Thomas leaning into post-playing career after scary shoulder surgery
While she may have a different vantage point this season, former UNLV Lady Rebels guard Jade Thomas doesn’t regret every decision along the way.
A shoulder injury derailed the 2021-22 season for Thomas and ultimately, her playing career. While playing through injury she averaged a point and a half a game and just over two rebounds a game in 20 outings.
Despite the outcome of retirement, Thomas has no regrets about her decision to play through her torn labrum.
“No,” she said emphatically. “Not at all. Because I think before we knew the severity of it it was just like, ‘We don’t have time for injuries. We’ll just play through it.’
“That’s one thing that my trainer always gets on me about. I’ll try to play with a broken leg, it doesn’t matter. But once that pain got too unbearable, I couldn’t really do anything else.”
Her sophomore year was a far cry from her freshman season where she tallied averages of 8.8 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game and 1.8 made three-pointers per game while playing 35.7 minutes a contest.
“Once I realized the practices and game-level wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be and I really think it’s because of high school,” Thomas said. “Our high school team was like a freaking college team already. We were traveling all the time, missing school, practices were so hard, conditioning was so hard.”
Thomas also credits older sister, Bailey, who was a member of the UNLV Lady Rebels at the time.
By season’s end, Jade’s point mark ranked third in the Mountain West among freshmen while also ranking fifth in rebounds. Her three-point and minutes per game tallies placed her eighth and third overall in the conference.
Of all the numbers she put up in her first collegiate year, one in particular meant a little more to Jade.
“I would say the minutes per game,” Jade said. “Bailey was No. 1 in the NCAA for minutes played and I was No. 3 in the entire NCAA. It kind of justified that I had a good motor.”
Jade made the conference’s All-Freshman team while helping UNLV to a 15-9 overall record.
A year later, Jade attempted to play through a torn labrum, an injury that far predates last year’s Lady Rebel campaign.
“I hurt it freshman year while lifting,” Jade said. “I had some shoulder issues in high school and it was always my left shoulder but I did rehab and physical therapy for that and I was fine.”
After several appointments with doctors throughout the year, Jade confirmed playing with the injury during the 2021-22 season indeed made the torn labrum worse. As a result, she was shut down for the season.
Prior to the shutdown, Jade and her circle tried several forms of treatment to avoid what would’ve been her first ever surgery. These treatments include a PRP procedure where they take blood and platelets and put it into the affected area to promote healing as well as physical therapy, dry needling, cupping, scraping, massage and stem.
“Yes and no,” Jade said when asked if she was scared of the idea of surgery. “I remember at the beginning of the year, we had our meetings with coaches and [head coach Lindy La Rocque] asked, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’
“I told her, ‘Well, it’s two things: I can play on it and it's going to be extremely painful or go get surgery.’ At that point, I wanted the surgery – that’s how I knew it was time because my body hurt so much.”
From the sidelines, Jade watched her UNLV squad win not only the regular season conference title but the conference tournament title as well.
“I was ecstatic,” she said. “For us to actually finish the business and get a ring, I was so excited. I was so, so excited to play Arizona.”
The Lady Rebels’ success landed them in the NCAA Tournament with a Round of 64 matchup with the Arizona WIldcats. Ironically enough, Phoenix Mercury forward and Jade’s older sister, Sam, was a senior on the Arizona roster at the time.
Jade dressed for the game but did not see any minutes on the floor.
“It was so fun to watch them,” Jade said. “But it was really hard to not be able to play against my sister and be on the floor at the same time. I would say that was probably the hardest, most gut-wrenching moment I’ve ever had in my life.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve fully coped with it yet. I’m kind of [keep] reliving it.”
UNLV would give Arizona a scare but would eventually fall, 62-57, being eliminated from the tourney in the process.
Despite getting the win, Sam had to balance the emotions of moving on in the Big Dance all while ending her sister’s hopes of doing the same.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions,” Sam said. “Not only could my family watch both of us but I was happy to see my sister and know that her and her team’s hard work paid off. Of course, that feeling ended shortly after when we had to prepare for the game knowing it’s win or go home.
“After the game it was bittersweet. I was so happy we won but also seeing my sister cry after the game I felt bad for her because I know how much she wanted it. Luckily, we had time to talk and be with family to cheer her up and she was able to stay for the next round and watch me play.”
While the season was over, the injury problems for Jade continued. Not only did the several attempts at treatment not work, things progressively got worse.
At several points leading up to surgery, Jade’s rib on the opposite side of her body popped out of place causing extreme pain and discomfort.
“November 2021 [was the first time it happened],” Jade said. “That was the most painful thing ever. When my rib came out, my shoulder felt like a million dollars because it was so painful [...] I didn’t even know at the time. ‘I kept telling my trainer [Rob Ortiz], it feels like my back needs to crack but it won’t crack.’”
Having no prior knowledge on how to replace the dislodged rib, Ortiz called another doctor on UNLV’s campus to complete the process for Jade. While it was corrected momentarily, Jade would experience another displacement of that same rib two weeks later.
After a fourth and fifth dislodging, Jade opted for surgery on her torn labrum as a last resort in April 2022.
Though she thought her injury woes were behind her, between a month and a half and two months later, her ribs on her mirror side (now the left) dislodged. This time things got even worse after things went awry at an ensuing doctor’s appointment with a fill-in trainer.
“I got adjusted and it did not feel right,” Jade said. “For one, it wasn’t adjusted the way the other doctor did it. [He had me in a different position] but there was more pressure so it cracked and I was like, ‘Oh okay, that’s fine. That means it’s good.’
“Then the person was like, ‘Wait, one more,’ and did another one. And I was [frozen] because it hurt.”
Upon returning from another job, her full-time trainer Ortiz informed Jade that the fill-in trainer never properly inserted her rib back in place therefore it had been dislodged for nearly five months.
Jade opted to not reveal the name of the fill-in trainer. However, Jade did add, “I owe him my life,” when speaking about Ortiz.
By that time, Jade’s mom, Julie, began to spark conversations about life after basketball and the best way to reach that point. With careful consideration, Jade chose to retire from the sport of basketball with three more years of eligibility remaining.
“I tried my best to not influence her in any way,” Sam said. “I knew what I wanted her to do but I had to let her make that decision on her own. I just had to keep telling her that no matter what, we will support her and whichever route she chooses.
Despite not being able to play on-court this season, Jade remains close to the game and has excelled in an off-court role for the Lady Rebels as the team’s in-arena emcee this past season.
“I still live at The Degree,” Jade said. “I’m still super close to most of the girls. Every time I come around it kind of feels like it's normal.”
La Rocque chose to honor Jade at the team’s Senior Salute during the team’s final home game in February against San Diego State.
Jade graduates in Spring 2023 with aspirations of becoming a sports analyst. Already this year, she has racked up in-field experience covering the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, G League Ignite and Vegas Golden Knights.
“I want to be with the big dogs talking about sports,” she said. “I think because I’ve played the sport at a collegiate level, I have the eye too.”
Before that journey continues, Jade must ensure her health problems are a thing of the past. For now, her and her family ponder a potential second surgery that would look to correct her dislodging ribs.
“I assured her that God has a plan for her and she’s in good hands,” Sam said. “Looking back now, I think she made the best decision for herself [so] she can be happy and healthy.”