At the end of a timeout during New York's 97-86 win over the Nets on March 7, Knicks forward Kurt Thomas draped his arm around teammate Larry Johnson and exhorted him to attack the basket rather than settling for jumpers. Forget that Johnson has played in 426 more NBA games than Thomas and is four years his senior. Johnson listened intently, as if accepting advice from his shaman. "He doesn't get in anyone's face," says Johnson. "He just notices a lot of things in a game."
Thomas comes by his powers of observation honestly. Playing for the misbegotten Mavericks last season, he fractured his right ankle for the second time in two years and played in only five games. Mavs general manager and coach Don Nelson, who wanted to make Thomas feel he was still part of the team, offered him a job as an assistant coach. "I told them I'd take it," says Thomas, "as long as I could show up to practice when the players did and not before dawn with the coaches."
With a maturity that belied his 25 years, Thomas regarded his clipboard duties as more than a p.r. stunt and worked particularly hard on his pet project: accelerating the development of greenhorn forward Samaki Walker. In a game against Utah, Thomas came perilously close to becoming one of the youngest head coaches in NBA history after Nelson was ejected and his son Donn, Dallas's top assistant, was hit with a technical. "I got one gray hair [coaching], and I'm too young to get any more," says Thomas. "But if I ever decide to go into coaching, I figure I got a good head start."
In the off-season, Thomas decamped to New York under a Texas-sized cloud, allegedly reneging on an oral agreement to re-sign with the Mavericks. Thomas says he had no objection to remaining in Dallas, his hometown, where his father still works for Texas Instruments and his mother for the postal service. It was just that the Knicks put a sweeter offer on the table. "Hey, it was business," he says.
The most pleasant surprise of the Knicks' training camp, Thomas moved into the starting lineup in the third game of the season, after Latrell Sprewell was sidelined with a stress fracture in his right heel. At 6'9" and a solid 230 pounds, Thomas is a strong rebounder, plays drop-cloth defense, doesn't scrimp on hustle and at week's end was averaging 8.3 points per game. What's more, on a team desperately in need of an injection of badass, Thomas sets teeth-rattling picks and treats the low post as his personal mosh pit.
Thomas is perplexed by the attention his steady play has attracted. "People tend to forget that I was the 10th pick not that long ago," says Thomas, who led the nation in scoring and rebounding as a senior at TCU in 1994-95 before graduating with a degree in psychology. "I'm happy to be running up and down the court again, showing that I'm healthy and still have a little game in me."