Lisa Thomas thought her basketball days were over.
For 19 years, the Cedars-Sinai laboratory investigator of inflammatory bowel disorders and immunobiology concentrated on studying the human microbiome—the ecosystem of microorganisms, bacteria, fungi and viruses that naturally live within the human gut. Her glory days as a forward and center for collegiate and professional teams were behind her.
And then she got a phone call that returned her to the hardwood courts of her youth. On June 9, Thomas will be one of 96 players from the now-defunct Women’s Professional Basketball League to be inducted as “Trailblazers” into The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It’s a dream come true,” Thomas said. “It’s an incredible feeling to be recognized as Trailblazers and to know that we haven’t been forgotten.”
In 1975, after Thomas played the forward and center positions for her high school basketball team, she earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she excelled in basketball and tennis. Her collegiate basketball career resulted in several scoring and rebounding records.
“Most of my records have been broken by the women players who came after me,” said Thomas, who stands at 6’3”. “The most points I scored were 42 points in a game and 36 rebounds in a game, which were both records.”
After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Thomas was the seventh pick in the draft for the Women’s Professional Basketball League and played for two years with the Chicago Hustle.
When the league folded, Thomas taught tennis for a while and eventually decided to go back to school.
“I always was into science,” Thomas said. “After my basketball career, I still had a love for science and decided thIs is what I wanted to do.”
Basketball’s loss was science’s gain, said Stephan Targan, MD, who runs the F. Widjaja Foundation Inflammatory Bowel and Immunobiology Research Institute at Cedars-Sinai, where Thomas works.
“Science is a team sport just like basketball, and we are fortunate to have Lisa on our side now,” Targan said. “It takes a team to advance our understanding of diseases and create new treatments for patients.”
Still, Thomas is looking forward to taking a break from the lab to attend the induction in Knoxville, Tennessee, and catch up with her teammates—some of whom she hasn’t seen in more than 30 years.
Thomas is happy that today’s U.S. women’s professional basketball league, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), is succeeding and that there is a fan base for the sport that didn’t exist when she was playing.
“We weren’t paid a lot,” she said. “We just played because we loved the game.”
She tries to convey that message to every girl she meets.
“I always encourage young girls to start playing sports. It gives you confidence,” she said. “It gives girls a very positive body image, and you learn how to make decisions and trust yourself. Sports is always a great life lesson. You can translate what you learn in sports to life.”