John Thomas’ USC legacy goes well beyond ‘J.T. the baseball player’

Thomas spent his college career fighting for things bigger than sports. His passion for fashion reflects that.

sports, baseball

If you hung out at Dedeaux Field for an entire 2021 USC baseball game, plus the hours beforehand — when the bleachers were empty, the stadium’s hallmark wind had yet to fully kick in and batting practice had yet to commence — your very first observation might have had something to do with John Thomas.

Specifically, the fact that No. 25 knows how to dress.

To Thomas, who wrapped up his USC baseball career in May, the pregame walk to the Dedeaux Field home clubhouse was no joke. By his account, he’s never worn the same thing to the stadium twice — and given his already impressive connections in the fashion industry as not merely a customer but also a designer himself, that’s not particularly surprising.

Thomas’ fits — the ones he wears, the ones he creates — aren’t just designs that he (accurately) thinks look cool. They often provide a much deeper insight into who he is well outside the white lines.

Each does so in a different way. Three of them, as pulled from his personal Instagram account, stand out as particularly revealing.

The first is a fit Thomas posted in February 2019. It featured a pair of jean shorts, sunglasses and a backward Rodeo snapback, but the main message is the shirt: The words “FEMALE ATHLETE” are printed with bold lettering in two lines across the top, and the top word — “FEMALE” — is crossed out. Below, in finer print, matching the hashtags that accompany Thomas’ Instagram post, is the phrase “Judged by achievements / Not by gender.”

Thomas is more than an outspoken advocate for women’s sports; he’s a fanatic. His favorite league is the WNBA — “I love the women, I think they’re amazing,” he says. Thomas first became interested in fashion from Russell Westbrook’s notoriously “out there” pregame tunnel fits during his 2012 playoff run with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but as Thomas became more invested in design, he realized he was primarily into women’s wear. That’s mostly what he designs today, and chief among his current goals in the industry is to see his passion for fashion mesh with his favorite sports league.

“What I want to do is get a lot of those women in their pregame tunnels in my designs,” Thomas said. “I think that would be kind of a full circle thing with how I started.”

Thomas often employs his Twitter account to shine a light upon the WNBA, which flies under the radar relative to its men’s counterpart, and he does the same with women’s college basketball.

He’s also been a frequent advocate for women’s sports right on campus. That came to a head perhaps most prominently in mid-April, when the athletic department was beginning to welcome fans to select home sporting events for the first time in over a year.

Controversy arose when USC invited 5,000 spectators to the Coliseum for the USC Football Spring Showcase while the women’s soccer team could only invite four guests per player to its regular season finale against UCLA, also at the Coliseum.

The department received plenty of criticism on social media both internally and externally, and the USC baseball team — led by J.T. — was a prominent part of the backlash.

“The USC Baseball players stand with USC Women’s Soccer along with the rest of our women’s teams in the fight for gender equity in sports and beyond,” read a statement signed “The USC Baseball Players” and posted to Twitter and Instagram by Thomas, who tagged USC Athletics in each caption. “We urge our Athletic Department and our fans to fully invest in our women’s teams the same way they invest in our men’s sports.”

When Thomas reflected upon his college career and said he was proud of the impact he’s made on campus, he specifically mentioned standing up for the women’s soccer team as one of his proudest efforts.

The second design is one Thomas created with the help of two other USC athletes: (2021 Olympian) hurdler Anna Cockrell and women’s volleyball middle blocker Candice Denny. It lists the names of 22 Black victims of racial violence, reading “We Fight On for each other, we Fight On for equality” as well as “Black Lives Matter” on the bottom with a rainbow ‘SC logo overlain across the names.

It was used as the design for the backpacks that each USC student-athlete received for the 2020-21 school year.

“It kind of felt like the right thing to do,” Thomas said. “Coming from a design standpoint, I’m not gonna lie, it was really cool to see all the athletes walking around with that on their back … But obviously, it was a very heavy topic and design, and I’m so grateful that Anna and Candice put in the work with me. Because putting the names of Black people who have been killed by police on a backpack and researching those names — I understand the emotional toll that that would take on them.”

Thomas’ passion for the WNBA has impacted his allyship in the fight for racial equality. In the days after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd, Thomas made a pledge via Instagram to primarily speak in interviews not about baseball, but rather about how to be a better ally.

The idea, he said, was inspired by Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who vowed in 2019 to only talk about gun reform rather than basketball during interviews in response to a recent shooting in her district.

“As a straight white male, I have every privilege in the book in this country,” Thomas said. “And I’m well aware of that. And I think that that gives me a responsibility to use that privilege to shine light on issues that need attention.”

Racial justice was also at the forefront of a T-shirt Thomas designed with St. Louis Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The shirt encouraged people to take part in the democratic process, with the word “VOTE” in the upper right-hand corner above four check marks that correspond with the phrases “Fight Racism,” “Social Justice,” “Accountability” and “LGBTQ+ Rights,” along with the words “The time for change is now” below.

Flaherty, an outspoken athlete-activist himself, was Thomas’ teammate for two years at Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles. The two were actually a battery, with Thomas serving as the right-hander’s backstop, and they remain friends today.

All proceeds from the shirt went to Action St. Louis, a racial justice organization that aims to build political power in the Black community.

The third design, which Thomas created with a lifelong friend, is one that was rocked by none other than The King himself — Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James. It’s a white T-shirt with side-by-side cartoon depictions of Dodgers World Series hero Kirk Gibson’s legendary fist-pump and Lakers legend Magic Johnson dribbling a basketball atop the words “RECREATE 88.” (That’s a reference to the year 1988, when the Dodgers and Lakers both won their respective league’s championships.)

“That was as cool as it gets. I still can’t believe that that actually happened,” Thomas said of LeBron wearing his shirt. “It was kind of ‘right place, right time.’ Obviously, the [Dodgers and Lakers] both won, and it ended up being true.”

When asked of his absolute favorite clothing item he’s designed — a loaded question, he agreed — first to mind was a pink two-piece set that he put together for Cockrell. He also raved about a silk gown that, upon completing a few months ago, “I just sat there for, like, seven straight hours and looked at.” But some of Thomas’ other top designs have been L.A.-themed, much like the ’88 shirt. He made a hoodie for an L.A.-based pitching mechanics and analytics app called Mustard that featured the Los Angeles skyline and a gradient of colors that resembled a Southern California sunset.

Born and raised in the area, Thomas is an L.A. guy at heart. USC had been his dream school since he was eight years old, a goal inspired by family friend Kristofer O’Dowd’s time as a center on the Trojan football team from 2007 to 2010.

“He’s been like a big brother to me since I met him,” Thomas said of O’Dowd.

And as nearly any Los Angeles sports fan growing up in the early 2000s can relate to, Thomas grew up a Kobe Bryant fan. Idolizer, actually, may be a more proper term.

Kobe’s influence on Thomas’ baseball career is evident after just a brief scroll through his Instagram. About a week after Kobe and his daughter Gigi’s tragic death, Thomas posted a picture of himself in his USC baseball uniform with the jersey unbuttoned to reveal Kobe’s No. 8 jersey underneath.

In March, when Thomas won Pac-12 Player of the Week for a period that included a 5-for-5 performance against Washington, he posted the conference’s announcement graphic with the caption “job not finished” — an allusion to the Hall of Famer’s legendary straight-faced non-celebration after the Lakers took a 2-0 lead in the 2009 NBA Finals.

And, on the day of the 136th and final game of Thomas’ USC career, his Instagram post quoted Kobe’s narration from “Dear Basketball,” his Oscar-winning short documentary:

“You asked for my hustle, I gave you my heart.”

“Bean’s” influence on Thomas goes well beyond sports.

“Kobe used to talk about how the most important thing to him was touching the lives of people around him,” Thomas said. “I think that if I’m remembered here for ‘J.T. the baseball player,’ that’s not enough for me. I’ve worked for it to be ‘J.T. the guy who empowers women’s sports, is an ally to the LGBTQ+ communities, is an ally to Black and brown people’ — that kind of thing.”

As the writer of this piece, allow me to break character and briefly interject. These aren’t just words from J.T. Ahead of my interview with him, I prepared a question about his performance in his final season — namely, what was clicking for him en route to a career-high batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage and a miniscule increase in strikeouts despite a more than threefold increase in at bats, all while bouncing around positions in the infield and acclimating to ever-changing spots in the lineup.

Within about 90 seconds, it became clear I didn’t need to ask. It wasn’t just that the conversation went elsewhere (though that certainly was the case); it was that it felt irrelevant. Unimportant. Off-topic.

I think I got my answer anyway, and it had nothing to do with a swing change or new approach at the plate.

“When I was probably in my junior year, I decided that I didn’t want to play professionally, and that took a lot of pressure off of me on the field,” he said. “Having things that were more important to me than winning or losing a baseball game took a lot of pressure off of me when I was playing.”

That’s because for Thomas, it’s bigger than baseball. Much bigger. And that’s not just a big cause for how he ended his career with a bang; it’s a big reason why he came back for his extra year of eligibility in the first place.

“I wanted to play another year. I wanted to be around these new coaches for another year in this program,” Thomas said. “But it was more about the platform that USC Athletics has given me over the years, the opportunities that they’ve given me to speak in front of people, to be a voice … I was really appreciative of that position that I found myself in within the athletic department. So I wanted to take another year to use that platform to push things that I thought were important.”

Of course, it’s not as if Thomas doesn’t care about baseball. He does. He loves it. He said that mentally, he could handle more of the grind, the preparation, whether it’s in the offseason or on a gameday. In fact, he said that will be the hardest thing to step away from.

But that’ll also be the only thing he has to step away from, because the rest goes on. He’s diving into design full-time. He continues to advocate for social justice. College sports gave him a platform, and a diploma doesn’t take that away. “Job not finished,” he might say.

Given his connections and career aspirations, the eyes might not be trained on him any less, but if they are, that’s just fine with him.

“It was hard [in college] to … have everybody looking at the way you’re doing things,” he said. “Because you have coaches saying, you know, ‘you should look at him,’ whatever.

“But I keep it all in perspective. Because, you know, as a white, straight male, the people that I’m advocating for are the people that deal with these injustices, and I don’t. So I don’t want a pat on the back for that, even though sometimes I do get it and I understand where people are coming from when they give me a pat on the back or whatever. But it’s not something I want a pat on the back for. It’s not something that I think I would ever be in a position to call something that was hard to do. Because, like I said, it’s my responsibility given my privilege.”

Thomas has been an integral part of USC’s baseball program for the last five years. Jason Gill, his head coach for the final two, said he’s a team player, accountable and a leader by example even when he’s not in the starting lineup.

All of those things are true. But ‘J.T. the baseball player’ is only a fraction of his legacy.

And that’s just the way he wanted it.