Etan Thomas' voice is one worth listening to

Updated: February 24, 2006, 5:31 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

He says he's not alone on an island.

"There are more guys out there [in professional sports] that are aware of things that are going on. Some people don't express their opinions for whatever reasons, but guys do have opinions and beliefs. They also pay attention, watch the news and have conversations when things happen.

"It is just not everybody's thing to speak out -- but that is something that I like to do."

*****

You know the paradox: If a tree falls in the woods …

In this case, let's say the NBA is the woods. Forty acres of forest.

Now let's say Etan Thomas is a tree. A singular 30-year-old Baobab in a forest full of 50- to 100-year-old Sequoias. Black, beautiful, planted solo, surrounded by tall green.

Let's say there is a lumberjack in a red, white and blue plaid shirt standing next to the tree. Black and Decker in hand, power on …

Does Etan Thomas make a sound?

*****

We live in the era of the soundless athlete. An era in which the highest-profile figures in sports not only say nothing about the condition of the sociopolitical landscape their fan base resides in, but worse -- they have nothing to say.

Etan Thomas
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariEtan Thomas is one athlete not afraid to make some noise. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
They'll speak of love and hate in Nike commercials, they'll save women falling from buildings in adidas spots. They'll dunk cantaloupes in carts in grocery store isles, they'll chase Afro'd dolls through parties trying to get a Sprite.

They'll put tats on their bodies proclaiming love for loved ones and those they've lost; they'll go on "Oprah" or "Jay Leno" and shed tears about their past and how they were lost; they'll do one-on-ones with chosen sportscasters to promote their CDs; they'll form opinions about dress codes.

Saying nothing.

And, bottom line? Ain't none of them wrong. That's what they are supposed to do.

Their silence has emancipated them. Taken them places past their American dreams. Made them our heroes. Some our leaders.

To them we look for answers; answers we find in their silence. We applaud their performances, make sure our kids always choose them on "NBA Ballers"; Live '06 them, Xbox them, DS them, PSP them. All the while accepting their silence.

Because their silence has gone past golden. It's now platinum.

But what happens to the athlete that says something? Not only in action, but in words? In poems? In books?

What happens to the one ball player in a league full of players who ball, the one who speaks his mind so that his soul -- not ass -- will follow? The one who has something -- not nothing -- to say? The one who is that tree -- that short, black, non-green-leaved tree -- in those woods?

Does he get heard when he says, "I am totally against the war"? He follows that up by saying, "[Bush and Cheney] missed the entire point. They should have been more sensitive to the 1,000-plus American soldiers that lost their lives because of the ignorance of the White House. They should have been more sensitive to the fact that these were human lives they were ruining."

Followed by, "What makes me shake my head is not only whites against affirmative action, but also blacks, saying we are all equal now, and we shouldn't have affirmative action because getting rid of it is part of being in a color-blind society. That's outrageous. You can't look at these standardized tests that are so biased, or the conditions of these inner-city schools, and tell me we are all on equal footing."

Does he get heard when he begins a speech at a celebrity-filled anti-war march on Washington last year saying, "I'd like to take some of these cats on a field trip. I want to get big yellow buses with no air conditioner and no seat belts and round up Bill O'Reilly, Pat Buchanan, Trent Lott, Sean Hannity, Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, Bush Jr. and Bush Sr., John Ashcroft, Giuliani, Ed Gillespie, Katherine Harris, that little bow-tied Tucker Carlson and any other right-wing conservative Republican I can think of, and take them all on a trip to the 'hood. Not to do no 30-minute documentary. I mean, I want to drop them off and leave them there, let them become one with the other side of the tracks, get them four mouths to feed and no welfare, have scare tactics run through them like a laxative, criticizing them for needing assistance …"

And ended it by saying, "Maybe this trip will make them see the error of their ways. Or maybe next time, we'll just all get out and vote. And as far as their stay in the White House, tell them that numbered are their days."

Someone who authored a book titled "More Than An Athlete." Who had it published by Moore Black Press. Get it?

An NBA ball player who is more Saul Williams and Malik Yusef than Sam Cassell and Ron Artest.

A man who, if he averaged 30 points per game, might be dead.

*****

This is an introduction to poetry …

What will it take before we change up
Some more of us dead,
Some more of us locked up?
Or maybe more of us will blame the white man
before we understand that the problem's not him.
What I'm tellin' you is actual fact
I ain't pro-human because all humans ain't pro-black.
Remember in your mind it can still exist:
A plan to bring down the black fist.
See the struggle is up hill
life's at a stand still
Jack popped Jill now we don't act real.

And every living moment got us singing the blues
because the sole provider can't afford the baby's shoes
That's the cycle that so many of us go through
America's black holocaust continues
And I just hope we wake up soon
before we fold … I miss the days of old.

Paris, "The Days of Old"

Etan Thomas
AP Photo/Evan VucciEtan Thomas is a poet, and a shot-blocker. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Etan Thomas is a poet. Before he is a basketball player, before he is an activist. The dread from Harlem (born) / Oklahoma (raised) was placed on the earth to script lyrics on lines. Change the world when he recites, fights for rights. Sanchez, Baraka. The Last Poets … a poet at last.

Two points to him is secondary, but he doesn't just ball for the check. He loves the game too. That's the duality of DuBois he must live.

His life is bigger than the NBA. It's bigger than the war he hates so much. When it's all said and done, when the clap meets the chrome on his coffin, the dash that will be between the dates on his headstone will stand for something. Too many of us -- professionals, professional athletes, those who feel we have something to lose -- allow that hyphen to be meaningless, to mean nothing.

To be silent. A flat line.

Because in the hour of chaos we are white lint, not black steel. 50 cent lyrics, not million dollar stanzas.

From a brotha with a multimillion dollar contract. Whose words are worth more.

Again … this is an introduction … to poetry.

No corporate sponsor telling me what to do
Asking me to tone it down during an interview.
Tryna minimize the issue
but I'm keepin' it large
I love the place that I live
but hate the people in charge
Speaking is hard
when you got strings attached
So I'm going to say it for you
'cause I don't got none of that.
And if you don't understand what I spit on your brain
Son, let this ---- explain.

Immortal Technique, "Freedom of Speech"

It takes a strong person to take a stand against America. Not its people, but its policy.

His name -- Etan Thomas -- has been placed among those who have spoken loud while saying something. The Alis, the Jim Browns, the Jackie Robinsons, the Ashes, Russells, Carlos and Smiths, the Jack Johnsons. The "it takes a village to raise a child" children. The village voices. He is among them in voice.

In principle. In theory.

But not in reality.

Because in a world of virtual reality, Etan Thomas is virtually unheard. Much like the MCs whose words lace this column, he is outcast because he's not Outkast.

And is that because he is not Michael Jordan, when it comes to the game -- or if he was Michael Jordan, would he play this game?

Translate: Is Etan Thomas in the position to be a great black leader because he doesn't have the fame and fortune to lose; would he be different -- silent -- if he had everything to lose?

Comparisons to Brown, Ali and Russell are wrong. No, wrong is not right -- inaccurate is more accurate. Their outspokenness came at a price, while there is no price tag on Etan's head. None slated for his toe.

They moved people with what they did in their sport as well as what they did with their words and deeds. At 4.4ppg/3.5 rpg … do the math. Brown, Ali, Russell … Thomas? Not equal.

Yet he is of unequal importance. Greater than the greater number of yards, rebounds and predicted rounds. Rings and things. Belts and Bundini. Browns and bombshells named Rachel.

See, he, E, is on an island that he says he's not alone on.

He says there are others with him. He says there exists a society of black athletes that shares his same passion for truth, same disdain for lies; the difference in justice and just us.

Those who have Kanye's "Bush hates black people" back.

And yet …

He's the only one who makes noise about it, he's the only one who Public Enemy's it to the public's enemies. Which is what makes him -- he, E -- so needed and so important. Because in a world of Terminator Xs, we all need a little Chuck D in our lives.

A little philosophy. A little BDP. A little …

… introduction to poetry.

Somebody help me, tell me the truth
Was it all a spoof?
Crackers show me the proof.
They blame Saddam for bombs of bin Laden
when they finance war to oppress the downtrodden.
It's propaganda
Slanted for blacks
Until our
vision is slanted
distorting the facts
It's mind control, sensory overload
Burn you eyes, frying your brain
leavin' a stain.
That's why they're called programs
visual scams
Burn Hollywood Burn
(now they) concerned? I'll be damned.
but it's a challenge
You all be like cartoons
Learning from schools?
I try to keep it in balance
Genocide is the vessel
I wrestle
the thoughts of
leaving these United Snakes forever
because
this ain't America, home of the free
this ain't no democracy
it's just white supremacy

Mic Flo, "Somebody"

Craig Hodges once had a voice. He once had a chance of being heard. But once he took that voice to the White House and let it speak with a dashiki, he was never to be heard from again.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf once had a voice. He once had a chance of being heard. But once he took that voice to the American flag and let it speak to his back, he was never to be heard from again.

Nothing optimistic about their sounds of blackness.

Martin Luther King once had a voice. So did Malcolm X. They were silenced.

Does sport imitate life? Is basketball art?

In 2003, Steve Nash came to the NBA All-Star game in Atlanta in a T-shirt that read: "NO WAR. SHOOT FOR PEACE." Then he was quoted at the time -- and more recently in his Man of the Year profile in GQ -- as saying, "I think Saddam Hussein is a crazed dictator, but I don't think he's threatening us. We haven't found any nuclear weapons … and until that's finished and decided, I don't think the war is acceptable."

Nash is an artist when he has a basketball in his hands. One of the five best alive in the league. He is silent, but he hasn't been silenced.

Which leads us here: If Etan Thomas had Steve Nash's game and fame, if Etan Thomas had Steve Nash's hair and heritage, if Etan Thomas had Steve Nash's marketability and market value, if he were a superstar/future Hall of Famer/greatest-of-his-era player, would he still be outspoken, speaking out on the (left) side of activism?

"Definitely," he says. "The bigger the platform, the more people you can reach with what you say. That would not deter me from anything."

If only he could score 81.

*****

The Baobab tree can be found in South Africa. It usually is separated from all other trees. It creates its own space while on land with others. It exists on its own island.

Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, former president of the African National Congress, said in 1977, in the days of old, "Our greatest struggle is to raise the consciousness of the people."

In the foreword of the book "Shades of Memnon: The African Hero of the Trojan War and the Keys to Ancient World Civilization," Bill Duke wrote of the connection between where we come from and where we are at. "We are always struggling for something to hold on to, something that says, 'I have a lineage of significance and importance like others.' The anatomy of accomplishment, what is it? It is the dissection of accomplishment. History," he wrote, "is the dissection of tradition and rituals and rites of passage, of ethics and sacrifice, of discipline, of commitment, of legacy, of generational responsibility. These fundamental elements are the fundamental issues that are absent in the consciousness of the 21st century."

Which falls into W.E.B.'s 20th-century theory that the most difficult struggle the black man is going to have in America is dealing with the roles of being black and being American at the same time.

"From the double life every American Negro must live," he predicted in 1903, "as a Negro and as an American, as swept on by the current of the 19th century while yet struggling in the eddies of the 15th century -- from this must arise a painful self-consciousness, an almost morbid sense of personality and moral hesitancy which is fatal to self-confidence. Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties and double social classes, must give raise to the double words and double ideas, and tempt the mind to pretense or to revolt, to hypocrisy or radicalism."

Which all culminates into the struggle of consciousness that our million-dollar slaves have on this, the fourth to the last day of Black History Month. It explains why their silence can be heard.

Still, in the midst of all of this, stands a man, 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, God-like in stature. Prepared to take the weight.

A basketball player. A poet. A tree of life.

The difference between want and need in professional athletics.

The world is in need of Etan Thomas, but it's not sure it really wants him. Whether it wants to handle his truth.

Wants to dissect the dissection of discipline and commitment of something beyond self, of generational responsibility of those who are silent; the weakness of blaming somebody else when you destroy yourself; an introduction to his poetry.

A generation in search of a profit when what we really need is a prophet.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

ALSO SEE