Don't doubt Bulls' Kurt Thomas
The veteran has stepped up admirably in Joakim Noah's absence
It wasn't meant as an insult. And Kurt Thomas didn't take it that way.
But that doesn't mean he took it the right way, either.
The question was about the relative lack of pounding his body has sustained throughout his 16-year NBA career and whether he thought perhaps that contributed to his longevity.
"I definitely take a lot of pounding," the Bulls forward said. "I really sacrifice my body out there doing a lot of the banging, the fighting for position, taking charges, so there's pounding."
"I meant, um, vertical pounding," I asked as diplomatically as possible. "From jumping? High?"
Fortunately, Thomas, who's 6-9, is not sensitive when it comes to his vertical challenges. Or any others. He laughed.
"I've never been a high jumper, it's never been a big part of my game," he said. "It's something I wish I would've had, but all told, I haven't needed it to contribute. And as far as my playing longer because of it, I can agree with that."
When Thomas went to Phoenix 10 years ago, fans questioned what the run-and-gun, high-flyin' Suns were doing with a guy who could neither run fast nor jump high, preferring to get dirty on defense and shoot the 15-foot jumper.
If Thomas was brought to the Bulls to reunite with Thibodeau, an assistant coach in New York when Thomas played for the Knicks (from 1998 to 2005), and simply provide the first-year Bulls coach with an insurance policy down low, Thomas has given him more than that.
In 23 games filling in for Noah after a November spent primarily on the bench, Thomas has averaged 5.8 points, 7.2 rebounds in 28.8 minutes. His 22-point, nine-rebound game in Milwaukee and 18-rebound game in Indiana showed that at 38, he is still capable of playing at a high level.
Despite his connection to Thibodeau, Thomas confided to friends before moving to the starting lineup that he wasn't sure the Bulls coach still thought he could play.
"Coaches have their own style, their own philosophy," Thomas said. "We hadn't been together in years, and you can have one idea how a person plays in practice, but until you actually see it in a game [you don't know]."
In his first start against Philadelphia on Dec. 21 with both Noah and Taj Gibson sidelined with injuries, Thomas had 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting, 8 rebounds and 5 blocks.
"I hope [he was pleasantly surprised]," Thomas said of Thibodeau, who has consistently praised him for his dependability. "Definitely at first he had some doubts, but I think I had some success on the floor, and I think I've eliminated those doubts."
Thomas might not be the enforcer he once was, coming to blows throughout the years with Jalen Rose and P.J. Brown and nearly fighting teammate Stephon Marbury in the Knicks' locker room, which led to his eventual trade to Phoenix. But he still knows how to impose his will.
"I've just been a physical player my whole career, a guy who has done the dirty work," he said. "I've never had a problem with being physical."
Whether Thomas' presence on the floor makes an opponent have to think twice this season before doling out a hard foul to Derrick Rose, it's hard to say. But his teammates appreciate the unsung contributions Thomas makes, even when they're teasing him.
"Kurt is somebody I grew up watching a lot of when he used to play for the Knicks, somebody I have great respect for," Noah said. "He's probably one of the best post defenders, even to this day. I think that his post defense is very underrated. It's definitely one of the reasons why he's still around. It's definitely not his physique."
"His experience in the NBA has helped him a lot with us," said Carlos Boozer, "because he may not move fast, but the movements that he has [are] effective. He does a great job of picking up charges for us. He plays great position defense. He's always in the right spot and then at the same time, on offense, he makes the simple play. If the jump shot is there he hits it, [if] somebody else is open he passes it when he gets it. He's the ultimate professional and a great player."
Thomas said that is all he has ever aspired to be. Ankle problems in high school, college (where he was the NCAA Division I leader in scoring and rebounding out of Texas Christian) and early in his pro career shaped his style as a player. He fractured both ankles four times in a two-year span in Dallas and, at age 25, served briefly as an assistant coach.
"I was never known as a dunker, that was never a big part of my game," Thomas said. "I was just fundamentally sound."
But if someone had told him he would be playing and starting 17 years into an NBA career? "I would have thought they were crazy," he said. "Coming into the league, I thought if I played 10 years, I'd have a great career. Then after 10, my goal was 15 years. Then I surpassed that, and I just felt as long as my body was feeling good and my mind was still strong and I can go out and contribute and help a team, I'd continue to play."
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"When I made it to the NBA and started making a nice sum of money, I needed to be educated on financial literacy," he said. "I realized that if I was given more knowledge in high school, it would have definitely benefited me in the future. I love talking about finances. It's a passion of mine, and I try to pass along whatever knowledge I have to young guys to help them make smarter decisions about investments. You should know where every dollar goes, going in and going out."
His careful planning extends to the possibility of finishing his career back in Dallas someday.
"I've definitely thought about it," he said. "You just never know. Dallas is my home; I'm never going to leave. I will always have a soft spot for Dallas."
In the meantime, after playing for eight different teams in 16 years, there are no regrets.
"I just look at it as a great journey, and I've enjoyed every year of it, I really have," he said. "It actually went by really quick."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.