Courting More Than Just Basketball

Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards exercises his mind off the court -- writing poetry and speaking at protest rallies.
Etan Thomas of the Washington Wizards exercises his mind off the court -- writing poetry and speaking at protest rallies. (By Noah Graham -- Nbae Via Getty Images)

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By Etan Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Basketball is not all that I am, it is something I like to do. A lot of times people don't understand why I always make this point. Don't get me wrong: Everything about playing in the NBA is a blessing. I'm living the dream of every little boy who has ever picked up a basketball. So I'm thankful. But in our society, athletes are put into a box that limits our potential to delve into any other arena. Now, we can either allow ourselves to remain in this box, or we can resist these attempts. That's why my book of poems is titled "More Than an Athlete" -- because there's much more to me than what I do on the court.

A lot of times preconceptions can get in the way of anyone truly seeing what's inside of a person. People are always blown away by the idea that I write poetry, and I ask them why? Because I'm a 6-10, 260-pound black man, I can't have an interest beyond the field of athletics? Or, after someone hears me recite one of my poems or hears a speech, I am graced with the words, "You speak so well," as if I'm supposed to take that as a compliment. Now, if they tell me they enjoyed my poem or they agree with my point of view, that's a compliment.

This is something I've been dealing with all my life, but I don't let it hinder me.

I'm often slapped in the face with harsh realities about perception. Like when I'm driving in a nice car in a white neighborhood in Virginia, and I get pulled over pretty much for being black. Or, when I walk past a white woman and she thinks I want to snatch her purse, and becomes all nervous to the point where I get uncomfortable myself. Or when I have to ask a white person to hail a cab for me and then quickly jump in the back -- a little trick I had to learn because I can't get cabs to stop for me.

So what do people see when they look at me? A tall black man with dreads, usually wearing some type of baggy clothing, boots, maybe beads of some kind (I'm not really into diamonds or platinum) and maybe a Rasta hat? If that's all they see, then they don't really see me. If that's as far as they want to go into who I am as a person, then that's their loss.

Recently, the NBA passed a new dress code that bans chains and pendants worn over clothing and requires players to wear "business casual" clothes at all league functions. While I don't disagree that we should look more professional, the commissioner's reasons for introducing this dress code were very interesting, to say the least. I thought of the old gangster movies like "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas," where every bad guy in the movie had a suit on. Or maybe back in the times of Malcolm Little, when zoot suits were the style for young brothas. Allen Iverson was quoted saying that if you put a murderer in a suit, he's still a murderer. That may be a little harsh, but I definitely understand his point. If someone has a preconceived notion, thought or feeling toward us, it's not going to change because of our clothes.

Maybe the commissioner thinks that if we take off our jewelry, baggy sweat suits, do-rags and T-shirts, the fans will somehow feel more comfortable around us. Or that we won't be perceived as such a threat. Or that we'll be able to connect with our fan base on another level. It's almost as though he is playing to a societal ignorance that has overtaken the mind frame of the masses for generations. Does he think that fans are afraid of us? So if we put on a shirt with a collar, some dress jeans and some nice shoes, or whatever "business casual" attire we can come up with, we are going to be viewed in a different light? What we wear has no bearing on who we are as people. It's what's inside that matters.

What's inside of me is passion for so many things outside of the realm of basketball. I recently had the honor of speaking at an antiwar rally right on the Mall, in the shadows of the Washington Monument. I spoke about my opposition to the war, the Bush administration's seeming lack of concern regarding people on the other side of the tracks, health care, the education system, police brutality, unemployment, the justice system and other problems in our society to which the right is apparently oblivious. Since then, I have often been asked if I was afraid of repercussions for speaking out. But there is simply too much going on for me to keep silent. I have a voice, and I have to use it. In the same way Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and John Carlos used their positions as platforms, I feel obligated to speak out. All of my life, my mother has told me, "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Etan Thomas is a center for the Washington Wizards. He is also the author of "More Than an Athlete: Poems by Etan Thomas" (Moore Black Press, $19.95).


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