Knicks’ Lance Thomas is in a League of His Own
BROOKLYN -- NBA players generally look to the offseason as a recess from the daily grind of the league. No more scouting opponents or two-a-days into a game the next day.
For the New York Knicks’ Lance Thomas, down time from one physically exhausting, uber competitive endeavor just means more room for another. Another team, another round of opposition, another morning waking up to a sore everything.
Only he’s not out on the court, where he’s established himself as a seasoned defender and reliable veteran over a seven-year NBA career. When Lance isn’t scrapping with the Knicks, he’s snatching up New York fish.
“I love to compete,” Lance tells CloseUp360 at The Craftsman restaurant in New York City this offseason. “When I'm not playing basketball, I have to do something that's competitive. My lifestyle's competitive, always has been. Once my season's over, I still have that competitive fire, that competitive nature in me. I can't help that. Fishing was fun before. It was more of like a relaxing thing, but now it's competitive.”
New York Knicks forward Lance Thomas at The Craftsman restaurant in New York City. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Lance may be the most devoted deep sea fisherman in all of major North American pro sports. But he never saw himself on a custom-built, 40-foot catamaran deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. When he was growing up in Brooklyn and then New Jersey, he and his companions were far from outdoorsy.
Lance only noticed fishing when he saw locals immersed it in on the pier. When Kenjuan Nichols—who became a close friend of Lance’s at Duke University—took him out fishing in Falls Lake, North Carolina, Lance wouldn’t the touch the bait, let alone a fish. With more trips to the area’s surrounding lakes, he began to feel an itch.
“Just evolved, kept growing,” Lance says. “It's just an amazing, amazing thing. I like just being out there. I like the sound of the water. I love the challenge of getting the fish to bite.”
Lance and his buddies were just going after small-game fish—croaker, flounder, whatever they could find. Once he graduated from the D-League (now the G League) to the NBA by way of the New Orleans Hornets in 2012, he and his friends took a trolly down to Venice, Louisiana, for a day. They went out to deeper waters in the Gulf, and he returned with a 107-and-a-half pound tuna.
It wasn’t just the monstrous fish that got hooked.
“I couldn't stop going after that,” he says. “It was pretty much like fighting against a car. It felt like I was holding on while a Porsche was going 60 miles an hour the opposite way… I fought the fish hard—my hands were cramping up, my body was locking up—but it was amazing.”
Lance fishes off the coast of New York City. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Lance found himself attached to deep sea fishing—also known as big game or sport fishing—for its competitive nature. He and his boatmates would talk trash to each other. The person who caught the smallest fish by the end of the day would have to clean the boat. They’d take on other boats near them, trying to come away with the largest trophy—much to the dismay of seasoned fisherman basking in the shadow of a 6’8” professional hooper.
When Lance had nothing to show for a day out at sea, he refused to quit. He once covered 90 miles during a 10-hour trip—just to avoid leaving empty-handed. He even bought into longtime traditions, such as taking a bite out of the heart of his first yellowfin tuna, and getting thrown into the ocean after catching his first blue marlin.
Even when Lance isn’t indulging in gross rituals, his forays at sea leave him as mentally and physically exhausted as double overtime against the Golden State Warriors would.
“These fish can tear you up, especially big marlin, big tuna—these things are massively strong,” he says. “There’s just a lot of preparation, but in the end, the goal is to be the best and to win.”
To win, Lance had to compete in tournaments against folks who have been fishing offshore for decades.
Over the years, under the blistering Louisiana sun, he and his ever-growing crew of friends and enthusiasts formed a comradery, and a vision to come out on top.
Two years ago, they set off to form the Slangmagic Fishing Team. Lance first heard the name in a song by the Outsidaz, an underground rap group based in Newark, where he attended St. Benedict's Prep. He used it for his screen names in his formative years, and has since cast it as his unique brand in tournaments.
But Lance had more than a name; he also had a crew.
Red, the old-timey fisherman who has a rich chest of stories—though only told with a beer in hand and an almost intelligible Southern accent. John, the Mississippi native who came to fish in his Jesus sneakers. Jared, the hardcore enthusiast who doesn’t sleep during tournaments. Lance even got his girlfriend, Anna, to join after selling her on the fun of being at sea.
“We got guys from New Orleans, North Carolina, Mississippi, New York. We have a very diverse group and everyone has a common theme: they just love fishing,” Lance says. “When you're out on the boat in the middle of the ocean, you don't have your cell signal, you're there with who you're with. Somebody annoys you, you're gonna know really soon.”
Next came the ship, which is also called Slangmagic. Fully customized by Lance himself—with #trustyourwork printed on the stern—the 40-foot catamaran has a custom JL Audio system, which includes 26 speakers and four subwoofers, satellite TV for the long treks to nowhere (sometimes 100 miles out) and a custom air conditioning setup in the cabin for comfort. For power, there are four Mercury 350-horsepower outboard motors—which Lance once pushed to 74 miles per hour—with a “Slangmagic” paint job. And for performance, there are four custom-built tuna tubes to keep live bait for tournaments, underwater lights and a near five-figure GPS system.
“I’m so happy with it,” he says.
Lance's fishing competitions begin the same way his basketball games do: with a lot of preparation.
Like any competition, the setbacks can be daunting and the successes hard-earned. Some days, the sun is scorching with little wind to offset the heat. Other times, it is a grind just to catch bait, let alone get fish to bite.
“The worst thing is when somebody catches a fish right next to you and that happened with us in our last tournament,” Lance says. “The winning fish was caught right next to us, within 50 yards of where we were. It rolled on our bait, and went to the next boat and bit their bait, so that was very frustrating.”
Just like that, Slangmagic lost out on $700,000.
With the tough times come memories, and a fisherman is only as good as his tales. Lance has plenty of them.
A CloseUp Look at Slangmagic
Lance poses in front of his boat, Slangmagic, in Brooklyn.
26 speakers and subwoofers from JL Audio line the inside of the boat.
The navigation console, which includes satellite TV.
The four Mercury 350-horsepower outboard motors.
The Slangmagic logo and zebra pattern on the top were both customized.
Tuna tubes with the Slangmagic logo.
(Photos by Amir Ebrahimi)
One storm threatened to block his way home after his friends implored him to let them stay a bit longer than they should have. Once the clouds descended, the temperature followed, along with crashing waves and lightning striking the water within yards of the boat. He told the group to strap in and full-throttled it to shore through complete darkness, using just the electronics on board to thread a narrow lane to safety.
Another moment made it onto Lance’s Instagram. As he caught an eel, a mako shark bit it as it surfaced, only for the eel to spin around and attack it right back.
“Mother nature’s unpredictable. Everything happens,” he says. “They’re happening in 10 seconds, 15 seconds, sometimes shorter than that. That whole episode with the mako was less than 10 seconds, if that. I’ve seen big rays jumping out the water and coming towards the boat. I’ve seen flying fish fly towards my boat, and I had a tuna go for one and actually hit the side of my boat and kill itself.”
Lance has seen a lot treading the south coast from Texas to Florida, as well as up north by New York, where he just moved his boat this summer. He still dreams of winning a big tournament, but is finding other ways to move his fishing endeavor forward. After taking the “Crossover Into Business” program this summer between the NBA and Harvard Business School, he began selling branded apparel and fishing equipment in mid-October at slangmagic.com.
“I have mentors that we kept in contact with and I asked a lot of questions,” Lance says of the HBS class. “I plan on doing it again because of the connections and the experience. It was just an amazing thing, I learned a lot and I'm gonna be applying a lot of that stuff to my plan.”
He also plans to use this new world he’s immersed himself in to reach out to urban youth.
“This was something that wasn't offered to me at a young age,” he says. “I found it as an adult, but what it does for me is give me a lot of tranquility. It’s my happy place and a lot of people don't know what that is for them yet… There are other ways people cope with stuff like that and it's not always the best. It might be alcohol, it might be drugs, but we want to make sure we provide the youth with a different alternative to find a way to get away.”
Lance captains his boat in his Slangmagic t-shirt. (Amir Ebrahimi)
Many of these kids have not entertained the idea of heading to sea in pursuit of fresh game. But once upon a time, Lance didn’t either. It was his competitive fire that brought him out there.
The adrenaline of a successful bait and hook, good times with his buddies and incandescent oil rigs lighting up the pitch black horizon kept him aboard. But even with hundreds of hours spent gazing at the ocean’s reflection of him with little to do but think, he is still amazed at where this journey has brought him.
“My family, my friends still don't believe it,” Lance says. “They're, like, ‘Alright, when are you eventually gonna stop doing that?' I'm, like, 'I don't see when I'm gonna stop.’”
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be doing it,” he adds. “It's still surreal sometimes when I'm looking through footage, I'm, like, 'I really did that. That's me on that boat. That's me reeling in that fish, that's me holding this massive fish.' It's just surreal.”
David Vertsberger is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.