Etan Thomas Interview: Thomas Discusses Managing Finances, Playing With Gilbert Arenas, Donald Sterling & Social Activism in Sports
Jeffrey Kee: Describe how you were first introduced to basketball.
Etan Thomas: I started playing basketball when I was young. I played AAU with my church team. As a kid, I looked up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf; guys who had a purpose outside of just playing basketball. I admired these guys for their activism and because they weren't afraid to stand up for what they believed in. As I got older, those were the type of athletes I wanted to imitate; more so because of what they did off the court.
Kee: At Syracuse University, you became a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year winner; the first player in school history to win that award. Looking back, what was your best memory from your collegiate career?
Thomas: When I played for Syracuse that's when the Big East was the Big East. The conference had so much history. It was an honor to play there during that time. Every night we were playing against teams like St. John's, Georgetown and UConn, and every night was a battle. I was going head to head against guys like Jason Lawson on Villanova, Jahidi White on Georgetown and Danya Abrams on Boston College. Those were the good old days. The physicality of those games mirrored the old Knicks and Miami Heat series back in the 90's with Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing. That's what it was like playing in the Big East every single night.
Kee: In 2000, you were drafted by the Dallas Mavericks (12th overall). As soon as a lot of guys get their first contracts, they want to go buy a fancy car or a Rolex. When you first got to the NBA, how hard was it to manage your money?
Thomas: To be honest with you, I was a little different than a lot of guys. My teammates would actually always joke about how cheap I was. At Syracuse, I got my degree in business management where I learned about managing money and investing. Of course, I read all the stories about players losing all of their money, so it made me not want to spend anything. I was the guy who was always looking for discounts on everything. I wanted to save as much as I could and I'm glad that I did.
Because of my background, I had a very different mentality coming into the NBA. I was on a rookie contract and had a certain amount of guaranteed money from that contract, but I prepared and spent as if I was never going to earn another dollar after my rookie deal was over. That's the way I've thought my entire life because you really never know what's going to happen. As a player, you might find yourself in a tough situation where you're not playing or you get traded, and financially you want to be prepared for the worst case scenario.
Kee: What about the party scene? How hard is it not to get caught up in that?
Thomas: I partied, but I didn't get caught up in it and wasn't as tempted by it as some other guys were. From a young age, my grandfather and AAU coach prepared me for situations like this. They taught me to be cautious about who I hung out with because there are going to be people who are attracted to you for the wrong reasons. I know the Players Association (NBPA) puts on a rookie camp where they teach players about things like this, but I think they need to do it more often because a lot of players are still getting caught up in that lifestyle. They need to understand that as professional athletes they're going to be targets whether it's financially or for other reasons. Players are always going to have a target on their backs and they have to be prepared for that.
Kee: Midway through your rookie year, you’re traded to the Wizards. That following off-season, Michael Jordan announced that he was coming out of retirement to play for Washington. What was your initial reaction to the news and what was it like being Jordan’s teammate for two seasons?
Thomas: That was amazing! First of all, Jordan is the greatest ever, so when it was announced that I was going to play with him, I was like, "Are you serious?" But as young player, I had to be patient. I was playing in a system where Doug Collins preferred using older players, so he wasn't really playing me all that much. He was giving my man Kwame Brown the blues. A lot of us younger guys weren't getting a chance to play, so I had to be patient and keep working. But it was difficult because I knew I was good enough to play, but Coach wasn't feeling me enough to put me in the rotation. I knew I had to stay positive and keep working hard because I didn't want to give the impression that I had a bad attitude.
Two years later, Doug Collins was fired, Eddie Jordan became coach and he gave me an opportunity to play a lot and earn another contract. But that's just how the NBA works. It's all about being in the right system. If Doug Collins had not gotten fired, I might have never gotten a chance to play and wouldn't have had as long of a career as I did. That goes back to what I said before about managing your money. You just never know what's going to happen after your rookie deal is over.
Kee: Is there anything you learned from playing with Jordan that helped you throughout your career?
Thomas: Definitely. I learned so much playing with him. I remember one game in particular, Michael missed the game winning shot. Overall, he had a bad game and the papers were trashing him saying that he's old and should have never came back. The next day in practice, he spent hours shooting that same exact shot that he had missed the night before; over and over again practicing that one shot. The very next game he comes out and scores over 40 points, which made him the oldest player in NBA history to have a 40 point game. It was amazing to watch and I was so impressed with the way he was able to bounce back from a bad game. He was able to take all of the negativity and criticism from the media and used it to fuel him.
Kee: At the age of 29, you had open heart surgery to repair a leak of the aortic valve and were forced to miss the entire 2007-08 season. How did you first discover you had a heart issue? Did you think you’d ever play basketball again?
Thomas: I've always had a leaky valve from the time I was in middle school, so my condition was something that I had to continuously monitor. I had to get checkups on it two or three times a year since I was young.
It was right before the season. I had played really well the year before and was projected to be the starter for the upcoming year. Then right before training camp the doctors told me that my numbers had changed a little bit and that I was going to need open heart surgery. I was like, "Surgery right now? Are you serious?" I went to visit other specialists to get a second and third opinion, which is something I recommend all athletes do, and all of them confirmed that I need to have the surgery.
From there, after I had the surgery, I made it a mission of mine to come back and play because all of the papers were saying I wouldn't be able to. The media was saying I was finished and I let that negativity fuel me sort of like the way I was talking about with Jordan. I never got back to playing at the level I was before the surgery, but I returned to the NBA nonetheless and was able to play for a few more years, which was a blessing.
Kee: We all know that Chris Bosh has been sidelined for past few seasons with blood clotting issues. All of the doctors he’s visited have agreed that the smartest thing for him to do is retire, but it sounds as if he’s going around looking for one doctor to clear him to play despite everyone else telling him it’s unsafe. What do you think about his approach?
Thomas: Sometimes it's just best to go with what the experts say. I could have looked around to find that one doctor who would say I didn't need surgery and maybe I would have been fine, but why risk it? Especially if you have kids and a family.
I would advise all athletes to get a second and third opinion aside from the team doctor. We had a doctor on the Wizards who was the absolute worst. He would misdiagnose people all the time, and because of that I realized how important it is to get opinions from doctors who aren't associated with the team. Don't decide to get surgery just because one person says that it's the right thing to do. At the end of the day, the team doctor has the best interest of the team in mind. It's exactly like the movie "Any Given Sunday", so I always tell guys to be careful about that.
Kee: Gilbert Arenas’ legacy in D.C. remains very mixed. After the gun incident, it seems to me that all of the great things he did for the city were swept under the rug. You played with Gilbert for six seasons. What do you remember most about him?
Thomas: When Gilbert was at his peak I thought he was one of the top five players in the league. He would just amaze me with the type of things he would do on the court. I don't want to say he was our generation's version of Steph Curry, but in terms of shooting range, Gilbert used to launch shots from a few steps inside of half court and sink them as if they were free throws. I also remember when he used to shoot game winners and would turn around before the ball went in the hoop because he was just so confident in his shooting ability. I saw him do that maybe five different times. People tend to forget how good he was, but Gilbert was on a whole different level.
Kee: Minus the injuries and the gun incident, do you think Gilbert would have been a Hall of Famer?
Thomas: No question about it. His jersey would be retired right now with the Wizards if everything had happened differently.
Kee: Aside from basketball, you’re well known for your social activism. Back in 2014, [former Los Angeles Clippers owner] Donald Sterling’s racist audio tape shook the NBA. Clippers players received a lot of criticism for continuing to play despite their owner’s remarks about bringing black people to his team’s games. What’s your assessment on how the Clippers players handled that situation?
Thomas: I actually interviewed Jamal Crawford and [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver about this for my new book. What’s missing from this story is that the Clippers were playing chess not checkers. Adam Silver had just been named commissioner of the league. It was his first year and the Clippers wanted to give him a chance to prove himself to see how he’d handle a situation of this magnitude. The Clippers came to Silver as soon as the audio was leaked and told him that they didn’t want Donald Sterling as their owner anymore. They said they were prepared to boycott if need be, but they wanted to give Adam Silver a chance to take care of the situation first. The commissioner said okay, asked for a few days to do his due diligence, and promised the Clippers players that he’d take care of it.
Remember, this was right before the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors called Crawford and told him that they’d be down to boycott if the Clippers chose to do so. LeBron called as well. But after those few days, Commissioner Silver came out and said Donald Sterling would be immediately removed as owner and would be banned from the NBA all together, so the Clippers players got everything they wanted. All of the backlash they received afterwards with everyone calling them cowardly for not taking a stand; that’s just because people were uninformed of what had transpired behind the scenes.
Athletes are often criticized for not being activists. People always say, where are the Jim Brown’s? Where are the Bill Russell’s? Where are the Muhammad Ali’s? And then as soon as we have an athlete like Colin Kaepernick or a situation where LeBron James wears an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt [referencing Eric Garner] then people throw them under the bus for taking a stand. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is a lot of activism going on right now with current athletes. The Clippers going to the NBA front office and demanding that Donald Sterling be removed is a prime example. That’s beautiful to me.