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For Wizards' Thomas, A Verse-Case Scenario

Poet, Power Forward Is Team's 'Energizer'

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page D01

For several days last summer, the Washington Wizards' Etan Thomas felt as if he were on the verge of a breakup, although he still grappled with his feelings for an old flame.

After the 6-foot-10 forward-center signed a six-year, $38 million offer sheet with the Milwaukee Bucks last July, the Wizards gave him the silent treatment. No phone calls. No e-mails. "Nothing," Thomas said. He had a brief conversation with owner Abe Pollin at a Mystics game, but that offered no insight into the Wizards' plans.

The Wizards on Friday play the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that tried to sign Etan Thomas, left, away from Washington during the offseason. (Lawrence Jackson - AP)

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It was an uncomfortable silence for Thomas, who wanted to stay in Washington -- where he was comfortable with his teammates, Coach Eddie Jordan and his staff, had become a fixture in this politically conscious community -- but heard what he wanted to hear from Bucks General Manager Larry Harris.

Harris had told Thomas how much he appreciated his rugged, physical game; that the free-agent big man was his top priority. Harris proved it by catching a private jet -- at 5:30 a.m. -- to personally deliver the signed offer sheet to Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld, giving Grunfeld 15 days to match or let Thomas go. "There was a period where there was a big question mark," Thomas said. "And, when you don't hear anything, you usually think it's the negative. I was thinking, 'Maybe they won't match me.' I knew it was a business. I didn't know if they were going to want to spend that much money on me. I really thought I was going to end up in Milwaukee."

Grunfeld knew all along that he was going to keep Thomas, who had averaged career highs of 8.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 79 games last season, but he waited until the last day to inform Thomas because he didn't want to tip his hand to the Bucks. "It's the nature of the business," Grunfeld said. "He had a good year for us. He earned it."

Jordan said: "We were going to get him done. There was no split camp with Etan. We wanted to sign him in the worst way."

When Thomas finally got the call, he was serving as a camp counselor at a Seeds of Peace international camp in Maine for children from nations at war. "It was a blessing either way," Thomas said. "I didn't understand why you have to go through that whole process, but I was happy. I really like what's going on here. I want to be a part of it."

But Thomas had to wait almost three months into the regular season to contribute to the Wizards' best start in 26 seasons after he strained his abdomen on the second-to-last day of training camp. After missing the first 32 games of the season, Thomas made his debut Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers and received a standing ovation. "That was nice," Thomas said after scoring four points with four rebounds and one block in 13 minutes. "I wasn't expecting all that."

Thomas isn't sure what kind of reaction he will get in his second game of the season tonight in Milwaukee, where the Wizards (20-13) will look to extend their five-game win streak. Thomas said he does find it ironic that he returned from his injury in time to play the Bucks shortly thereafter, but it is merely a coincidence. "It's really just another game," Thomas said. "I'm just trying to get into the swing of things. I don't have any hard feelings toward them. I hope they don't have any toward me. I wanted to come back sooner, jump out there and try to test it, but I had to be patient. It was tough, because it's always tough sitting out."

Thomas, who will release a book of 38 poems titled "More Than an Athlete" in March, said he found a way to cope with sitting out through poetry. "It's my release sometimes," Thomas said. But now Thomas can unleash his frustration on opposing teams, dreadlocks flopping up and down as he battled for rebounds and contested shots against the Blazers.

Grunfeld is excited to finally have Thomas back in the fold. "Etan is an important part of the team," Grunfeld said. "He gives us a physical presence. He takes up a lot of space. He has terrific character. He understands his role and the only thing that matters to him is winning. Those are the type of players you want on your team."

While center Brendan Haywood and forward Michael Ruffin have played well in Thomas's absence, the Wizards were still undersized, had limited depth in the front court and lacked consistent scoring punch in the low post. Forward-center Kwame Brown has also missed much of the season with injuries.

"He's coming off the bench to be an energizer," Jordan said of Thomas. "He's always been that type of player. He's one of our captains. He's a guy people respect in the locker room. They know he's a physical person. It's always good to have a nice guy that nobody is going to mess with in the locker room."

Thomas joined the Wizards in February 2001 as part of the deal that sent Juwan Howard to Dallas and has the longest tenure of any current Wizard. He was part of the failed Michael Jordan-Doug Collins experiment, watched the Wizards suffer through an injury-plagued season, and has noticed a difference in this team.

"The thing about this team is that everybody is on the same page and everybody is working at the same goal," Thomas said. "Not to say anything about the other teams. I'm just saying, as far as this team . . . when you have a team where everybody works on a string, everybody has everyone's backs, everybody knows their roles and it's not a constant struggle for power or whatever, you can be successful. We're on a roll right now and I'm just trying to find my own little niche in the rotation."

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