Notes From The Other Side: A Conversation With Etan Thomas
Etan Thomas spent eight years with the Washington Wizards, and who he was, would really depend on who you asked. Some viewed him as a player who wasn’t without limitations, but still played hard as an undersized center every night. Former Washington Wizards center, Brendan Haywood, who had more than one physical altercation with Thomas, felt that he was distant, and not always the best teammate. To those people who lived in the Maryland, Virginia, D.C. area, Thomas was a poet, an activist, an author, and an agent of change during the 2008 Presidential election. To others, Thomas was simply hero for surviving and then coming back from open heart surgery, after it was determined he had a leaky, aortic valve. For President Obama, Thomas was a man worthy of a pickup game of hoops in the White House.
So to truly conduct an effective interview with Thomas, all of these facets of his personality have to be kept in mind. He’s a basketball player, who the Atlanta Hawks signed in the offseason, because of the physical presence he brings on both ends of the floor. But he’s also a man with many other interests, and I tried to tap into all of that when I talked him before and after last night’s Wizards/Hawks game.
Rashad Mobley: When Chamique Holdsclaw came back to DC.. this summer, she talked about how the things she missed about D.C .weren’t necessarily the players (from the Mystics), but she missed the off the court stuff like going to Bohemian Caverns and hanging out. Do you find that you miss that as well?
Etan Thomas: Well I still live here in the offseason, so I still go to all those places. They don’t have Mangos anymore, but they have Busboys and Poets and all around U Street, that’s still my area. I love the city, I’m not gonna move anywhere or go anywhere, all my kids were born here, so I’m here.
RM: And how did the screening of Waiting for Superman go last night? [Thomas and Laron Profit held a special screening of the movie, Waiting for Superman in Largo, MD at the Magic Johnson Movie Theaters last night. The movie takes a critical look at the failures and successes of the American school system.]
ET: It went great, it went really great. We had great feedback, me and Laron Profit are going to this in D.C. and in Atlanta, but it went great in PG County.
At this point, Thomas had to cut me short to resume his preparation for the preseason game against the Wizards, but he told me to come back and talk to him after the game. And after watching David Falk and Ted Leonsis share a brief moment in the hallway outside the Hawks locker room, I went in and resumed my conversation with Thomas.
RM: Before the game, I was talking to you about how things went last night
ET: Oh it went great. We had over 200 people RSVP, teachers from all different districts, it was great, and we’re going to keep it going. It’s a project that I think all teachers need to see, just to become aware of what’s going on–not that I don’t think that they are–but the movie just describes in just a great, especially for the students, because they need to know what they’re up against. Whenever I go to kids, I just tell them exactly what they’re up against. They are playing around and thinking everything is everything, but I tell them, you all are going to schools that aren’t as good as these other schools, so you have to work twice as hard.
On one side, we’re telling the problem trying to fix it, but when we talk the kids, you’re saying this is what you’re up against, you have no time for any foolishness. So we’re going to keep growing it, and I’m going to try to see if I can get somebody from Michelle Rhee’s camp or even her herself to do a panel discussions after we do it in Atlanta and D.C., and take it to different places.
RM: Were you aware that she [Rhee] resigned today (as D.C. Public School Chancellor)?
ET: Yeah, but she’s going to keep doing it. But you knew if you followed politics, and when you saw her during the campaign, and who she campaigning with and how she was campaigning against Vincent Gray you kind of saw that writing on the wall. At least I did, I mean I’m not a politician, but..
RM: I was going to ask you how closely you followed the [Washington D.C. Mayoral] Election?
ET: I mean definitely, I followed it pretty closely, I mean she [Michelle Rhee] was pretty strong against Vincent Gray, so I kind of saw that coming. But I think the work that she’s doing–people may disagree with some of it–but I think that its the best way to fix the schools, but at least she’s trying to do something, so I have to respect that and I’ll work with her any way that I can. And her fiancé is Kevin Johnson, even though he’s on the other side [of the country], it’s something that crosses lines, it’s an American problem. Our school system should be better than it..flat out, and that’s something as Americans, we should feel disgraced by, to see how far back our school system is. It just shouldn’t be like that and I’m ready to do a lot with it. But you know young people are my passion, and they always have been, but the response has been really great, and I’m going to keep doing it.
RM: Basketball-wise, how are you fitting in with Atlanta
ET: It’s preseason, it’s the third game, so I’m just going to keep working hard regardless of whatever happens. It’s a great group, a talented group, and they won 53 games last year, so they are a good team. So I’ll just keep working..that’s my job to keep working, its a blessing.
RM: And you’ve worked with Larry Drew before (Drew was an assistant coach with the Wizards from 2000 to 2003), how is it working with him again?
ET: Oh it’s great. I told him I wouldn’t want to have any part of you if I didn’t respect you when you were in D.C. You know I had my problems with Doug Collins, but when Larry Drew was here, he was straightforward and honest, and you can respect that. He tells you how it is, he tells you what he wants you to do, and you can respect it. He pushes everybody hard, but it’s good, positive reinforcement.
RM: Have you noticed a change around this Wizards team, just in terms of the new environment that Ted Leonsis is trying to create?
ET: I haven’t been around enough to be able to tell, but I had a lot of respect for Mr. Pollin and I have a lot of respect for Ted Leonsis. He’s definitely shaking things up from what I can see, but that’s what you do when you take over, you shake things up, and put your stamp on it.
RM: What was your relationship with Gilbert like when you were here in D.C.?
ET: I had a good relationship with him. Me and Gilbert would talk about politics, he would ask me questions, we had a great relationship. I always tell people that, and they say, “wait, Gilbert talks about politics?” and I say yeah, he asked me questions all the time. I remember the night of the [Presidential] election, he called me like three different times and was like, “explain to me this Electoral vote, I don’t understand this” and I’d break it down to him and he’d say, “that’s stupid” and I’d say I hear you, but that’s what it is. So we had great conversations.
RM: So why do you think he shows the media one thing, and his teammates another?
ET: That I can’t tell you. I can’t just tell you what my personal experience is with him. I have a lot of respect for him. I have respect for that fact that he’s battled back from his knee injury, how hard he works, I respect that, I want him to do well, and I wish him well. I think he’s going to do well. I know he has a chip on his shoulder, and that’s fine, that’s no problem, I just want him to do well.
RM: Have you thought about life after basketball an what you want to do?
ET: Of course. I want to be involved in a lot of different things. I’ll always write, so I’ll keep writing, keep being involved with young people, I’ve always had an interest in politics, I did a little radio, so there’s a lot of different things I can get into.
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