linda wrote to me. I had a website and email address long before most people did, and she contacted me. She always avoids mentioning Charles, so I never brought up the subject either because we assumed he was dead. She was more interested in life in Barcelona.”
I wasn’t sure if it was true at first. I am so happy that he is still alive“ Aíto García Reneses
The current coach of Alba Berlin adds that “the news of his reappearance after so many years was a huge surprise. I wasn’t sure if it was true at first. I am so happy that he is still alive after all that has happened and that he can get to meet his granddaughter.”
Adolfo Sada, father of former Barça captain Víctor Sada was also once a colleague of Thomas’ at Barça. Now a traumatologist, he remembers the day of his injury very well. “I was studying medicine at Vall d’Hebrón at the time. It was a game away to Real Madrid. He did one of his jumps, I think Luyk was marking him, and he landed bang on his knee, destroying his kneecap. It was in bits. It was an awful injury and medicine wasn’t as advanced back then as it is now.”
Xabier Añua was head coach at Barça when Thomas came to the club. Now 86, he remembers that “when I came to Barça in 1968 I had just spent a year in the US at the Knicks. In 1971 we opened the Palau Blaugrana and Ciurana wanted a championship winning team. So he got us Thomas. He was the star at Sant Josep, but wasn’t fitting in to a team made up basically of Catalans only. In 1971/72 we finished second with Thomas and Carmichael, but back then Madrid were unbeatable.”
Charles Thomas, at the official photo shoot for the 1971/72 season.
“Thomas had come from a small college, where he was the star. He was a bit big headed, and didn’t put much effort into training. The Barça I wanted wasn’t about Charly Thomas, but he was a good lad, like a grown up child. To motivate him I’d tell the players to ‘pass the ball to Charly, he’ll put it in the hoop’. I think the injury was a massive psychological blow for him. From being the best jumper he couldn’t leave the ground … He lost his mind.”
Descent into hell
Thomas came to the Spanish league in 1968, from Sant Josep, having played for the Golden Eagles (California State University). He was in Badalona for two seasons (1968-69 and 1969-70), and top scorer in the competition, and when the club’s director Ramon Ciurana took over the basketball section at Barça in 1970, he wanted to bring Thomas with him. But he had to wait to be granted nationality as after Madrid had done so for Clifford Luyk and Wayne Brabender, the Spanish Federation closed applications for the 1970/71 season.
So although Thomas signed for Barça, he couldn’t play for the team until 1972/73 and was only at the club until 1974/75, which was when he and Carmichael became firm friends.
In November 74, Charles Thomas’s life changed forever and his descent into hell began. Against Real Madrid, Thomas leapt in defence against Luyk and fell to the ground, destroying his kneecap. Barça loaned him to Manresa, but he was never the same player again. That injury ended his career and turned his life into something totally different.
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