New Orleans to Iceland: Danero Thomas Home, Heart is Where the Hoop Is
Editor’s Note: This is Part II of our feature on March Madness legend turned international pro, Danero Thomas. Look back on Danero’s roots in the game and his unforgettable run at Murray State before looking ahead to what he has achieved since.
Danero Thomas started playing basketball around age 10, cutting milk crates and hanging them from light poles in his low-income New Orleans neighborhood. For 17 years, drugs and crime surrounded Thomas as he grew up with his six siblings and single mother in a four bedroom.
More than two decades later, Thomas is an Icelandic citizen, married to an Icelandic woman and has carved out his corner of the world.
“I got into sports, and it changed my life,” Thomas said. “I’m living in Iceland because of basketball. It brought me a long way and took me out of that area.”
Before Iceland, he had a successful collegiate career at Murray State. After hitting a buzzer beater in the NCAA Tournament as a senior, he fielded plenty of calls from agents looking to sign him as he entered the professional world. Thomas chose the firm who managed Billy Kennedy, his head coach in college, but as a small fish in a big pond, he was quickly forgotten about.
With some work still needed to receive his degree, Thomas accepted an offer from Steve Prohm, who had just been hired to replace Kennedy, to join the Murray State staff as he completed his schooling. The former Racers standout accepted and spent the 2011-12 campaign taking classes and assistant coaching one of the best teams in Murray State history, going 31-2 after a 23-0 start, reaching as high as No. 9 in the AP Poll and earning a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the second round.
“Being on that bench and watching those guys, I couldn’t get out there and help them,” he explained. “That’s how I knew I wasn’t done playing.”
In the offseason, Thomas joined a travel team and went to Gran Canaria of the Canary Islands. He played so well that he was named tournament MVP, which started to gain him some overseas traction. One month later, Thomas found a deal in Iceland and made the move in 2012.
“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Thomas has played for a handful of different clubs in Iceland but has remained in the country for the entirety of his professional career. In 2016, he won the 1. deild karla (D1), the second tier of Icelandic basketball, earning Ϸór Akureyri promotion to the top flight league, Úrvalsdeild karla, and in 2018 he won the Icelandic Super Cup with Tindastóll.
But the greatest trophy he won in Iceland was Fanney Lind Guðmundsdóttir.
Within two weeks of first arriving in Iceland, Thomas went to a game with his team to scout. He saw Fanney there, but that’s not where they met. It wouldn’t be until later that night when their respective friend groups happened to meet at Ruby Tuesday’s that the two would first talk.
“I didn’t even know they had a Ruby Tuesday’s out there,” Danero said.
They exchanged numbers and soon began talking and hanging out everyday. Seven years later, the two have been married since 2014 and had their first child together in August 2018: India Fanney Thomas.
India is likely to have quite a bit of basketball ability when she grows up. Not only is her father a professional, but her mother boasts a successful basketball career herself. Fanney played pro from 2011-17, spending her first season in France and the rest in Iceland, and made a few appearances for the Icelandic national team.
Basketball has been a major part of Danero and Fanney’s relationship.
“Basketball is for sure everything in our family,” Fanney explained. “I go to all of his games. If we can’t go, I watch it on TV. We talk about it after the games. Everything is about basketball here.”
“It plays a big role in our marriage,” he said. “It’s fun to be with somebody who’s just as competitive as you are and be able to talk basketball, even when you’re having down time. You’ve got that partner there to push you through it and let you know you’ve got it.”
As in all marriages, the two have had to lean on each other at times, but Danero especially needed Fanney’s aid early in his career. Things did not go well with Danero’s first club, which owed him multiple months’ worth of salary, leaving him struggling to survive while pushing for his pay as a foreigner new to the nation. Danero said she “saved (his) life” with her help.
“I’m still on the team, and I’m trying to push them to pay me,” he explained. “She was there to support me 100 percent. That’s what made me be closer to her and see how she basically took care of me when I was here without getting paid.”
Fanney began to attend meetings between Danero and his team, using her knowledge as a native Icelandic and professional herself to help her then-boyfriend.
“I started going to meetings, because I know what’s right and what’s wrong,” Fanney explained. “Sometimes I had to go off on them when they were being disrespectful and treating him bad. Teams here treat foreigners worse than Icelandics, and I don’t like that. I make sure it doesn’t happen with him.”
A couple years later, the two both joined to the same club on two-year deals. But not long after, the team owed Danero three months of backpay and five to Fanney. Together, they made a stand.
“We sat in their office until they put all the money in our accounts,” Fanney remembered. “We had to sit there for like an hour or so before they put the money in our accounts, and we quit. It doesn’t happen a lot that an Icelandic player quits on a team because of this way. They just let teams get over on them, but we don’t do that. We’re kind of known for standing up for ourselves and making teams go by the contracts.”
Iceland has been persuasive enough to Danero for him to gain citizenship from the country in 2018, even adopting the traditional name of Axel, which is what he said his coaches largely call him, as the middle name on his Icelandic passport. Not long after, he began suiting up for the national team in the midst of its quest to qualify for the 2021 EuroBasket.
He has learned some Icelandic, too, although not to the level of fluency. Danero tried a class one summer, but he couldn’t juggle it along with basketball, family duties and the other trials of life. He’s relied on Fanney and her eldest daughter as his main teachers.
“One word probably means like 17 different things, and you have to say it the right way. If not, they’re looking at you like, ‘What? What are you saying?’” Danero laughed. “Give me a couple more years, and I’ll be up there in that 100 percent category for sure. I understand most of it, so they can’t really just say anything around me, because I’ll definitely figure out what they’re saying. But speaking it, shit, that’ll probably take me another three or four years, man. It’s a difficult language to learn.”
Although the family loves the life they’ve made for themselves in Reykjavík, Danero and Fanney said they’re beginning to consider a move. Danero said he plans to play for another few more years, hopefully winning a championship in that time, before hanging it up. After that, a move back to America and the start of a new life is a distinct possibility.
Regardless, that New Orleans kid seemingly stuck in a vicious cycle, having to create his own court and dodge the dangers of street life, has achieved the remarkable. If you told him then where he would be now, he wouldn’t have believed it.
“There’s no way. Not even possible,” he said with a chuckle. “Never. Not in the next two lifetimes. I’m telling you, man, impossible. Impossible.”
Photography provided by Danero Thomas.