Etan Thomas remembers the tap on the shoulder. It was the fall of 2005, and the backup center had just completed a routine workout in the Washington Wizards’ practice facility. A few days earlier, Thomas, an outspoken activist during his decade in the NBA, had given a speech at an antiwar rally in front of thousands of protesters assembled on the Mall. Now, a team staffer was delivering a message that would jolt any player: “Abe Pollin would like to see you in his office.”
“It was so weird because Abe Pollin doesn’t talk to people in his office like that — or at least not me,” Thomas said of the late Wizards owner, who died in 2009. “I remember thinking: ‘Uh oh, this might be the end. I didn’t quite think this through.’ ”
As Thomas approached the office, however, Pollin was standing there with a wide grin. He wanted to congratulate Thomas on his speech and spend some time talking politics.
At that time in his career, Thomas was the rare NBA player who shared public opinions about heavy social issues. Today, superstar LeBron James and coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr headline a parade of NBA members who speak out against President Trump, while Colin Kaepernick ushered an era of “wokeness” within the NFL by refusing to stand during the national anthem in 2016 as a form of protest against police brutality and racial inequality.
Thomas wants to encourage more athletes to feel unbridled and unafraid to use their platform, which helps explain his latest published book, “We Matter.”
“I respected everybody else’s hesitancy to say something outside of the locker room. … It was a different time then,” said Thomas, who played for the Wizards from 2001 to 2009. “I think people are less hesitant now because of the examples that they’re being shown.”
In “We Matter,” Thomas strives to show the influence professional athletes can have when they join the conversation on race, politics and civil rights. Thomas conducted 50 interviews, which included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Laila Ali, Michael Bennett and Eric Reid, among many other athletes, as well as journalists, television personalities and family members of unarmed black men who were shot and killed. Thomas also explored his ties with the Wizards and spoke with John Wall, Bradley Beal and current majority team owner Ted Leonsis.
“Even when I interviewed John Wall, he said that he was young watching LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul [along with Dwyane Wade] at the ESPYs, and he kind of became empowered by seeing them,” Thomas said.
In 2016, the four NBA superstars stood side by side and opened the sports award show by challenging their fellow athletes to speak up for communities and on social issues. Wall, who was 26 at the time, has since spoken out about Trump as well as shared a message of unity after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last summer.
“We also have opinions just like everyone else does,” Wall said in an excerpt of “We Matter.” “And if we want to say something, [Leonsis] gives us the leeway to speak our mind. Some things are bigger than basketball.”
For Thomas, the fleeting concern he felt while walking upstairs to see Pollin was quickly mitigated by the owner’s welcoming smile. The pair talked for about an hour, and Thomas knew he had the full support of the team, which has continued with Leonsis at the helm. For his latest book, Thomas interviewed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and owners such as Leonsis and Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, to show current players that they, too, have support.
“That’s why I wanted to get Adam Silver’s voice in there and Ted Leonsis and Mark Cuban and the people in positions of power in the NBA, to let them know you don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to be hesitant,” Thomas said. “Their voices are powerful. They’re, like, really powerful. I don’t want people to feel afraid to use their voice.”