Goodbye, Kurt Thomas? Requiem for a New York power forward
With the N.B.A. playoffs roughly a week away, the New York Knicks appear to have bolstered their decimated front court by signing James Singleton, a well-traveled power forward who most recently played professionally in China. (Don't scoff. The last guy they signed from China turned out to be J.R. Smith.)
But the N.B.A. doesn't have a disabled list; someone from the roster has to go if Singleton is added, and reports have that player as Kurt Thomas, the 40-year-old veteran of 1,110 N.B.A. games and many more physical battles.
It was an injury to Thomas, a stress fracture in his foot, that helped to create the need for Singleton. No one in that locker room or anywhere else, really, wants to see Thomas go.
If this is truly it for Thomas, it is the end of a remarkable career that took him from a scoring curiosity in college to N.B.A. lottery pick, to an extended peak seemingly filled in equal measure by on-target 18-footers and punishing elbows, eyes wide with potential rage.
He was a Knick when the Patrick Ewing era still seemed like it would end with a championship. He was a Knick as Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas destroyed the team around him. He's been a Knick for Carmelo Anthony's ascension into the pantheon of great Knicks stars. He was here for the beginning of the end, much of what came after the end, and now, the end of what the Knicks hope is the beginning of the next great Knicks team.
Thomas first came to national attention in his junior and senior years at Texas Christian University. Thomas averaged nearly a double-double his junior year for 7-20 T.C.U., then particularly thrived when T.C.U. hired Billy Tubbs to implement his up-tempo, offensive-centered approach. Thomas led the nation in scoring with 28.9 points per game, added 14.7 rebounds per game, and impressed enough despite T.C.U.'s lackluster 16-11 record that the Miami Heat made him the tenth overall pick in the 1995 N.B.A. Draft, the same season Jerry Stackhouse went third and Rasheed Wallace went fourth.
Thomas had a solid rookie year, including scoring 20 points in Pat Riley's first game back at Madison Square Garden after quitting the Knicks via fax; but an ankle injury limited him to just 18 games in his second season. Traded to Dallas in a package that brought the Heat Jamal Mashburn, Thomas played in just five games for the Mavericks, and mostly functioned as an assistant coach. It wasn't clear whether he'd be able to resume his career at all.
The Knicks signed Thomas as a free agent prior to the 1998-99 season, and his return to good health also paired him with precisely the kind of coach to best appreciate his physical tenacity: Jeff Van Gundy. He worked his way into Van Gundy's rotation, filling the Charles Oakley role with glee with Oakley dealt for Marcus Camby. Thomas delivered the keynote to his Knicks' career just before his first season in New York.
"Basically, I'm a good person out there until you tick me off,'' said Thomas. "If you mess with me, I'll mess with you. If you want to push and shove and throw elbows, I can do that, too. I'm not Charles Oakley; I'm Kurt Thomas. I believe I can do some of the things he did on the floor. He could hit the 18-foot jumper, and I believe I can fill that role. He was a great rebounder, and I feel I can rebound the ball. When I first got here, the question was: With Charles Oakley being gone, are the Knicks a different type of team? My job is to be physical on the floor. If that means knocking a person coming down the lane, I'll have to bop them."
That is exactly what he proceeded to do. He started 44 of 50 games in the shortened 1998-99 season, then took over as primary center in the playoffs when Patrick Ewing was lost for the season with a torn achilles tendon. He even managed 13 points and 16 rebounds in Game 1 of the N.B.A. Finals, facing a San Antonio Spurs frontline tandem of David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
He had his critics. Antonio Davis of the Pacers called him a dirty player, and added: "I think Kurt Thomas has really taken it upon himself to just be dirty, and if that's the way you want to play, that's fine,'' Davis said, standing in the parking garage of Market Square Arena. "Either the referee has to step in and take care of it or we'll take care of it. One or the other."
That animosity spilled over into the following season, when Thomas collided with, elbowed, then punched Jalen Rose in a Christmas Day 1999 game against the Pacers.
As Thomas told it, he had every right, having been elbowed by Rose, describing Rose's "cheap shot" as characteristic of "some little punk who thinks he's tough just like that little punk Reggie Miller.'' It isn't hard to see why Knicks fans loved him.
By 2000-01, the Knicks were well on their way to getting dismantled, the disastrous Patrick Ewing trade having added some questionable talent and burdensome contracts, and the organization commencing its decade without a viable starting center that only ended with the acquisition of Tyson Chandler. It can be argued that Thomas was the best of the fill-in centers, undersized as he was at the position.
And so, the Thomas who played for the rapidly degenerating Knicks contributed greatly when he was on the floor; he defended well, his shot was accurate out to near the three-point line, he rebounded the ball. But fouls limited his time on the floor, with Thomas leading the league in fouls two seasons in a row, while stories about Thomas finding an ability to control his temper inevitably were followed by Thomas, again, losing his temper.
By 2003-04, Isiah Thomas took over for Scott Layden and turned over the entire roster; that is, with the exception of Kurt Thomas. That team eventually added Stephon Marbury, backed into the playoffs at 39-43, and got swept by the New Jersey Nets in the first round. It was the last Knicks team to make the playoffs until Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony came to town.
On draft day 2005, Thomas was traded to the Phoenix Suns in a deal that brought back oft-injured small forward Quentin Richardson and mistake-prone guard Nate Robinson.
A triumphant Isiah Thomas said this of Thomas: "Kurt was a wonderful player for us and I can't emphasize that enough," Thomas said. "He was solid every single night. He was a pro every single night and we're going to miss him. We have to move on to a younger and brighter future."
It wasn't remotely brighter. While Isiah continued destroying the Knicks, Thomas brought his intensity and reliable midrange shot to playoff teams in Phoenix, San Antonio, Milwaukee, with a brief stopover in Seattle to mentor a rookie named Kevin Durant. The Knicks floundered; Thomas went to the playoffs on six different occasions, and not coincidentally. And he remained fundamentally the same player the whole time; he shot 52.7 percent, exactly, in both 2005-06 and 2010-11.
So the only solace for Knicks fans this past July, when Jeremy Lin was incomprehensibly jettisoned, was the re-acquisition of Thomas for one more go-around on a Knicks playoff team. Down the stretch this season, with Tyson Chandler, Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin battling injuries, Rasheed Wallace and Amar'e Stoudemire recovering from surgeries, it was precisely the time when Thomas would step in, as he has throughout his career.
For one night, that's just what he did: he scored six points, grabbed three rebounds, blocked three shots and even dished out two assists in a 90-83 win over the Utah Jazz. The performance came at the low point of this season, following four straight losses by the Knicks. His teammates credited him with inspiring the victory. As it turned out, he did it all with the broken foot that ended his season, and now, it appears, his Knicks career.
Is Thomas still inspiring the Knicks? Here's what J.R. Smith said following that win over the Jazz: "I have ice bags on my little nicks and bruises and if he can do it,” Smith said of Thomas, then Smith could too. "He’s a pure warrior. With getting the X-ray today and being questionable, and to come in and do the job he did on the defensive end and make shots, that’s a true warrior right there. They don’t make that breed anymore."
In the weeks since, Smith has relentlessly attacked the basket, becoming the second star the Knicks desperately needed to complement Anthony. And the Knicks haven't lost a game.
But come playoff time, some Knick opponent is going to get into the lane and score uncontested, or manage to complete a three-point play thanks to a soft foul. And thoughts will drift inevitably to Kurt Thomas, who for nearly two decades, never let things like that happen.