Etan Thomas sits down with Dave Zirin to discuss his comeback from open heart surgery

DZ: First things first: What is the latest on your rehab?

ET: I’m blessed all around. I am thankful that my rehab has been going as well as it has been. I just got back from a training facility in Bradenton, Florida, called IMG. I spent about ten days there and went through workouts as though I were training in the summer time in August or September in preparation for an upcoming season. I wasn’t sure how my body was going to react to everything, but in speaking with my doctors, they felt that I had progressed to the point that I could try and see how I felt. They told me that I could safely ramp up my intensity level to that point, which our main concern, so I gave it a try. Tony Massenburg came down there with me to help me so that I could train with an NBA-caliber player, and my body responded well. Tony gave me some resistance while I would make different low post moves, and I went through various court drills, sprinting, conditioning drills, etc. It felt good to just be on the court moving around again. The people at IMG are really good at their craft and were surprised to see me pushing myself as hard as I was, but I felt great, and the doctors showed me that my numbers looked good, so I was able to comfortably push myself.

When do you and the people around you see yourself on the court again?

That’s a tough question. I have to take everything in steps. I was just re-evaluated by my doctor (Dr. Talesnick) Monday, and I told him that according to the announcers and the papers, he’d already cleared me. He didn’t like my joke too much, and was actually quite irritated and stressed that he hadn’t cleared me yet and didn’t know where they got their information from. He allowed me to go to IMG and work out under the close eye of doctors and medical professionals, but he has not cleared me to practice with the team quite yet. But that’s ok, the papers got the story at least half right.

But needless to say, my physical went really well. My heart has responded well to the surgery and now he is just waiting to run a few more tests to make sure my sternum is fully healed. I anticipate being fully cleared to practice shortly. I know people usually want definite dates and bottom lines, but everything has to be taken in steps. Now, after I workout with the team for however long the doctors feel is sufficient, then they will re-evaluate me again, running me through every series of tests that they can possibly think of, and clear me to play. That will be a great day for me personally.

What is your motivation to come back? What are people around you advising you to do, or are you one of those people who don’t care what anyone else thinks?

I definitely care what the people close to me think. My family and close friends have been extremely cautious, concerned, doubtful, etc., about me coming back this season. I am sure they would all be perfectly OK with me taking this entire season off, relaxing, and making my comeback next year. But they also understand that I wouldn’t do this if the doctors didn’t tell me that it was safe for me to. I wouldn’t push myself for a comeback.

I’m not someone who is gonna sit here and feel sorry for myself because I had to go through this. A lot of people have things to go through. A lot of people have problems, but it’s not about sitting back and pointing toward the problems you have and letting it be the cause of you not achieving your goals. It’s about how you can take the hit and keep going. One of my favorite football players and activists of all-time was Jim Brown, and I would watch him take hit after hit on the field and just run over the person. He wouldn’t even break stride. The hits would bounce off him and he would keep going into the end zone. Well, that’s what I want to do. Take this hit, and run it over, continuing to the end zone, and when I reach my goal I will have God to thank for giving me the strength to endure, and for blessing me with supportive people around me. Not having the right people in your ear can definitely break your spirit. If I had a wife who told me like Rocky’s wife (I’ve been watching a lot of Rocky movies lately), when Adrienne shouted to him, “You can’t win!” Honestly, I don’t know how he did it. But I digress, my point is that having good positive people around you is a big help, it definitely helped me.

A lot of reporters came to the foregone conclusion that you were out for the season. Was that ever a thought for you? Judging from your rehab, it doesn’t appear as though you are exactly taking it slow?

That’s the thing about reporters, and no offense to you or any other reporters who may be reading this, but I have learned to take a lot of what they write with a grain of salt. Especially if they use language like “according to an anonymous source”, or “a source with knowledge of the situation”, or “we heard”, etc., that in itself tells me that whatever comes after that phrase is not based on any facts. Unfortunately, a lot of articles that they write are not factual reporting. They’re more their personal opinions, thoughts, feelings, here say, rumors, or just plain embellished stories in an effort to create a greater interest for the reader. But the problem is that many people reading their articles take them as actually being articles that are well researched, thoroughly investigated with the proper citations, references, and information. They take them as being almost the gospel simply because it’s printed in the Washington Post or the Washington Times. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. See, my problem is that I expect too much from them. I expect that when they come to a conclusion, and report that I am out for the season, that it would be based on actual facts. This could not have been the case because I know I didn’t tell them that I was out for the season. I know my surgeon Hartzell Schaff didn’t tell them that I was out for the season. Nor did our team trainer Eric Waters, the team doctor Barry Talesnick, or anyone who would have been a credible source. But, that didn’t stop them from coming to the conclusion that I would be out for the season, and putting that in their articles when referencing me. That to me is irresponsible journalism.

Some reporters were under the illusion that if they spoke to a general cardiologist, who felt the need to weigh in although they knew nothing of my personal situation, but somehow had an opinion that actually meant something. They felt that their thoughts, even though they had never seen my charts, numbers, results, or anything were enough to draw a conclusion on my ability to play this season. First of all, it’s irresponsible for a doctor to comment on a patient they have never seen in that every case is completely different; and secondly, for a reporter to come to that strong of a conclusion, proper research should be done, unless their articles are simply going to be viewed as the equivalent of a National Enquirer; Nothing but here say, gossip, opinions, and half-truths.

Now, there are reporters who actually do research before they print articles, and don’t report on things that aren’t fact based. But unfortunately, there are far too many who don’t adhere to these principles that should be a basic requirement for journalism. In the coverage of my surgery, it was evident that either; A. They simply did not do their homework and were simply reporting on speculation rather than on facts, which is a very common practice of reporters nowadays; B. Their so-called “anonymous sources” have about as much credibility as a hill of beans; Or C. They were simply making things up. In actuality, it could have been a little bit of all three.

Those are strong words. Do you now have a negative feeling toward all reporters? I know you and Ivan Carter from the Washington Post exchanged dueling blog posts.

No, I don’t have a problem with him or any other reporter. I said everything I had to say to Ivan in an open letter. I also wrote him an e-mail before I put the open letter up, which he never acknowledged with a response. I didn’t expect an apology or anything and not surprisingly, I haven’t gotten one. Now I know I’m not going to be one of his favorite people, and he is probably going to write something negative about me every time he gets a chance being that he was quite offended at the audacity of me criticizing his work, but that OK with me. I was offended by the way he covered my surgery, and felt that not only was it done irresponsibly but without an ounce of compassion or understanding for the gravity of the situation. When your profession causes you to lose sight of your human side, I think it should be called to your attention.

It is interesting how reporters, who criticize for a living, do not like when anyone is critical of them. I did, however, speak with John Mitchell from the Washington Times a little and voiced my frustration about some of the things he wrote. He listened, didn’t exactly apologize but he at least listened and told me that he understood why I took offense to the way my surgery was covered. But no, I am not harboring any negative feelings toward any of them.

A lot of folks are talking about Brendan Haywood’s ability to step up his game in your absence. Any thoughts on Brendan’s season and how you guys will come together when you return?

I guess that’s a question that I knew was coming so I might as well address this without the editing of my words. I don’t have a problem with Brendan and he doesn’t have a problem with me. We both regret the events that have occurred in the past but that is all water under the bridge now, and has been for quite some time. He and Andray Blatche have been playing very well this season, and I’m happy for both of them. I do, however intend to be competitive from day one. That’s what I am supposed to do. This whole thing about if we can co-exist is just something that the media drummed up. Anyone who has ever played a sport will tell you that your teammates are like your brothers, and sometimes brothers have disagreements. In fact, sometimes your brother can get on your last nerve, and sometimes brothers even fight, but at the end of the day, you are still brothers. That concept is a difficult one for people to grasp.

Let’s talk about the team. No Etan. No Gilbert. But playing .500 ball. How are they pulling this off?

They are really playing great basketball. When you lose a player of Gilbert’s caliber, most people will pretty much write off the entire season. If you take one of the best players off of any team, I think you would see a similar response, but the guys are really proving everyone wrong and it’s great. They are fun to watch. Did you see these last two games against the Celtics? They really looked good. They not only beat them in DC, but then they turned around and went into their home, with all of the excitement and anticipation that the Celtics must have had, as well as the feeling of a need for redemption, and they beat them in their own home. It was really great to see. They were all playing together, everyone was involved, they were helping each other on the defensive end, playing together as a unit, encouraging each other while at the same time correcting each other as well, which are all aspects that Coach Jordan has been stressing sense he arrived in DC. Everyone is just buying into the system, and its working. We have two definite All-Stars in Antawn and Caron, and it would be nothing short of a tragedy if they don’t both make the all-star team. Antonio Daniels has stepped in wonderfully in Gilbert’s absence to run the time and assume a leadership role. DeShawn has showed unbelievable enthusiasm, defensive pressure, and the ability to knock down crucial shots and make important plays. Brendan has been playing the best that I have ever seen him play. The bench has been more than productive with guys like Andray Blatche, Roger Mason Jr., Nick Young, Darius Songalia, and Dominic McGuire showing how important having a productive bench is to the overall success of this team. I even saw my man Pecherov come in and knock down a three against the Knicks.

What they have been able to accomplish after losing an All-Star player like Gilbert also says a lot for the coach as well. The fact that you can take one of the best players off of your team and you can still show a unit that has the promise of achieving great heights well into the post season is a great accomplishment in itself. I am looking forward to coming back and being a part of it. Of course getting to where I want to get as far as productivity and utilization on the team will be difficult and take some time, but I am definitely up for the challenge. My goals are set high. There are those who will say to me and who have said to me don’t expect too much, you’ve missed so much of the season, your coming back from a serious surgery, etc etc etc. But that’s not my frame of mind at all. I am going to work to get right back to where I was before I left. That’s my goal. See, after open heart surgery, no mountain seems too high to climb. Needless to say, I am very anxious to get back.

A lot of people are anxious to see you back as well. The fan support you received was rather remarkable. Did it surprise you how many people responded to news of your surgery?

Yes it definitely surprised me. I think that one of the most unexpected letters and get well cards I received had to have been from Senator Barack Obama. He personally wrote me wishing me a speedy recovery, thanked me for supporting his campaign and told me that he would be praying for me. That to me was absolutely amazing. I had done some things with his campaign and I am definitely a supporter, but I didn’t expect him to have time to be worried about my surgery. He does have a lot on his plate right now. I also received a letter from Mumia Abu-Jamal from prison. That was absolutely mind blowing. Also, my first grade teacher Ms. Roller wrote me while I was in the hospital. I thought that was really nice that she even remembered me. I was in the first grade quite a long time ago.

I really appreciated the other players who have gone through some types of heart surgeries, who reached out to me simply to encourage me. Rony Turiaf, who Kwame Brown put me in touch with, Jeff Hoiberg, and Tractor Traylor were all great. They would check up on me, see how I was doing. Share with me their experiences, and although each of our situations were different and unique, (which many reporters failed to realize) it was still great to have them reach out to me. It said a lot. I am sure that in the future if I hear of someone going through something with their heart, I will be sure to reach out to them the way they reached out to me.

But what always sticks out in a situation like this is the people who you don’t hear from. The people who you thought were close to you. The family members who wouldn’t hesitate to call you if they needed a loan, but you don’t hear from them in a situation like this; or the friends who will tell you how proud of you they are and want to be around you when things are good; those are the people who you just kind of remember. It’s like you know where you stand with them. Sometimes it takes something like this to happen for people to show their true colors.

All in all, I have been extremely blessed and am thankful for all of the support that I received. I saw all of the nice things my teammates said about me; Abe Pollin called me personally before my surgery and shared with me that he too had a similar surgery and just encouraged me that everything would be ok; Coach Jordan congratulating me on TV after my daughter was born; all of the letters and prayers I received. I am thankful for it all. I am blessed to be able to return to the game I love. I know that things could have been a lot worse so the way I look at it is, I’m thankful.