By Bob Vazquez, Assistant Athletics Director, Strategic Communications
Northridge, Calif. – Today's CSUN men's basketball story is more about geography and lifestyle than success on the basketball court.
J.J. Thomas, a junior forward on CSUN's 2013-14 basketball team, is one of only four players in the 55-year history of Matador basketball to hail from the state of Louisiana. Thomas was born and raised in Opelousas, La.
Where exactly is Opelousas, La?
At only 7.5 square miles, Opelousas is the most densely populated incorporated city in Louisiana, located at the junction of Interstate 49 and U.S. Route 190 in the lower central section of the state of Louisiana.
Population – 22,860.
Founded in 1720, Opelousas is Louisiana's third oldest city.
Thomas loves the southern environment of Louisiana – the people, the food, the music, the life style.
"Welcome to Opelousas," says Thomas. "We like to call it a city but it's a small, southern, country town, It's a place where you can chill."
Most of Opelousas is an economically challenged area in the south where the summer months can be very hot and humid. Carving out a living can be tough for many residents in this Louisiana town, but Thomas loves the small town pace where he was born and raised.
"When you're a young kid, you don't know anything else," says Thomas. "You just enjoy life playing with your friends."
Thomas proudly says Opelousas is known as "the spice capital of the world" and the center of Zydeco music.
Zydeco music fuses old Creole music with blues, and rhythm and blues. This uniquely different sound was born in Opelousas, according to Thomas. Typical instruments in this up-tempo music include the accordion, vest frottoir (rub board), harmonica, drums, guitar, bass guitar, Cajun fiddle, and of course, a wash board.
"When you hear Zydeco music, you just want to dance," said Thomas, who admits he likes to see his family and friends dance to the unique music, but he needs a few lessons. Upcoming Zydeco concerts in Opelousas include Grammy winner Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band, Rusty Metoyer & Zydeco Krush, Louisiana Red, and Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble.
What more could you ask for?
"Southern people are warm and friendly, especially if they know if you are from a far away place like California," said Thomas. "We don't have the beach like California, but we manage. People from the South want to make you feel at home. They will even cook for you."
Economic times can be harsh, but Thomas says there is always something happening in Opelousas including the upcoming Lousiana Yambillee (Sweet Potato) Festival, Zydeco Breakfast Under the Oaks, Mardi Gras, and the Opelousas Spice & Music Festival.
The city calls itself the spice capital of the world with production and sale of seasonings such as Tony Chachere's products (available in California), Targil Seasonings, Savoie's Cajun meats and LouAna Cooking Oil.
Thomas likes to cook so he has brought his culinary and basketball talents to the West Coast. His dinner dishes include crawfish etouiffee, jambalaya, shrimp creole and gumbo.
"There are a few Cajun restaurants in California, but they are very hard to find," said Thomas, who admits he is a good cook thanks to his mother and grandmother. "My mom's food is a little more spicy than my grandmother's food. My grandmother can't have the real spicy foods because of her age."
Southern meals that Thomas recently cooked included smothered pork chops, collard greens and corn bread. And don't forget dessert; Sweet potato pie, peach cobbler and bread pudding are at the top of Thomas' list.
But the key to good Southern food, according to Thomas, is the creole seasoning. Hot and Spicy.
"When Shaquille O'Neal played at LSU (in nearby Baton Rogue), he used to drive down to Opelousas for the food," according to Thomas.
Thomas started playing basketball as a youngster thanks to his Mom who was an excellent player. Thomas originally loved to play baseball (played first base and rooted for the White Sox) growing up in Opelousas. But his Mom's wishes influenced Thomas to stick entirely with basketball. His 24.5 points and 14.5 rebounds per game average at Scotlandville High School (near Baton Rogue) led to a scholarship offer at nearby Louisiana Lafeyette University (only 15 minutes away from Opelousas, La) where he played two seasons. During his freshman season (2010-11), Thomas led the team in scoring (11.3 ppg) to become the first UL freshman in ten years to garner Big Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors.
After a productive sophomore season, Thomas decided to transfer to another school. Cal State Northridge recruited Thomas and a younger brother, Cleveland 'Pancake' Jr. Thomas had never visited the state of California, but he headed west to a new environment. "Pancake" moved to Albuquerque to play at the University of New Mexico.
"I had read about California, but I never thought to much about moving or living here," said Thomas, who says he is the first family member to move to California. "Once I moved west to California, I liked it. This has been a cool experience."
Thomas says he enjoys California, especially the food. "I really love authentic Mexican food," said Thomas without reservation. "At first, it was just quesadillas. Then I discovered enchiladas, tacos and tamales. I love California burritos with french fries."
Thomas' future plans include staying in California after his playing days are over, "to better myself and then return home to Louisiana to help other people in the community. I would like to work for a non-profit organization."
Matador Memo ...
In the 55-year history of Matador basketball, 412 players have played at least one basketball game at Cal State Northridge … Only four players have hailed from the state of Louisiana … Other than J.J. Thomas, who is currently on the 2013-14 roster, John Martin, James Morris and Hayes Pullard are the only other players from Louisiana … Martin only played in 23 games during his Matador career (1974-75, 1975-76) and averaged 1.4 points per game in his two-year tenure … Morris played two years (1991-92, 1992-93) in 51 games, 27 as a starter… Morris averaged a career 8.9 ppg, including a 10.0 ppg average during his senior season in 1992-93 … Morris hailed from Tallulah, La. … Pullard (Dequincy, La) played only one season at CSUN (1972-73) and averaged 4.3 ppg in 18 games.