October 30, 2020

Retired NBA Player Scores with Black History Keynote

Retired NBA player, activist and motivational speaker Etan Thomas delivered the Black History Month keynote last Wednesday at UMW. Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi.

Retired NBA player, activist and motivational speaker Etan Thomas delivered the Black History Month keynote last Wednesday at UMW. Photo by Suzanne Carr Rossi.

It was a game-changing moment for Etan Thomas. Pulled over by the police, he sat silently on the road as an officer fixated on him. The policeman’s fingertips hovered over his holster, ready to grab his gun, while his partners tried to pinpoint why the black teen looked so familiar.

It must be from a mugshot, they said. When they demanded he pop his trunk, revealing high school basketball gear inside, they finally recognized the star athlete whose achievements were often splashed across the local newspaper.

The former Washington Wizard shared that story during his Black History Month keynote Wednesday at the University of Mary Washington. Packed into the UC’s Chandler Ballroom, students, UMW athletes and coaches, faculty, staff, university administrators, President Troy Paino and wife Kelly, and community members listened raptly as Thomas discussed systemic racism, police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk and more. Thomas’ appearance came as the University celebrates Farmer Legacy 2020, honoring Dr. James L. Farmer Jr., the civil rights icon and late Mary Washington professor, who would have been 100 this year.

Thomas’ activism was borne out of that teenage incident, he said, buoyed by his mother’s passion for social justice, and a speech teacher who encouraged him to channel his emotions into an oratory, which he delivered at regional and national competitions, garnering media attention.

“I realized I could use this basketball thing to speak for people who can’t speak for themselves,” said Thomas, whose advocacy work earned him prestigious awards from the National Basketball Players Association and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation. Read more.