SNACKS! Turns out JSU’s viral sensation has earned all this March Madness adoration

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Kentrice Rush/JSU

Thomas “Snacks” Lee (35) smiles as the Jackson State alma mater plays post-game Tuesday night.

Thomas “Snacks” Lee over the past nine days has been on stage with Joe Biden, has appeared on the Today Show and TMZ, has done more radio interviews all over the country than he can count, has signed hundreds upon hundreds of autographs (many on posters of himself), has posed for countless photos with strangers, has received a special award to rousing applause to a packed house at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, and has received an autographed jersey in the mail from his hero Kevin Durant.

There’s more, lots more.

Rick Cleveland

But surely you get the idea. This has been pretty heady stuff for Snacks, a guy who usually spends much of each and every day washing other people’s jocks and socks.

Lee, a big, friendly and oft-smiling 22-year-old by far the widest at his equator, became an overnight viral sensation March 2, when on Senior Night at Jackson State, he entered a lopsided game late and sank a 35-foot shot. He went to bed that night and slept well, happy that he had gotten a chance to play for his beloved JSU Tigers. He awakened the next morning a viral sensation.

Kentrice S. Rush/ University Communications

Thomas “Snacks” Lee goes in for a layup during pre-game warmups Tuesday night.

Surely, you’ve seen the tape by now. Lee sets up from nearly half-court and lets fly a shot that hits nothing but net. Jackson State players react as if they have just won the NCAA Championship. They run around, jump up and down, high-five, hug one another and mob their buddy, Snacks.

Asked to rate the moment among the hundreds and hundreds of Jackson State games he has called, JSU announcer Rob Jay, answered, “Right at the top. I’ve never seen this place erupt like it did that night. And it was genuine, the love the players have for Snacks. He’s a love-able guy. Everybody loves Snacks.”

Seriously, there have been countless March Madness championships that were not celebrated with any more fervor. To understand the frenzied reaction – which is surely what made Snacks’ shot go viral, you must first know Thomas Lee, whose love for Jackson State basketball goes back to when he was a 6-year-old first-grader.

“I had gone to some games and then I was at Walmart one day and ran into some players,” Lee says. “They invited me to come by the locker room for the next game.”

The little chubby boy came bearing candy – mainly Skittles, he says – which he doled out to his new friends. That scene repeated itself so many times that the players gave him a name. Thomas Lee became Snacks.

Snacks kept coming to the games, When he graduated from nearby Provine High, he knew what he wanted to do and he did it. He became the Jackson State basketball manager. Two years ago, JSU held a halftime promotion in an effort to boost attendance. The first JSU student to make a half-court shot would get free attendance for that spring semester. Snacks, of course, nailed the shot. He could have graduated last year, but opted for a fifth year at Jackson State and the job he loves.

He no longer needs that scholarship money. JSU coach Wayne Brent put him on full scholarship this school year. Snacks will graduate in May with a degree in recreation administration. Brent, who clearly loves his manager, says he is just repaying Lee for his countless hours of selfless dedication to the JSU basketball program.

Anyone who has played sports knows how important team managers can be. They wash and dry uniforms, practice gear and towels. They sweep and mop the floors. They make sure the water and Gatorade bottles are filled. They tape ankles. They run errands. They arrive at the gym long before – and leave long after – the players and often the coaches, as well. It’s dirty work. Snacks loves it.

Rick Cleveland

Snacks Lee and Reggie Perry show off their hardware at the C Spire Howell-Gillom Awards Luncheon

Said MSU women’s coach Vic Schafer Monday at the C Spire Howell-Gillom Trophy luncheon: “A good manager can make you or break you. They are so important.”

Snacks Lee received a special “Fan Favorite” trophy at the awards luncheon. He was as big a hit as Reggie Perry, who won the Howell Trophy, and Rickea Jackson, who won the Gillom Trophy. For sure, Snacks signed more autographs and posed for more photos.

Snacks, says Brent, does a lot more than wash socks and jocks at JSU.

“He’s our best recruiter,” Brent says. “When we have somebody in for a visit we really want, I don’t put them with a player. I put them with Snacks. He’s got that personality. He’s instantly your friend. He helps us get players.”

Says senior guard Hunter Shelton from Owensboro, Kentucky: “Snacks was the first guy I met at Jackson State. We’ve been best friends since. He’s hilarious, a great guy, who will do anything for you. A lot of us players do not have cars, so Snacks takes us where we need to go. He’s always helping somebody.”

Rick Cleveland

Snacks signed countless posters Tuesday night.

Shelton says the team knew Snacks would make a shot if he ever got into a game.

“He beats some of players in long-range shooting competitions,” Shelton said. “That shot he made was no accident. He practices.”

Snacks does that. Sometimes, late at night, after his chores are done and the next day’s gear is all washed and cleaned and laid out, he’ll return to the court and take a few shots.

Asked to tell something about his best friend that people don’t know, Shelton replies, “Snacks is a really talented musician. He can really play piano or organ. He’s good, really good. He plays at churches and other events around here. Heck, he’s got his own band.”

Thomas and Friends, the band, plays gigs around town and around campus. Snacks probably could make a living in music, but that’s not the plan.

“I want to coach basketball,” he says. “That’s my passion.”

Rick Cleveland

Snacks Lee poses with a young fan.

His plan is to find a graduate assistant’s job somewhere. Brent believes he will. “Snacks knows the game,” Brent says “He’s got a real feel for it and he’s got that personality.”

That personality travels well. When Jackson State made its Alabama road swing later last week, to Alabama State and Alabama A&M, Snacks was more popular than the home teams’ players. Before and after games, he signed autographs and posed for photos. Says Rob Jay, “That just doesn’t happen in the SWAC.”

Jackson State defeated Alcorn State 69-52 Tuesday night at JSU in the quarterfinals of the SWAC Tournament. With the Tigers leading by 20 late in the game, the chant began: “We want Snacks! We want Snacks!”

With 28 seconds left, Snacks entered the game to rousing applause. When JSU got the ball with just 15 seconds remaining, the Tigers tried desperately to get the ball to Snacks, who was heavily guarded.

Said Alcorn athletic director Derek Horne, chuckling:  “Clearly, we were going to guard him if we didn’t guard anyone else.”

With five seconds left, Snacks got the ball and took an off balance, falling-away shot that missed badly. Still, he was smiling broadly seconds later when the JSU team stood for the playing of the alma mater.

“It just felt good to get out there one last time,” Snacks later said, between signing scores more autographs and gladly posing for photos with anyone who asked.

“It was very special,” he added. “You just don’t see this happen for managers. For the players and fans to rally around a manager like this, it’s just very, very special.”