- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

He talks in rhymes and rebounds, winding metaphors and crooked elbows. He jams at MCI Center and slams in local coffeehouses. He can send a blocked shot into the front row — and send the front row scrambling for the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Allusions.

Even without his floppy dreads, Etan Thomas may be the world’s tallest poet. He’s certainly the only member of the Washington Wizards to keep a pen by his pillow and notebook on his nightstand in case the muses murmur in his ear. Or jab him in the solar plexus.

Poetically speaking, of course.

“The worst is when something comes to you in the middle of the night,” Thomas said with a laugh. “You’ve got to get up and write it down because if you don’t, you won’t remember it in the morning. With poetry, it just hits you.”

As does a Thomas boxout. A 6-foot-9, 260-pound center whose chiseled, comic book frame owes less to Wordsworth than Stan Lee, Thomas lives a double life worthy of Peter Parker.

On game nights, Thomas has emerged as Washington’s bouncer, all bounding muscle and punishing elbow pads. A sometime starter who averages 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks a contest, he rumbles around the key like the first guy you would pick in an asphalt pickup game — that is, if you value your teeth — and the last person you would expect to unwind by composing a heroic couplet.

“He’s tough,” Wizards center Brendan Haywood said. “He’s mean. He’s aggressive. He gives you all the energy and hustle you need.”

Off days are a different story. Actually, make that a different verse: When Thomas isn’t penning a new poem, a passion he has pursued since high school, he’s talking books with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Or reading his own work at open mic nights around the District.

Among Thomas’ favorite hangouts is Urban Energy, a poetry spot and wellness center on U Street.

“Etan’s a very well-rounded person,” said Tim Willis, a friend who also writes and performs poetry. “And I’m not just talking about his physique. I have a lot of respect for him and his work.”

Thomas’ poetic oeuvre ranges from the intensely personal (athletic frustration) to the intensely political (capital punishment). More often than not, the two are one and the same. While sneaker pitchman and former Wizards teammate Michael Jordan once refused to endorse a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in his home state of North Carolina — famously stating that “Republicans buy shoes, too” — Thomas doesn’t shy from controversial topics.

Last summer, Thomas recited his death penalty poem at a local ACLU rally. He has authored pieces on affirmative action and the Confederate flag. A business management major at Syracuse, Thomas regularly wrote letters to the school’s student newspaper.

In Washington’s wood-paneled locker room, Thomas is the guy who buzzes around after a draining two-hour practice, revved up and ready to debate something television talk host Bill O’Reilly said the previous evening.

“A lot of times, especially when we’re strength training, he’ll start talking about [President] Bush, the war, different issues,” Haywood said. “He’s a very educated man. He speaks his mind.”

Thomas even likes to argue with himself. A self-professed Democrat, he has penned two poems dealing with abortion, one in favor and one opposed.

“That’s a hard one,” Thomas said with a sigh. “I’m pro-life. But at the same time, when you talk to people who are pro-choice, there are certain extreme situations that as a man I can’t understand.”

Last week, Thomas read his death penalty poem during a Howard University student play. Taking to the Cramton Auditorium stage in a black Kangol cap and white cable-knit sweater, Thomas spoke from memory for more than five minutes — hands punching the air, his voice lifting and dipping in line with the verse:

An eye for an eye

You feel justified

In murdering people who murder people

To show that murdering people is wrong?

Singing that song

Of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander

You scandalous barbarians …

… play God too long, and the real one might get upset.

Following the play, Thomas received an ovation from the 50 or so people in attendance. He later explained his opposition to capital punishment began in middle school, when he saw the film “A Time to Kill” with his mother, Deborah, and younger brother, Julian.

“It sparked a deep conversation,” Thomas said. “My mom grew up really political. She loves poetry. She always laughs at the way I am. It’s a reflection of her.”

As a college student, Deborah Thomas participated in the National Black Theater, immersing herself in drama and poetry. Though she moved from Harlem to Tulsa, Okla., when Etan was young, the family spent summers in New York City, attending plays and poetry readings.

Back home, Deborah surrounded her sons with art and literature: jazz albums, the politically charged verses of the Last Poets, a large library containing books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

As a middle schooler, Deborah recalled, Etan developed a brief interest in the Nation of Islam, a black muslim group. One visit to a mosque sent him in a different spiritual direction.

“He told me they didn’t know the Bible as well as he did,” Deborah said with a laugh. “Etan has always been a searcher. As a little boy, he was reading books that I read in college.”

Thomas wrote his first poem in ninth grade, describing the racial prejudice he encountered while walking the streets of his hometown in a hooded sweatshirt. In high school, he split his time between basketball and speech and debate, excelling at both.

On the court, Thomas was a prep All-American and the anchor of a squad that won two Oklahoma state titles; behind the podium, he advanced to the national speech and debate semifinals at Harvard.

“The few times I’d call to see what was up, he was always away at a debate tournament,” Syracuse assistant coach Bernie Fine said. “Of course, I tried to break him of that habit a little when he got here, tell him that coaching wasn’t a democracy. We kidded around a lot about that.”

At Syracuse, Thomas kept his grade point average above 3.0 — leading Orangemen coach Jim Boeheim to quip, “I’m still trying to figure out how to balance my checkbook” — and was named one of eight outstanding men on campus by an academic fraternity. He also interned at a local community center, the South Side Newsstand, where he worked with youngsters and participated in poetry slams.

To celebrate Black History Month, Thomas agreed to sign autographs for any child who wrote him an essay on their African-American hero. He received almost 100 papers.

“I like to use basketball as a platform,” said Thomas, who frequently speaks at area schools. “I’ll talk to kids and spin a little poetry. Sometimes, it gets kind of old hearing the same messages: Don’t do drugs, study hard, listen to your parents. You can use poetry to make people see that in a new light.”

Thomas, who calls former Georgetown star Alonzo Mourning his basketball idol, arrived at Syracuse as a wispy, 215-pound project. He left a stout 259 pounds, a two-time Big East defensive player of the year and the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots (424). Picked by Dallas in the first round of the 2000 NBA Draft, he missed his entire rookie season with a toe injury and was subsequently sent to Washington in the Juwan Howard trade.

Dealt from one of the league’s top teams to a perennial bottom-feeder, Thomas called his mother. But not to gripe.

“I told her how impressed I was when I saw how many people in D.C. are just protesting and active for whatever they believe in,” Thomas said. “I saw these people by a high end clothing store, shooting paintballs at the people wearing furs. I was just like, ‘Wow, this is great.’”

Thomas delved into the local poetry scene, inviting teammates like Haywood and Jared Jeffries to watch him perform at Mangos, the U Street restaurant where he first met Willis. Last spring, he participated in Bring In Da Slam VII, a charity slam session that brought Thomas face-to-face with two of his literary heroes, poets Nikki Giovanni and Edward Hirsch.

“That was a great honor,” Thomas said. “But I was so mad because I left my book of Nikki Giovanni’s poems at home. I wanted her to sign it.”

Lately, Thomas has been the one signing autographs. Though he played sparingly his first two seasons with the Wizards — missing the final 28 games of last year with a fractured orbital bone and bruised left eye socket — he kept in top condition by eschewing sugar, beef and dairy products and making a second home in the team’s weight room.

The hard work paid off in November, when Thomas recorded a career-high 18 points and 10 rebounds in a victory over Cleveland. He is averaging 7.9 points a game, has posted seven double-doubles and is usually on the floor in the fourth quarter of close contests, where his strength and shot-blocking ability make him particularly valuable.

“He’s a lunchpail kind of player,” Grunfeld said. “Very solid, very consistent.”

When Thomas was a teenager, his mother had a vision: Her son at a podium, surrounded by important people. At the time, Thomas simply smiled; in the here and now, he admits he has thought about a future in politics.

Last year, the Congressional Black Caucus invited Thomas to recite one of his poems on the floor of the House of Representatives. He chose “Republicans,” a work that details all the reasons Thomas isn’t a member of the GOP.

“Politics is definitely a passion of mine,” Thomas said. “But hopefully, I have a long time before I’m done with basketball.”

In the meantime, Thomas continues to scribble away. From Capitol Hill to a tough night in Cleveland, there’s no shortage of topics — and no telling when the mood might strike. Which is why he not only keeps a pen and pad by his bed, but also takes them on the team plane.

“I’ve seen him reading poetry books on the plane,” Haywood said with a laugh. “But I’ve never seen him writing anything.”

At least not yet.

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