Etan Thomas in addition to playing 11 years in the NBA, is a published author, activist and a motivational speaker.
Who are the athletes, authors, artists and other public figures that have motivated you in your journey? Why? I always looked up to and admired the athletes that used their platforms to stand up for what they believed in no matter the criticism or backlash but because it’s what they believe is right. I grew up learning about Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, John Carlos And Tommie Smith, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Craig Hodges etc etc. That’s why it was such an honor to have interviewed all of them for my book We Matter: Athletes And Activism. I interviewed Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila Ali. I interviewed Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasha.
Who are the people, who’ve led normal lives and held regular jobs, but still have had an impact on you?
There have been so many. My AAU coach and pastor when I was growing up in Tulsa Oklahoma, Rev MC Potter. He taught us about life, not just basketball, but how to succeed in the game of life. Now, I coach my son’s AAU team and actually approach everything the same way he did. Disciplinarian, structure, while nurturing, cheering and teaching all at the same time.
My Grandfather who really showed me the ropes growing up. I spent all my summers in Harlem and I learned so much from him. He was a military man so believed in structure and discipline. He believed in taking responsibility for your actions and choices no matter what age. He also believed that history was important for young people to learn, especially our history that we weren’t taught in school. The real story not the version that had become part of the victor’s recollection.
My assistant coach Louis Orr at Syracuse. College can be rough for athletes. The ups and downs. Learning to deal with pressure and expectations. A coach’s job is so important in players’ lives.
What is a really good advice you’ve been given that you pass on to young people you meet now as an accomplished public figure yourself?
One of the main things I tell young people is to never allow haters to crush your spirits or deter you from achieving your goals in life. Also, know that haters come in many, many forms. They can be some of the closest people to you. Your friends, family members, teachers, coaches, society as a whole. But the most important thing is to overcome despite what anyone thinks.
I tell them about all of the people who told me I would never be successful. I tell them about my 5th grade teacher and Scalet at Monte Cassino who told me and my mother that I would never be able to write in complete paragraph form because my brain was developmentally slow and now after my 4th book that I proved her wrong. I tell them about my 6th grade teacher Ms. Stewart accused me of cheating on a math test because she didn’t believe I had the capability to do well in math, but I graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in business management and soared through classes like finance, statistics, calculus, economics, accounting etc. etc., but I didn’t let her destroy my self worth. I tell young people a lot of stories like that to let them know that they don’t have to worry about what other people think but they have to encourage themselves.
For your latest book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism, you have assembled voices of athletes, activists, media personalities, scholars, and the family of victims of police brutality and provided your own heartfelt commentary on what goes across society as a whole. What type of reaction towards this book has impressed you?
This book has brought different reactions from different people. From Mainstream America, a lot of the reaction has been shock and alarmed that someone like Dwyane Wade would fear for his children’s lives after Trayvon Martin was killed. Or that Russell Westbrook would wonder how he would be treated if his car was stalled or broken down on the side of the road like Terence Crutcher. Or Carmelo Anthony saying that what happened to Freddie Gray reminded him of how easily his entire life could’ve been different as he came from the same neighborhood.
A lot of Mainstream America thinks that Athletes are somehow protected from the horrors of police brutality (which is exactly why Kaepernick took a knee). On one hand, it’s frustrating that it takes an athlete saying there is a problem for a lot of people in Mainstream America to actually believe that there is a problem. But that’s how it is one of the many reasons and so important to encourage athletes to continue using their voices and platforms. When Lebron says something, people listen. There is a lot of power in the athlete voice.
Etan Thomas with Tiffany Crutcher (twin sister of Terence Crutcher) and his son Terence Crutcher Jr. Photo: courtesy of the artist
Etan Thomas and Emerald Garner, after speaking to the Phoenix Suns Photo: courtesy of the artist
Would you like to share with our readers one of your most recent poems for our feature #ForTheLoveOfPoetry?
For Cats who weren’t born with a form of silverware But inner city dental care Or dudes who pursue red white and blue promises from people that fail the acknowledgement that for some, life just ain't no crystal stare For constant let downs from juries who fail to purge punish or hold those accountable who are sworn to protect and serve For those who keep hearing about all of these good cops, but always encounter the bad And cats who are tired of seeing victims on trial for their own murder whenever the trigger man has a badge
Who cant stand seeing these wack jurors come out after the fact with how they believed the cop was guilty but for some reason couldn't convict them All I wanna do is take the chains off Tired of seeing killers suddenly become victims
For every Emerald Snipes and Jahvaris Fulton every Tiffany Crutcher and Allysza Castille every Cameron Sterling and Erica Garner and every other child who has lost their loved ones to trigger happy cops who get paid leave and go fund me's
Don't you believe for a minute that your life doesn't matter No Matter the chatter across non indictments and not guilty verdicts Don't ever let them insert inferiority no mater how much their injustice burns I know your Perplexed by the earth cuz it's seems to get worse when it turns And we're still yearning for respect In a system that was built for us to fail Telling us tales of freedom and justice for all Gaming us like an arcade spending our little quarters straight playin ourselves Till our lives are over Tryin to have us swinging and kicking in the air without the wii controller Straight wasting our energy But this ain't no game They lettin monsters free From Pigs like Like Darren Wilson and Betty Shelby Daniel Panteleo George Zimmerman Howie Lake II and Blane Salamoni Cowards hiding behind badges Like Rudolph Giuliani Stopping and frisking our reality Trying to destroy our soul diminish our spirits and subjugate our mentalities Stephon Clark, Akai Gurley, and Walter Scott’s children no longer have a dad
But they wanna act like Kaepernick taking a knee was all about the military and the flag
What events have you enjoyed the most in recent weeks and months?
I’ve finished a college tour along with the family members of victims of police brutality that I interviewed in We Matter. I spoke with Emerald Garner (Eric Garner’s daughter) at Harvard University and Columbia University. I spoke at Oklahoma University with Tiffany Crutcher (sister of Terence Crutcher). I will be speaking at Howard University with Valerie Castile and Alysza Castile (Mother and sister of Philando Castile). These events are so important because they provide an opportunity for them to continue telling their story and continue to fight for justice for their loved one who was taken away from them at the hands of the police. It’s also therapeutic for them. I spoke with Emerald to the entire Phoenix Suns and they were so moved by her words her strength and her courage. Tiffany Crutcher is fighting for laws to be changed in Tulsa so that what happened to her brother won’t keep happening with no repercussions or consequences whatsoever which is what happens with both officers Betty Shelby and Daniel Panteleo respectively. If police just continue to have a license to kill and all they have to say is that “they were in fear for their lives” these senseless murders will continue happening. We have two new ongoing campaigns and it would be awesome if you gave us your take on both or either one of them.
Well, what has always worked for me was writing. Whether poetry or spoken word or an article. I remember when a reporter Tom Knott from the Washington Times wrote an article disparaging me because of my stance against the war in Iraq, so I wrote a response article challenging him, his craft and his work ethic as a reporter, and got it put in the Washington Times. Gotta admit, I felt better.
I remember when my rookie year coach Doug Collins told me the I would never make it in the NBA and I would be done after my rookie contract. I could’ve punched him in the face and probably would have never played basketball again. But I worked hard, remained patient for my time to come and when it did I took advantage and wrote a poem called Haters about him and put it in my first book and CD More Than An Athlete. Writing has always been my method. That’s what’s always worked for me.
What matters to me the most is my family. My kids being prepared to be successful in life and to be aware of the forces that will be at work against them. That’s why I do all of the work that I do. The panels, the book We Matter “Athletes And Activism” anyone who has read my book will see I talk about my kids throughout the entire book. I have been bringing them with me to panel discussions for quite a few years now. My daughter Imani, 11 years old, joined me at Columbia in April when I spoke with Eric Garner’s daughter Emerald. She actually opened up with a song for my poem called You Matter. My son Malcolm, 13 years old, wrote his own poem that I put in my book called Kaepernick. He has been performing with me for a few years now, too. I brought my entire AAU team to a panel discussion in April that I spoke at. I do this not only for my children, but everyone else’s children so they will have the proper tools to make it in this society.
Thank you and Good luck!
For more about Etan's activity around the country, visit his website:etanthomas.com