Former Washington Wizards forward Etan Thomas was a youngster when he came home one day and found his mother watching an "ABC Afterschool Special." Tears welled in her eyes as she listened to depressing statistics about kids from single-parent households, which hers became due to divorce when Thomas was 7.
"They said if you come from a single-parent household, you're not going to make it," Thomas said during a recent panel at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md. "We made a pact. I told her I was going to make right choices and make right decisions."
He kept his word, playing four years at Syracuse before the Dallas Mavericks selected him 12th in the 2000 draft. He was traded to Washington and spent seven of his 11 NBA seasons with the Wizards before ending with Atlanta in 2010-2011.
Thomas is working out in hopes of landing a roster spot next season. If successful, he'll try to improve his career averages of 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds. But he's much more concerned about the dreary statistics on jail, teenage pregnancies, suicide rates and high school dropouts that worried his mother and continue to inundate society.
That's why he speaks regularly at schools and correctional facilities and why he wrote a new book, "Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge."
Former Wizards teammate Laron Profit and former Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington were among those joining Thomas on the church panel, which drew more than 200 men and boys. Thomas knows that sports serve as connective tissue between males of each generation. He also knows that players have the power to be positive or negative influences.
"That's why I wanted to include them in the book," said Thomas, who intersperses his own writing with 44 essays from athletes, entertainers and other celebrities. "I wanted to have Kevin Durant tell how he grew up in a single-parent household. Then I wanted to show Derek Fisher, Grant Hill and Allan Houston talking about how much they love their kids.
"You don't see positive images with athletes a whole lot," Thomas said. "I wanted to use athletes — not to say anything different than anyone else — but to give their personal experience and have young people listen and learn from what they've gone through."
Thomas doesn't claim to be an expert on the subject. In fact, he doesn't believe experts exist. But he does believe that his story and others — including Howard Dean, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Tony Hawk, John King and Yao Ming — can inspire men to be better fathers themselves.
"It's important that we start delving into this topic of fatherhood and understanding it and supporting each other as men," Profit said. "Because it's a very difficult journey."
Profit didn't meet his father "until he was on his death bed." Arrington said his parents "took us everywhere." Local sportscaster Lou Holder talked about appreciating his father always being there and even coaching the soccer team one year: "He was the worst coach ever."
Thomas brought up the controversy that followed ESPN's "Fab Five" documentary, in which Jalen Rose said he hated Grant Hill's two-parent upbringing. Thomas understands the resentment and recognizes it in today's youth because he felt the same way growing up.
"When I go to correctional facilities, I see myself in those kids," he said. "There's all this anger inside. A lot of them come from single-parent households and don't know what to do with it. So they make bad choices."
Thomas, 34, and his wife are the parents of three young children. Profit is single and childless. But the book is beneficial for fathers, mentors and sons, no matter how well or how poorly they're performing in those roles. Thomas continues to interview men from all walks on his site, www.etanthomas.com.
"I really could have made two books," he said. "But it's important to display everyone's experiences, thoughts, feelings, etc. I want this fatherhood movement to have an impact for everyone."
He's impacting lives (his childen and others) more than he impacted his workplace. That's the order we all should strive for.
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