No one would describe the play of Etan Thomas as poetry in
motion. While swatting away an opponent's shot, the 6'9",
256-pound Washington Wizards swingman will sometimes raise his
legs at awkward angles and crash to the floor like a collapsible
ruler. To snare a rebound, he'll rumble into the lane with the
grace of a dump truck and flatten anybody in his path. "Etan is
our muscle," says Wizards center Larry Hughes.
When not playing an enforcer's role at the MCI Center, the
25-year-old Thomas is a performance poet, reciting his verse
aloud to D.C.'s latte crowd. "I haven't seen anything poetic
about Etan's basketball moves," says Washington general manager
Ernie Grunfeld, "but he's the hardest-working poet in the NBA."
This season the Wizards' sixth man is having a breakout year as
Washington, which was 5-7 through Saturday, attempts to return to
respectability. As the league's resident Longfellow, Thomas is
having a breakthrough year in coffee houses along U Street, where
he's often the tallest and widest fellow on open-mike nights.
Thomas has recited his poetry to the Congressional Black Caucus
on the floor of the House of Representatives. In May, at a
District bookstore, he competed in Bring in Da Slam VII, a free
verse face-off that pitted high school students against
well-known poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Edward Hirsch. Thomas
brought the crowd to its feet with a politically charged
Them hypocrites don't care about you
They just out to rescue their mission
They sing renditions of being for the people
But their sequels are everlasting
His subject matter ranges from the death penalty to the
Confederate flag to the struggles of being a black athlete, and
his oeuvre includes two poems on abortion: one for, one against.
"Abortion is a tough one," says Thomas. "I can really see both
Born in Harlem, Thomas grew up mostly in Tulsa. His schoolteacher
mom, Deborah, introduced him to the raucous rants of Amiri Baraka
and the Last Poets, whose lyrics he can recite by heart. He wrote
his first poem--on racial stereotypes--in ninth grade. By his
junior year Thomas was competing at Harvard in the high school
speech and debate nationals. He lost in the semifinals. "Etan's a
deep kid," says Jim Boeheim, who coached him at Syracuse.
When Thomas arrived at Syracuse in 1997, he was a project. "Etan
had a long way to go," Boeheim says, "[but] you could see he was
going to get better and better." Before long he was known for
locking down opponents, and in '98-99 and 1999-2000 he was named
Big East defensive player of the year. He rejected 424 shots in
his career and stands 11th alltime on the Division I list.
"Basketball is a poetic struggle," he says. "You match your
strength and skills with your opponent's."
Selected by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2000
draft, Thomas sat out his entire rookie season with a serious toe
injury. He was shipped to Washington a year later in an
eight-player trade and barely got off the bench that season.
Thomas received more playing time in 2002-03, but he missed the
final 28 games with a fractured orbital bone and bruised left eye
This season he's been healthy, and he was averaging 7.9 boards in
26.3 minutes per game at week's end. "What separates Etan from
other players is second effort," says coach Eddie Jordan. "He
goes for rebounds and then goes again. He doesn't back down or
take a play off. That's rare in the NBA."
Thomas found inspiration from the NBA's greatest player, former
teammate Michael Jordan. "I remember him missing a potential
game-winning shot," he says. "He spent two hours simulating the
play from the same spot." Now, that's poetic license.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER FOR BETTER AND VERSE Recovered from last season's eye injury, Thomas is averaging 7.9 rebounds per game.
Super Sixth Men
Here are five other early-season bench stars
PLAYER, POSITION, TEAM
Darrell Armstrong, G, Hornets
Among leaders in three-pointers tried and made
Earl Boykins, G, Nuggets
Averaging 25.1 points per 48, fifth best at point guard
Al Harrington, F, Pacers
12.6 ppg in 30.5 minutes for East leaders
Antawn Jamison, F, Mavericks
Former starter has graciously accepted bench role
Mehmet Okur, F, Pistons
Offensive rebounding force might earn starting job