Derrick Etan Thomas was on his way to play basketball for Booker T. Washington that night 22 years ago, driving his 1978 Monte Carlo to Central so he could lead one of the best teams in Oklahoma history to another command performance, the type of which would take Thomas to Syracuse, the NBA and the Tulsa Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame.
He could play all right. He could always play.
“He was messing around with a Nerf basketball when he was 2 or 3 years old and saying something about the NBA,” Deborah Thomas, Etan’s mother, says. “I said, ‘No, you mean NBC.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“He said, ‘No, Mommy. N-B-A. I’m gonna be in the NBA. God told me.’ I said, ‘Well, if God told you, that settles it.’”
We could make this about Thomas’ basketball, about his development under coaches like the Rev. M.C. Potter at Antioch Baptist Church and Nate Harris and Booker T., about all those blocked shots at Syracuse and all those years with the Washington Wizards.
We could, but we shouldn’t.
Thomas is a published author and a poet. He decries social injustice and racial intolerance in the media. He tackles topics like broken families and our broken penal system in public forums. He thinks and, more important, he acts.
The longer he is retired from basketball, the clearer it becomes: Thomas is a product of Tulsa sports andTulsa schools.
“It was at Booker T. that I found my voice,” Thomas tells me via email. “It was my junior year and I was headed to a big rival game against Central ...”
This must be about something bigger than basketball.
“... On the way I was stopped by the police,” Thomas continues. “I didn’t do anything wrong like speeding or an illegal turn or anything. Just stopped. I was made to get out of my car, sit on the ground and watch them search my car and detain me on suspicion that I looked familiar to them.
“After 30 to 45 minutes one of the now six policemen on the scene realized that they didn’t know me from a mug shot, but rather from the papers, because I played basketball, as he (one of the police officers) held up my Booker T. Washington duffel bag …
“I remember after they all left one of them simply patting me on the shoulder and saying, ‘You’re free to go. Stay out of trouble.’ No apology. No ‘we’re sorry we treated you like a criminal, detained you for 45 minutes, made you late to your game, embarrassed you on this busy street.’ Just ‘stay out of trouble, you’re free to go.’
“I will never forget that. I can still see their faces to this day.”
Thomas’ eyes, and his mind, had already opened wide before the incident.
Five years previously, Deborah Thomas moved her family from Owasso to Tulsa. She loved being in the country after relocating there from Harlem (her ex-husband had been transferred to Tulsa by American Airlines), but she also yearned that her sons gain a diverse educational experience.
“We moved so they could go to Carver Middle School,” Deborah says. “They were introduced to a lot of different things and different people, which was really good for them at that time. They needed that. They became very aware.”
Julian, Etan's younger brother, gravitated to speech and drama at Carver. That sparked a similar interest on behalf of Etan, who by then was fascinated by something else as well, something besides basketball.
“Literature,” Deborah says.
“My mom started feeding me book after book. Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Black Wall Street,” Thomas writes, “then Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I started reading about athletes who used their positions as platforms.
“Then I remember the Rodney King verdict happened, and it really opened my eyes. I remember Mr. Wilkerson (Tyrone Wilkerson, the speech and drama teacher whom Carver eventually named its auditorium after) allowing us to have the space to discuss the topic thoroughly. It was so needed because there were so many emotions going through the entire school. People were upset, confused, angry, scared, sad, and we talked about all of it.”
As Thomas reached Booker T., state championship debate and basketball teams stoked his twin passions. His worlds collided constantly — he once made the agonizing choice to participate in a district debate tournament over a regional basketball game — but never more furiously than the night of that police stop en route to Central.
“My speech teacher, Bill Bland, told me to write about it for my original oratory when he heard me venting about the situation the next day in class,” Thomas writes.
It wasn’t Thomas’ plan to do so, but he inherently trusted Mr. Bland. He trusted many of his teachers at Booker T. Ms. Fisher, Ms. Alexander, Ms. Barre. Ms. Coleman. They were all mentioned at Thomas’ TPS Hall of Fame ceremony last Jan. 25, along with Mr. Williams.
“I had Carl Williams for English and World Lit. He was without a doubt the best teacher I ever had,” Thomas writes. “He taught us that it was ‘advantageous’ for us to always do our best. That was one of his favorite words. ‘Advantageous.’ I still use it.
“I learned so much from him, how to push yourself far beyond anyone else’s expectations for you. That was a lesson I took to heart from my days at Booker T. to now.”
Thomas found it “advantageous” to present that speech at Harvard in February 1996.
“I made it to the finals,” he writes. “That’s how I found my voice. I continued using my voice all through college, during my professional career and post-retirement.”
One month after Harvard, Thomas joined Ryan Humphrey, Marcus Hill, B.J. Tiger and the Hornets in rolling to the second of what would be three straight state basketball titles.
“Really, we could’ve had two teams and met each other in the finals,” Thomas writes. “A real special team.”
At such a special time. And place.
Thomas had the flu the night he went into the TPS Hall of Fame, so his mom gave his speech on his behalf. It ended: “Tulsa is a special place with a community that wraps its arms around you and pushes you to greatness, and I am thankful for my experience.”
Basketball in his city pushed Derrick Etan Thomas. Deborah and Julian pushed him. They nurtured and reinforced him.
And every step of the way there was school. Thomas could be knocked off stride by something he never saw coming, something totally out of his control, and classroom forces would keep him moving forward.
We embody our families, our neighborhoods and cities. Those of us who compete reflect our teams, our coaches.
Here is a man who shows us that. Who shows us as much as anything else we are all products of our schools.