By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005
A half-hour after the game ended, Etan Thomas's 15 minutes were still going strong.
"Etaaaaaaan," came the shouts from the upper reaches of a nearly deserted MCI Center. The Washington Wizards' sometimes forgotten big man waved to the emptying stands as he wrapped up television interviews, signed autographs and dealt with a pack of reporters who wanted to know how he came to dominate the Wizards'117-99 victory over the Chicago Bulls, how he felt about being in the spotlight and whether he'd be writing a poem to commemorate the occasion.
"Etan Thomas for Presidente" summed up fellow big man Brendan Haywood moments later in the locker room. Thomas, perhaps best known for his occasional poetry readings around town, shook his head, laughed and went back to describing his role as a supporting man surrounded by a group of stars.
"We know the Big Three are going to do what they do," Thomas said of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison. "We also know they're going to draw a lot of attention. They did a good job of finding the open people and we did a good job of being ready when they found us."
Of course, Thomas's role yesterday went far beyond standing around and waiting. There was the obvious: 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting from a player who averaged seven points a game and reached 20 just once in the regular season. There was the less obvious: nine rebounds, including five offensive, and a consistent jolt of physical play for a team that had been criticized for its softness.
And there was the slightly unusual: the sight of an animated Thomas picking up a technical foul with 4 minutes 35 seconds left in the third quarter after drawing his fourth personal foul.
At the time of Thomas's explosion -- which he termed "just part of the game" -- the Wizards were clinging to a five-point lead that was whittled to three following a pair of free throws. Three minutes later, thanks in part to two layups from Thomas and a general spike in the team's aggression, the lead was 14 and Thomas soon exited to a rousing standing ovation from an awakened crowd.
"It gets the fans into the game and changes the momentum," said Michael Ruffin of Thomas's technical foul. Others ascribed even more meaning to the brief outburst.
"We're at home -- we're gonna fight, we're not gonna let their bigs bully us," Arenas said.
Thomas's strong game, coupled with nine points and three rebounds from Ruffin, helped make amends for Game 2, when the Wizards' bench was outscored 38-18 and Thomas and Ruffin combined for four points and three rebounds.
"Our bench was just fed up," Jamison said. "Etan really put it on his shoulders that he was going to come in, play well defensively and not get pushed around."
And Thomas, a 2000 first-round draft pick from Syracuse who has been with the Wizards longer than any of his teammates, was the prime difference-maker yesterday. He missed the first 32 games of this season after suffering an abdominal strain in training camp; "it hurt to cough," he said yesterday. The injury became more and more manageable as the season went on, and Thomas averaged more than 20 minutes a game, but he said he wouldn't completely heal until the offseason.
His emergence yesterday ensured that the offseason would remain a bit more distant, but Thomas wasn't complaining: "It feels great when you're out there working hard and you see the numbers, it feels great. No feeling like it, that's how I want to feel every day of my career."