Tulsa Roots Inspires Thomas’ Journey
University of Maryland, The Oklahoma Eagle Student Journalism Project
Courtesy of Etan Thomas
COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND – A 16-year-old Derrick Thomas sat on the ground in shock, swarmed by three wailing police cars after being pulled over on his way to his Central High School.
It was nearly 30 years ago.
He was stopped just 5.3 miles from walking into Central’s gym to help lead his Booker T. Washington High School Hornets, a squad that would later be ranked as one of the best high school teams ever assembled in Oklahoma history.
For now, he was staring at flashing beams of blue and red that painted the corner of East Pine Avenue and North Peoria Street — a cascade of fluorescent light that overcast a grim scene in North Tulsa.
“Whenever they stopped a young Black man the first thing [the police would] do is have you get out of the car and sit on the ground,” Thomas recalled.
Thomas sat for nearly 45 minutes, anxiously waiting on the ground as six Tulsa police officers, all white males, scoured his name for a potential record for any outstanding warrants before popping open his trunk.
It was only after noticing Thomas’ Booker T. basketball duffel bag in the back of his car when the police realized where they recognized the towering teenager: He was one of the country’s top recruits.
The swathe of officers scurried away, leaving Thomas late for his game.
“You’re not going to apologize for treating me like a criminal?” Thomas thought to himself as the officers retreated.
Impact of racial profiling
“You never really forget that feeling,” Thomas says.
It’s always been a part of his journey.
Before he was a towering 6’10” center in the National Basketball Association, rocking rims and blocking shots for a bevy of teams over the course of his career, Thomas was a poet and debater. An activist. A Black man born with New York City Harlem roots— but raised in Tulsa’s close-knit Black community in the shadow of the Historic Greenwood District.
‘A very powerful writer’
It’s been almost three decades since the Tulsa police racially profiled him, 22 years since he entered the NBA as a first-round pick, and 11 years since he retired. Now, Thomas is an author and prominent social activist, traveling the country and speaking out against injustice.
Thomas’ activism, writings and commitment to explore the challenges African Americans continue to face, has encouraged even Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, another NBA icon who used both his playing days and post career to become a distinguished author, cultural observer and social justice advocate.
In a tribute to recognizes his lifelong contributions, the NBA established the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Trophy for the league’s annual Social Justice Champion.
While Abdul-Jabbar said he celebrates Thomas’ energy and persistence to make a difference, it comes at a time when he thought these types of conversations would have long passed by now.
“Etan has been very vocal about social justice issues, not just verbally but also as a very powerful writer,” Hall of Fame center Abdul-Jabbar told The Oklahoma Eagle. “It’s wonderful that he is keeping the subject relevant through his writing, though it’s sad that he has to after all these years of fighting.”
For Thomas, the seeds of distrust in the foundation of the United States’ legal system and police force began at George Washington Carver Middle School in 1991.
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He said it was that year he began to find his voice and ways to channel his anger and enthusiasm. He watched with horror, like the majority of America, the footage of the vicious beating, tasing and taunting of a 25-year-old, unarmed African American Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.
“That [was really] the catalyst for me starting to speak out and starting to use my voice,” said Thomas, of the King’s beating.
From a young age, Thomas’ attention shifted to reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and other influential Black activists, like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner, learning to use his voice to speak out about Black issues as an aspiring poet and public speaker. He said he also began reading about how professional athletes, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Abdul-Jabbar and others, used their influence to address issues affecting Black people.
He said it helped that his mother, Deborah Thomas, was a school teacher and instrumental in making education a cornerstone for him and his younger brother, Julian.
Thomas’ affinity for activism grew with his height.
His years at Booker T. proved equally special for the Hornets’ speech and debate and basketball teams, where he was a member of both.
“When I went to high school, I got into speech and debate,” he said. “I was on the speech and debate team… And so, I just always did it. It was always a part of me.”
During his senior year in 1996, Thomas helped to lead both the Booker T. debate (its first since 1978) and basketball teams (its second consecutive) to Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association titles.
His Hornets’ teammates included three starters, who would become professional athletes: Ryan Humphrey, a first-round NBA draft pick; R. W. McQuarters, who won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants; and De’Mond Parker, an NFL player. They were coached by legendary hall of fame coach Nate Harris, who led the Hornets to 10 state championships.
“I was just [speaking out] because that had been what I had started doing in middle school… I was doing it all four years of high school as well,” Thomas said. “[While] we were winning state championships, we were also winning speech and debate championships, and so I always just did it.”
From Tulsa to Syracuse
Following a dominant high school basketball career in Tulsa, Thomas committed to Syracuse University — moving across the country to play for legendary Basketball Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim in upstate New York.
It was at his freshman orientation where he met his future wife, Nichole Oliver, a player on Syracuse’s women’s basketball team. She played three seasons before a third knee surgery ended her career prior to her senior season.
“We just clicked immediately,” Thomas said. “She was always someone who, throughout my entire career always gave me good advice, always supported me… There were times where I would say something or take a stance on something and get pretty strong reactions from the opposition, and she would be there just really to support me.”
As a sophomore, Thomas – who had already changed to be called by his middle name, Etan – was awarded the Big East’s Most Improved Player award in his second season for the Orange. His dominance over the competition only grew as he became an upperclassman, winning back-to-back Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards. After his senior season, he was the 12th overall in the 2000 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks, before being traded to the Washington Wizards.
Despite enduring the throes of a multitude of collegiate and professional seasons, Thomas’ interest in activism was never quelled. He continued to speak out over the course of his NBA career, attending rallies opposing the Iraq War as a member of the Wizards while also publishing his first book, “More Than an Athlete: Poems by Etan Thomas,” in 2005.
Humphrey, a 1997 Booker T. graduate who won two of his three Oklahoma high school basketball titles with Thomas, said the intensity of Thomas’ abilities on the court were equally matched with his intellect off it.
“Etan was not just a basketball player,” said Humphrey, who recently left his alma mater at Notre Dame to become an assistant basketball coach for the Oklahoma Sooners.
“He’s always been forward-thinking. He’s always had the ability to speak his mind, even from a young age.”
Thomas’ professional basketball career ended in 2011 after a short stint with the Atlanta Hawks. But despite hanging up his jersey after over a decade representing Tulsa in the NBA, Thomas continued to wear his heart on his sleeve post-retirement.
From athlete to author
Thomas has released five books and poems regarding race, fatherhood, police brutality and the Iraq War, among other issues. He carries a list of titles – author, activist, poet, columnist, podcaster and lecturer – all focused on his core missions to educate, agitate, advocate, inspire, challenge, among a list of others to help people confront the issues of the day.
He returned to writing in 2012 with “Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge,” before releasing “Voices of the Future,” a collection of poems and essays from himself and other young voices just a year later.
His 2018 book, “We Matter: Athletes and Activism” touched on the growth of social consciousness in sports since his retirement, while his latest book, “Police Brutality and White Supremacy: The Fight Against American Traditions,” delves into experiences like the one Thomas had with Tulsa police as a Black teen in the mid-1990s.
His stories include conversations with sports activists, including Abdul-Jabbar, who has spoken at panels alongside Thomas.
“My mother saw my interest, so she would get me different books about different athletes that use their voices,” Thomas said “She got me books about Kareem, and about Bill Russell, and about John Carlos and Muhammad Ali and all these people, so that’s who I was always reading about. So then to turn around and meet them and have them say favorable things, it was really humbling.”
Thomas has continued his push for change into the realm of journalism and multimedia platforms. He has been published in The Washington Post, Andscape (formerly The Undefeated) ESPN, CNN, The Huffington Post and The Guardian. For basketballnews.com, he is a senior writer and podcaster of “The Rematch with Etan Thomas.”
In 2009, he received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation’s Legacy award and the National Basketball Players Association’s Community Contribution award in 2010.
For Thomas, changing the narrative surrounding Black athletes is paramount as the sports media landscape continues to transform. One of his frustrations, for example, was how his Wizards’ teammate, Kwame Brown, the top NBA draft pick in 2001 out of high school, was depicted in the media. He dedicated a podcast to Brown, whom he said was maligned with the label as “one of the biggest bust” in NBA history, despite playing in the league for 12 seasons.
“I remember being teammates with Kwame Brown and seeing all the different things that they used to write about him,” Thomas said. “And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not true.’
“… And it bothered me because the media really has the power to shape public opinion. And that’s why I like to be able to provide a platform where athletes can tell their own story.”
While he’s grateful of his achievements, awards and accomplishments, they pale to what he says remains his crowing moments: his family.
A father of two daughters, Imani and Sierra, and son, Malcolm, Thomas now travels the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia – the “DMV” –area to watch them come of age and teens, students and athletes.
Malcolm, dons a blue and red jersey for the legendary DeMatha Catholic High School varsity basketball team, while his daughters have taken to volleyball. Malcolm, a junior, is rising as a college recruit, attracting more than 25 scholarship offers and interest, his father said.
He said being his children’s chauffeur — moving from game to game, heckling referees and cheering on his kids— that has become a new routine for him and Nichole – as he continues his dual journey as an activist and father.
“Everything is a lesson,” Thomas said. “Sports is such a microcosm of life, there’s so many lessons that you can learn through your sports, and it’s great to be able to be there and talk with them about it.”
His middle name, Etan, is derived from the 18th dynasty Akhenaten, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. He switched from his first name Derrick to his Etan during his sophomore year at Syracuse.
A member of the Syracuse OrangeHoops Hall of Fame, he was the Big East’s Most Improved Player and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, earned as one of the most ferocious shot-blockers in the country. He is the Orangemen’s all-time shot blocker (424).
He was the 12th overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. In his 11-year NBA career, he played in 709 games and was teammates with Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
He has published five books and is a contributor to The Washington Post, Andscape (formerly The Undefeated) ESPN, CNN, The Huffington Post, The Guardian. basketballnews.com, where he is a senior writer and podcaster of “The Rematch with Etan Thomas.
He and Nichole – a former Syracuse basketball player – have two daughters, Imani and Sierra, and son, Malcolm. He has the Etan Thomas Foundation.
About This Project
The Oklahoma Eagle, in partnership with the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the “On the Ground Reporting” project, collaboratively instructed participating journalism students through the process of publishing stories that focus on community groups and issues in Tulsa and Oklahoma. The class was led by Maryland associate professor and Washington Post staff writer DeNeen Brown, an Oklahoma native, who teamed with Eagle editors M. David Goodwin and Gary Lee.
To read other stories in the student project, visit https://theokeagle.com/on-the-ground-reporting/