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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.

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE: The Blazers huddle up at the Rose Garden.
IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer

In his 17 seasons, Thomas has played for a nearly a third of the NBA’s teams. If he has left a legacy, though, it was with the New York Knicks, where he played for seven seasons starting in 1998-99. Still young but coming back from injuries, Thomas for the first time had a say in where he’d play. Knicks center Patrick Ewing was Thomas’ basketball idol, so he signed with New York despite the fact he would be fighting for every minute.

“A lot of people thought my playing days were over,” he recalls.

Practicing against Ewing was rough, he says, “but it was fun, you know? If I didn’t take those whippings early, I wouldn’t still be able to play.

“When I first came into the league, the game was a lot more physical. There was a lot more contact, which was allowed. I definitely miss those days. It was just a lot more fun. I think that’s how the game should have always been played.”

In New York, Thomas quickly gained a reputation as a bruiser and a loose canon. Though he was ejected from only six games in seven years, he was criticized in the press for being unable to control his emotions. He says there was never ill-intent behind his trash-talking and hard fouls. Even a reminder that soon-to-be Hall of Famer Reggie Miller called Thomas “a punk” doesn’t make him bristle.

“Great scorer,” he deadpans of Miller, before laughing. “Reggie talked a lot of trash, but he backed it up on the court.... The thing is, I don’t hold grudges. I can beat the crap out of you on the court and we can still go out and get a beer after the game.”

STRETCHING THE DEFENSE: Thomas guards the Philadelphia 76ers’ Elton Brand in December.
IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer
Veteran guard Derek Fisher was around to see the fightin’ side of Thomas, including a storied throw-down with then-Lakers forward Dennis Rodman. “I’m fortunate to play a perimeter position,” Fisher says, his ankles in a tub of ice in the visitors’ locker room at the Rose Garden. “Because not having to bump around with Kurt Thomas every night is probably the reason I’m still in the league 16 years later.”

Thomas’ “Dirty Kurt” reputation still follows him. As recently as 2010, Boston Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsohn referred to Thomas as “a thug,” and Fisher’s old teammate, Kobe Bryant, talks about his battles with Thomas in the Spike Lee-directed documentary Kobe Doin’ Work.

“Kurt and I, we always play around with each other when we compete,” Bryant says in the documentary against footage of the two doing battle. “He’s always hitting me with illegal screens, and I’m always throwing him little elbows.”

Off the court, Thomas says, he is “an entirely different person.” He has been heavily involved in charitable organizations since his days in New York. He teaches kids about financial responsibility. He practices meditation and lives what he calls “a pretty simple life.”

In October 2002, Thomas was arrested for third-degree assault and risk of injury to a minor for assaulting his then-wife, Amber, while she was holding their 2-year-old daughter. The New York press was quick to connect the dots between Thomas’ on-court outbursts and the allegations of abuse. Thomas said little about the incident at the time. “All I can say is, don’t believe everything you read,” he told The New York Times.

“People who really knew me knew I wouldn’t do anything like that,” Thomas says now, insisting there was never abuse in the relationship. “Divorces can be ugly. And mine really wasn’t really that ugly, it just started out that way.”

Amber Thomas dropped all charges against her husband shortly before their divorce in January 2003. She currently lives in Dallas in a home Thomas bought for her. He pays alimony, but “I’m from a Republican state,” Thomas says. “It’s not that much.”

Thomas has a 5-year-old son, Kurt II, with his fiancée. They met in New York and have been engaged for four years. She also lives in Dallas.

Thomas left New York at a trying time in the franchise’s history: Retired Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas started his troubled stint as Knicks president in 2003. Kurt Thomas’ final season with the Knicks was 2004-05, arguably his best as a pro. He was traded to the Phoenix Suns on draft night 2005 to make room for a promising rookie named Channing Frye.

The Knicks wouldn’t make it to the postseason for another five years. Thomas’ playoff fortunes were far better, but he never found another long-term home. He’s been bouncing around the league since, hoping to catch on with a team where he can win that elusive championship. He thought the Blazers might be it. He was wrong.

I SEE YOU, YOUNG FELLA: Thomas welcomes his teammates back to the bench.
IMAGE: Craig Mitchelldyer
Though he jokes with teammates and hollers at shooters from the sidelines, Thomas often looks squeamish on the bench. Tonight the Blazers are on their way to another home loss—this time to a Houston Rockets team fighting for a playoff spot—and he’s sitting for the seventh game in a row as the team’s interim coach and interim general manager see what their younger players can do in a game.

This time last year, things were very different. Thomas was in the playoffs with the Chicago Bulls. He started 37 regular-season games for the team, logging a younger man’s minutes in place of the injured Joakim Noah. The Bulls finished the season with the NBA’s best record, but lost to the Miami Heat in a drawn-out Eastern Conference Finals series. Still, Thomas’ strong play gave him options in the offseason. Reports linked him with the Knicks, Suns, Heat and Celtics.

He chose Portland. 

In retrospect, Thomas might have heeded signs of the Blazers’ bad luck. Two days before he signed, Brandon Roy, the face of the franchise, announced his retirement because of knee problems. One day before, Oden’s season-ending knee surgery was announced. But if signing with the Blazers was a mistake, he won’t admit it.

“I liked the way we looked on paper,” Thomas says now, citing Gerald Wallace’s hustle and playing with former Knicks teammate Marcus Camby as selling points. “I still like the way we looked on paper.”

Camby, Thomas’ buddy, is on the other side of the court tonight. They used to play cards on the team plane, but the former NBA Defensive Player of the Year was sent to the Houston Rockets as one of the draft-day trades that blew up the Blazers’ roster after a series of embarrassing road losses. Longtime coach Nate McMillan was fired. Suddenly, Thomas was left alongside All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and a bunch of kids, some of whom weren’t yet born when he was trying to impress college teams, and the league’s youngest head coach, Kaleb Canales, with little chance of making the playoffs.

“I was shocked,” Thomas says. “You’re going to have some bad nights. But I would have liked for them to keep the team together a little longer. Guys were competing, playing hard every night.”

Thomas fell out of the Blazers’ rotation in early April. Still, he praises Canales, whom he thinks will stay with the team next season. Thomas also likes late-season pick-up JJ Hickson, the young player most responsible for keeping him on the bench. “I’ve been playing a long time and I understand that when you’re on a team and it gets to a certain point, management is going to want to look at their younger guys,” he says. “I understand that. No hard feelings.”

Of course, Thomas didn’t get to be the oldest player in the NBA by talking shit. What probably started as rehearsed clichés—“it’s a business,” “you’ve just got to take it day by day” and “I just try to go out there and play hard” are some of his mantras—have been internalized. Forged under intense media scrutiny in New York, they’re now inseparable from his Zen-like persona off the court.

But Thomas says he has more in the tank. “I’m going to keep playing as long as I can,” he says. “My body feels good.” 

When Thomas was drafted 10th in the 1995 NBA draft, Barack Obama was a civil rights attorney in Chicago, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and no one had heard of a DVD. Early on he was known for injuries—much like Oden. Imagine Oden playing until he’s Thomas’ age: He’ll be looking at retirement in 2027.

“It’s amazing how the world turns,” Thomas laughs. “I used to crack jokes with Kevin Willis my rookie year, which I think was his 12th year in the league. And now I’m getting those same jokes that he was getting.”

Willis would play until two days short of his 45th birthday, making him the oldest career player in NBA history. Thomas will have to play five more seasons to catch up. He doesn’t rule it out. But, if he does stick in the league, it probably won’t be with Portland. That’s more a reflection of the Blazers’ lack of short-term hope than his declining skills.

Thomas' concussion earlier this season:

At the Blazers’ practice facility in Tualatin, Thomas meticulously autographs hundreds of basketballs for season-ticket holders.

“If I go too fast, they won’t even be able to read it,” he says. He just sighs when asked to estimate how many autographs he’s signed in his career.

Signing basketballs and hanging out with mascots is all he can do right now, but he does it as well as he can, something that doesn’t surprise his old rival Fisher. “He was willing to adjust from being a prolific scorer in college to playing whatever role any team he’s been on needed him to play,” Fisher says. “That’s how you survive and excel in this league.”

The NBA is constantly searching for younger, more athletic players. Promise is rewarded with ridiculously lucrative contracts while experience can be bought on the cheap.

Thomas’ best playing days are behind him. He’s built a very comfortable life, earning around $65 million in total salary and buying homes in New York, Miami and Dallas. He says he’s been smart about money, and that his family is “very well taken care of.” He could quit while he’s ahead. He won’t.

“People don’t understand that I’m addicted to it,” says Thomas, who watches NBA games on his days off and checks scores on his phone immediately after Blazers games. “I’m a junkie for the game of basketball.

“I don’t want to walk away from the game and say, ‘Agh, I could have played another one or two years,’” Thomas says. “I never want to have that in the back of my mind. When I walk away from this game, I’m moving on.”

What he’ll do when he leaves is anybody’s guess. “Golf,” he says. Retired players often tell him to start planning a post-retirement career before he retires, but Thomas says he’ll have plenty of time to think about that after he’s done. Presently, he just wants to get on the court somewhere, throw a few elbows and knock down a jumper from 8 feet. The lost Portland Trail Blazers don’t need him to do that. But Thomas, despite being retirement age in his line of work, knows a secret.

“In the real world,” he says, “I’m not old.”

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