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April 18th, 2012 12:01 am CASEY JARMAN | Cover Story

Last Man Standing

Kurt Thomas would rather foul out than fade away.

lede_kurtthomas_3824KURT THOMAS - IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer
Kurt Thomas can’t compete with Blaze. The NBA’s oldest player and his team’s mascot are representing the Trail Blazers at Russell Academy’s rundown elementary school gymnasium in Northeast Portland. These wound-up students earned the chance to meet a basketball star through the NBA’s Read to Achieve program. Instead, they got Thomas, a big man who has lately spent game nights cheering the rebuilding Blazers from the bench.

Thomas emerges from behind a black curtain and the kids gasp at his 6-foot-9 frame and broad shoulders. He’s not famous, but he is a real-life pro, and that’s enough to awe. In loose-fitting jeans and a staid Blazers fleece, he quickly blends into the backdrop. He giggles along with the kids while the big-headed cat-creature does the running man and pretends to bite off the heads of young Lakers fans. Thomas seems at home with the students, who later swarm him for autographs and hugs, but he’s comfortably aware he’s not the main attraction.

That’s the story of Kurt Thomas’ NBA career. He has never been an All-Star. The Blazers don’t sell his jersey.

IMAGE: Ryan Prouty

He’s never been on the cover of a magazine. But Thomas is the last guy standing, the oldest man in the league as he nears his 40th birthday in October.

He’s unknown to casual fans, but among NBA insiders, Thomas is legendary. In a league of soft perimeter defense and showy dunks, he’s a fierce old-school relic who can hit a midrange jumper and set a brutal pick without drawing a foul. That’s why he’s still playing 15 years after injuries nearly destroyed his career. And while Thomas would be a valuable role player on a contending team—hard fouls and clutch shooting made Robert Horry a seven-time NBA champion, and Dirk Nowitzki’s dead-on jump shot destroyed the Miami Heat in last year’s Finals—he’s of little use to the woeful Blazers.

Thomas signed with the team hoping to help it reach the NBA Finals. Instead, he’s stuck on the bench under a rookie coach six years his junior, wasting his last days sitting for an injury-riddled team ending its season this week with a whimper. Yet Thomas doesn’t complain. He’s been through worse.

The sassy waitress at Stanich’s, a pennant-lined burger joint on Northeast Fremont Street, is mildly disturbed that such a big man doesn’t eat red meat. She’s flat-out confused when Thomas declines cheese on his tuna melt. “You need protein,” she insists, her hands at her hips.

Slowly picking at a pile of french fries and glancing over at a seemingly endless stream of incoming text messages, Thomas meets the waitress’s heckling with a syrupy smile. His long legs stick out into the aisle and he leans back against the booth. He’s a quiet guy. You have to push for stories about hanging out with Spike Lee and touring a young Jay-Z’s studio, or about how he waited until he’d been in the league 10 years to buy himself a Bentley.

As he talks, Thomas is prone to bursts of random laughter that shake his shoulders and cause his facial features to scrunch together. He laughs a lot—often as the punch line to one of the extended, intimidating stares that earned him the nickname “Crazy Eyes.”

Thomas is a hard guy to get a handle on; always has been.

“The kids from my neighborhood always thought I was the worst basketball player of all my friends,” he says. “I was just a young, skinny, lanky kid. When I graduated high school, I was about 6-7 and a half, 170 pounds. I was skin and bones.”

Thomas was an extremely shy kid from a middle-class background. His father is retired from Texas Instruments, and his mother still works at a post office in his native Dallas. “I’ve been hoping she’ll retire before I retire,” he says, laughing again. “I’ve looked up to her my whole life. When I see that she gets up every day, busts her butt, that makes me want to go out there and keep doing what I do.”

There are no other athletes in Thomas’ family. “Playing in the NBA was definitely a goal of mine, but it wasn’t my first goal,” he says. “My first goal was to graduate from college. That’s what my parents pushed me for. They knew the NBA was going to be a long shot.”

Playing NBA ball was a longer shot for Thomas than most pros. He didn’t start playing for Hillcrest High School until his junior year, after sitting on the bench as a sophomore. In his senior year, he broke his right ankle. His stock plummeted. Nearby Texas Christian University was one of the few schools still interested in him.

“I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship so that my parents wouldn’t have to pay,” Thomas says. “I was focused on just graduating from college and getting a job.”

A YOUNG MAN’S GAME: Thomas posting up at TCU; with NBA Commissioner David Stern on draft night, 1995.
Images Courtesy of TCU Athletics

By his sophomore season of college, Thomas was showing glimmers of promise on the court. Then he broke his other ankle. He would miss an entire year with the injury and lose the attention of NBA scouts. But in that year off, Thomas bulked up and studied the game from the sidelines. When he returned for his junior season at TCU, he exceeded all expectations, averaging 20.7 points and 9.7 rebounds. Thomas thought he could do better.

“Going into my senior year, I just wanted to average a double-double,” he says.

Instead, Thomas exploded, averaging 28.9 points and 14.6 rebounds in the 1994-95 season. He became just the third player in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding in the same season, a feat no one has accomplished in the subsequent 17 years. He did it with a pin in his wrist from an unhealed fracture and one in his left ankle from the previous break.

Billy Tubbs, Thomas’ coach during his senior season at TCU, says he never heard Thomas complain about pain. “He was a badass,” says the 77-year-old Tubbs, who came to TCU to turn around the failing program. “He thought the paint was his territory and you shouldn’t venture into his territory. It pissed him off if you did.”

“I was more of a fighter when I was younger,” Thomas acknowledges. “If you didn’t give me my respect, I basically went out there an earned it.”

Thomas’ technical fouls and occasional fights led to big criticism. Lakers legend Jerry “The Logo” West once called Tubbs to tell him he should teach his young center to get along with the refs. It didn’t bother Tubbs much. “You know how people are—they want you to be the ultimate [good] sport,” he says. “At that stage of my career, I could have cared less about that.”

The Horned Frogs didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament, but they had a winning record (16-11) and Thomas performed well enough to reconsider dropping his business major for psychology. Within a year of graduation, he’d make his first million with the Miami Heat and go to the NBA playoffs, where his team lost to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the first round.

FOR THE CHILDREN: Thomas (center) and Jonny Flynn make a pit stop before heading to the court.
IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer

Then Thomas trudged through the most depressing 18 months of his life. In his second season with the Heat, he broke his right ankle twice. He played only 18 games before being traded to his hometown Dallas Mavericks. The injuries continued, and he played only five games in a year and a half with Dallas, spending most of his time helping out at practice. “It really taught me how important family is,” Thomas says. “They really took care of me.”

It’s hard to imagine that the oldest man in the league was once considered fragile. There’s no great secret to longevity, Thomas says. He credits God, luck and yoga—in that order.

When he arrived in Portland, Thomas sought out perennially injured top pick Greg Oden, another big man plagued with lower-body injuries. Thomas relates all too well. “I’m pretty sure he’s beat himself up going through it,” he says. “I know I did. But he’ll get another opportunity.”

Whether Thomas will get another opportunity is anyone’s guess. With a year left on his contract, the veteran faces the possibility of spending an entire season as a mentor without taking off his warm-up pants. He is tight-lipped but clearly troubled by the prospect. “I’ve always played,” he says simply.

Would being stuck on the Blazers’ bench compel Thomas to ask for a trade?

“I don’t know,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve never asked for a trade.”

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