More than just an athlete: Thunder center Etan Thomas is committed to a life outside the NBA

BY MIKE BALDWIN, Staff Writer, mbaldwin@opubco.com Published: November 8, 2009
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Etan Thomas’ voice echoed through the streets of Washington, D.C.

Near the nation’s capital, four years ago, Thomas passionately pleaded: Bring home America’s troops from Iraq.

Andy Shallal was among the 100,000 anti-war supporters that day. Shallal owns Busboys and Poets Bookstore, the premier progressive gathering place in D.C.

"I was blown away,” Shallal said. "It sent chills through me on a warm, early fall afternoon. His unequivocal anti-war stand, unwavering call for justice, his passion, I am sorry his voice is not heard more.”

A rail thin star at Tulsa Washington, he was challenged by his mother to pursue interests other than sports. After bulking up at Syracuse, becoming the school’s all-time shot block leader, Thomas has played in the NBA for nearly a decade.

Acquired by the Thunder for his physical defensive presence this past summer in a trade, Thomas’ primary role is to battle centers like Orlando star Dwight Howard tonight in the Ford Center.

But there’s a lot more to Etan Thomas than basketball.

Poems express his political and social views on a myriad of subjects like how a girl becomes a teenage pregnancy victim. He informs teenagers in gangs that gun-toting, drug dealers rob them of their souls. He once read his anti-death penalty poem at an ACLU rally.

Thomas has visited prisons, inner-city schools and was actively involved in President Barack Obama’s campaign.

"Having a different political belief does not make me your enemy,” Thomas said. "Everyone does not have to agree with my politics. All I ask is that you respect me as a man for having an opinion, even if we disagree.”

Author of "More Than An Athlete,” a book of poems published in 2004, Thomas’ second tome, "Voices of the Future,” is scheduled to be published next spring. Each chapter will feature a poem written by him, followed by poems he’s collected from teenagers across the country.

"I encourage young people to be themselves no matter what anyone thinks of them,” Thomas said. "Don’t follow the crowd. Be original and stay true to yourself.

"As long as you’re happy with who you are, and you keep God first, no one else’s opinion really matters. That’s a philosophy that my mother instilled in me at a very young age, words that I live by.”

Excerpts of unpublished poems for his upcoming book and excerpts from the first provide insight into one of the most outspoken, interesting players in the NBA.

Sesame Street
Oscar wouldn’t be a grouch cuz he’s sitting in classes that tell him he’s less than average

Elmo wouldn’t be picked on cuz his voice was a little high

Count Dracula wouldn’t be adding up how many kids got shot at my school

Cookie Monster would only be addicted to cookies

Maybe I need to stop fantasizing

Because Sesame Street

Never existed for me

Selected lines from "Seasame Street” aren’t autobiographical. Thomas said he’s fortunate to have received proper guidance and was challenged to use his mind.

Born in Harlem, raised in Tulsa, Thomas’ social interests began at a young age. His mother, Deborah, a schoolteacher who once participated in the National Black Theater, introduced him to piano, jazz, school plays, books, even karate.

Taste it all, she said. Choose what you like.

At Tulsa Washington, he was known as Derrick Thomas, leading the Hornets to state championships, not only in basketball but debate.

He devoured Shakespeare. He wrote his first poem in the ninth grade, inspired by first-hand racial prejudice in Tulsa simply because he wore a hooded sweatshirt.

"I don’t tell young people anything that their parents, teachers or preachers haven’t been telling them most of their lives,” Thomas said. "But the people kids usually pay the most attention to are athletes, entertainers, rappers, actors, etc.”

Thomas keeps a pen and notebook by his pillow on his nightstand in case an idea comes to him. He is drawn to the written word. When he listens to a song, he focuses on the lyrics.

And he writes more than poems. He’s written stories for Sports Illustrated for Kids. He’s a contributing writer for slamonline.com and huffingtonpost.com, where his opinions stir debate in the comment section.

The past decade he’s read poems at trendy D.C. coffee houses; was a counselor at the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, a season sanctuary for children from countries at war; has been active with the Congressional Black Caucus and twice spoke on President Obama’s "Register For Change” bus tour.

Lakers guard Derek Fisher is president of the NBA Basketball Players Association. Thomas is one of eight players on the board that will negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with owners before the current deal expires in the summer of 2011.

"Etan is a rare jewel,” Fisher said. "He’s committed to life outside the NBA. Etan believes there’s a higher purpose, a higher power. He’s committed to using this platform to influence young people and impact lives that will transcend any contributions he has on the court.”

Drug dealers
They came like vampires in the night

Blood sucking monsters injecting poison

a robbery of innocence

inhibiting progression of youthful exuberance

nothing is off limits

dollar signs corrupted minds as well as souls

stolen possibilities

Drafted by the Dallas Mavericks, Thomas sat out his first season with a toe injury.