- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas is a poet, an essayist and a jazz connoisseur, a deep thinker (and not just by jock standards) who writes down ideas and sometimes entire poems in the middle of the night. He is a politically aware, socially active critic of the Iraq war who often speaks to troubled kids and more-troubled adults, imparting life’s lessons and alternatives to aggression. He wears glasses.

So it seemed to strike a discordant note when the club recently suspended Thomas for two games for fighting with teammate Brendan Haywood (who was not punished) during practice. The two used to be close, but this was their third scuffle. So much for giving peace a chance.

The irony, if not the outright contradiction, seemed obvious. An anti-war poet punished for fighting? Beautiful. But those who know Thomas say this was not about anger blocking out reason or violence committing a flagrant foul on pacifism.

“I think it’s all about passion,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “He has a passion for what he does off the floor, he has a passion for poetry and he has a passion for basketball. And you display it in different ways.”

Backup center Calvin Booth said of Thomas, “I think he’s passionate about his beliefs and what he believes in. And when he’s on the court he tries to play with a passion, and it comes out in a physical form.”

Thomas did not disagree with either assessment. “It’s two different types of passion,” he said. “You’re not the same way on the court as you are off the court. It’s just two different things.”

Thomas showed appropriate remorse but tried to put the fight in perspective and take the larger view.

“It isn’t a real problem,” he said. “I just saw some kids who don’t even think they’re going to make it to 18. They have real problems, you know what I mean?”

He had just visited a juvenile detention facility filled with teenagers whose lives took a wrong turn. He might not be able to set them on the right path, but Thomas figures he might as well try, choosing his words and tone as carefully as when he writes. He speaks softly but carries a big message.

“I don’t talk to them from a holier-than-thou standpoint,” he said. “I talk about the things I’ve seen, the mistakes I’ve made. I’ll talk about this thing that just happened,” meaning the fight.

Both Jordan and president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld spoke pointedly about Thomas’ actions. This isn’t the NFL, in which practice fights are sometimes tolerated and even welcomed as a sign of grit and intensity. And no one gets hurt. Court altercations can be nasty.

“The discipline has been put in place,” Jordan said.

“Etan understands that things like that are unacceptable,” Grunfeld said.

The unwritten athletes’ code, however, allows such things as long as no one makes a habit of it. And Thomas, 28, the longest-tenured Wizards player, probably gets more of a pass than others. In the end, he’s just one of the guys.

“Things happen,” Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson said. “At the end of the day, he does things to help people out. He does a lot of things in the community, going to jails, talking to people. He’s a good dude.”

Thomas explained that teammates are like brothers and “sometimes brothers fight,” he said. “And at the end of the day you’re still brothers.”

Of course, he wrote a poem about it.

Just about everything Thomas sees, hears and feels ends up on paper or a computer screen. The world provides a rich vein of material. In a blog for the liberal political Web site, the Huffington Post (he also writes for Slam Online, a basketball site), what began as a story about several Wizards helping needy families during the holidays turned into a screed against the commercialization of Christmas:

However, throughout the nation, the real meaning of Christmas has been lost. I turn on the TV and am absolutely disgusted at what this once joyous occasion has become. I see little spoiled brats throwing tantrums in the middle of stores because they are not receiving their favorite toy. I see shootings and stabbings over play station 3’s. I see families spending money they do not have in order to satisfy the need of some ungrateful kids, only to bring in the New Year in debt.

Etc., etc.

“I’m always writing,” he said. “I’m not like a nerd or anything. It’s just what I like to do.”

Nerd? That’s pretty funny. With his long dreads and absent his wire rims, listed at 6-foot-10 and carrying 260 pounds of hard-earned muscle, Thomas cuts an imposing figure on the court. He was drafted by Dallas in 2000 and traded to the Wizards after missing his first season with an injury and now backs up Haywood in the post. He is mainly here to rebound, defend and generally mix it up in the paint.

“He’s a physical player,” Grunfeld said. “A good shot blocker, a good rebounder. He plays with energy and intensity.”

Thomas observes and writes the same way. Few of life’s inequities escape his attention. When he took his 19-month-old son, Malcolm, to the emergency room because of a sudden fever, he was struck by the number of prospective patients who were uninsured. He knew this because he asked. He also asked what happened to them and was appalled when told they could not be treated.

“A lot of times something happens and then I’ll write,” he said. “I’ll have a conversation with somebody, and I can’t stop thinking about it, so I’ll write about it. Or I’ll see something. Like I just saw these parents who are really afraid for their children being redeployed to Iraq. They kept talking about how [President] Bush is sending more and more troops and they don’t understand what the point is. They’re talking with so much passion, and I can’t get it out of my head.”

Such talk might rankle those who believe athletes should just shut up and play, especially when they espouse views contrary to their own. But the Wizards outwardly seem unfazed and accepting.

Before their friendship soured, Haywood attended some of Thomas’ readings. Thomas sometimes gets good-natured grief for watching CNN or “Meet the Press” in the locker room, but he pushes neither his politics nor his poetry on his teammates.

“It’s not a conversation in the locker room or in other locker rooms,” Grunfeld said. “Those are the kinds of things he chooses to do and you have to respect that.”

Thomas might be brainy and sensitive, traits that when combined sometimes cause trepidation, if not alarm, in the jock culture. But he infuses his poems and commentaries with a certain toughness, and some of his peers have even noticed.

“There’s a masculinity about his poetry, about his speeches, the way he talks about freedom,” said Booth, who is considered a cerebral player himself. “There’s a certain kind of masculine bravado that goes into that. He’s very much into letting people know what his beliefs are, and that’s a masculine quality.”

Thomas got his social consciousness and love of poetry and music from his mother, Deborah, who grew up in Harlem before moving to Tulsa, Okla. She frequently took Etan and his younger brother, Julian, back to the big city, exposing them to a broader world than they knew back home.

Not that Thomas needed to be prodded.

“Etan has always been a searcher,” she told The Washington Times in 2004. “As a little boy, he was reading books that I read in college.”

Thomas began writing speeches in middle school and wrote his first poem, about racial prejudice, in ninth grade. At Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, he led his speech and debate team and his basketball team to state championships.

“I’ve always been different,” he said.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim learned this almost immediately when Thomas showed up for his freshman year. One of the first things he did was attend a student rally protesting the arming of campus security guards with pepper spray. His picture appeared on the front page of the school newspaper.

Boeheim breathed a deep sigh. He knew what he was getting — and getting into.

“He said, ‘You just got here. I know you’re into different things but don’t get into trouble with it,’” Thomas said. “He said he was around during the ‘60s, ‘So we had players like you.’”

Thomas is a well-known figure at poetry slams, a habitue of coffeehouses, clubs and bookstores around town. He recently appeared at the Bohemian Caverns during a tribute to legendary jazz vibraphone player Roy Ayers. His writings deal mainly with social, hot-button issues like the war, the death penalty and racism. In 2005, a collection of his work was published as a book titled, “More Than an Athlete: Poems by Etan Thomas.” It comes with a music CD that embraces several different styles.

A review of the book posted on Amazon.com read in part, “With the conviction of a Bill Russell and the poetic finesse of Muhammad Ali, Thomas takes on controversial topics. … This collection is a slam dunk in the faces of those who say poetry belongs to one type of audience.”

Thomas reaches — or tries to reach — diverse, disparate audiences. Not all of them, though.

“A lot of people say it’s not their thing,” he said. “But that’s cool.”

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