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The activist athlete

After scare, Thomas gets support he's used to giving

Posted: Monday October 15, 2007 5:19PM; Updated: Monday October 15, 2007 5:19PM
Etan Thomas said he lives by the following quote:
Etan Thomas said he lives by the following quote: "I speak my mind because biting my tongue would make my pride bleed."
Nancy Ostertag/Getty Images

Last week I found myself overwhelmed by phone calls, text messages and e-mails, all asking me the same question: Is Etan going to be all right?

Although it was hardly a lead story, the news had hit the wires: Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas was going under the knife for career-, if not life-threatening, surgery to replace a "severely" leaking aortic valve in his heart.

The post-surgery news is very good. Despite a 4-hour operation that required his sternum to be cracked open, Thomas is in good health and better spirits. A return to the court by season's end is a possibility.

But the question I'm sure might linger for the casual fan is, Why would a player averaging six points and five rebounds in his seven-year career generate an outpouring of concern more appropriate for friends or family?

One reason was expressed quite simply by teammate Caron Butler. "He reaches out to the community, goes to speak at correctional facilities, has a gift for writing poetry and is very intelligent," Butler told reporters. "He was one of the team captains, even though he wasn't appointed."

This is all true. The man has given something back to the District of Columbia more precious than money: himself. "There are two Washington, D.C.'s," he said to me once. "There is the capital and then there are the people in the city who care very deeply about a host of issues and ideas. ... I have met people on demonstrations and the people in this city really care about politics and issues. That's the kind of people I want to be around. That's the kind of place I want to be."

But he also has achieved such goodwill because he sees himself very consciously as part of a tradition both romantic and polarizing: the activist athlete.

"I have never had a problem standing up for what I believe in," he said. "I admire the athletes of the past, like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] -- athletes who used their position as a platform to speak out on social issues and stand up for a cause. Basketball is not my life. To quote Bill Russell, 'You're not going to reduce me to an entertainer. I'm a man who stands up for what I believe in and you're going to respect me for it.' A quote I live by is, 'I speak my mind because biting my tongue would make my pride bleed.' "

Two years ago Thomas wrote an acclaimed book of poetry called More Than an Athlete, and has been known to read verse and talk politics in front of crowds great and small. If he is a banger as a player, he's more like a sleek shooting guard on the microphone. He soars.

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