Etan Thomas: A session with a lesson for fathers and men


Etan Thomas, Malik Rose and Perry DiVirgilio spoke on fatherhood recently in Philadelphia.

Ten years into fatherhood and the thought of being a father still has me pinching myself. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride. It’s been more of a joy than a chore. I’ve taken my role as a father very seriously. My son has given me some of the best days of my existence.

Parenting isn’t easy. I’ve had several conversations with married fathers and divorced dads like myself. With Quentin getting older, he and I are entering an important phase in our relationship. Falling back on what I think I know is easy. Gaining sound advice from voices of experience is priceless. So here I am looking to build a solid blueprint for my us.

With a little help from my friends.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. – Proverbs 27:17

Former NBA player, activist and author Etan Thomas has assembled his own dream team. A solid group of men traveling nationwide more than willing to share their story of fatherhood.

Thomas has been a longtime friend to The Starting Five. Thomas and Michael Tillery go back some years. I caught up with Etan as I was covering a 76ers/Hawks game when he began working on the book. I was trying to break in my phone’s video feature for our conversation. Etan politely requested me to use a recorder instead. He could not hide his excitement about the book and what it entailed. Thomas interviewed Black fathers who just happened to have made an impact on the playing field, the big screen, holding a mic, or just enhancing the culture.

Thomas’ book ‘Fatherhood’ has been a great success. Celebrity panels have been selected by Thomas to travel the country, promoting this wonderful literary inspiration.

At Philadelphia’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, Thomas was accompanied by a celebrated panel which included: Perry VisionPoet DiVirgilio, Sixers color analyst Malik Rose, Sixers guard Royal Ivey and actor and recording artist Chaz Lamar Shepherd. The panel was moderated by pastor Alyn E. Waller.

We took our seats on the front row, I wanted Quentin to look into the faces of these men and take in their emotions when they spoke of their children. I also needed to be dialed in. There was a nice crowd on a very cold night. Overall, there was not a great male turnout, but I was encouraged to see a large grouping of male adolescents.

Despite a large female presence — this was a message for men. Black men in particular.

Chaz Lamar Shepherd opened up things with a song called You Can Begin From Here. The title of the song was timely for what I was looking to set up with my son.

Pastor Waller asked the panelists to give their stories on fatherhood and what it means to them. What followed was a re-visitation into my relationship with my father. The events which shaped my opinions as a young man and improvements needed to better myself as a father and a man.

Chaz Lamar Shepherd

Chaz spoke about the current custody situation involving his young daughter. A situation where custody battles and child support have taken a toll on him emotionally and financially. During the proceedings, Shepherd emphasized how he remained calm in the midst of a great challenge. Any sign of aggressive behavior could tilt the scales unfavorably. Chaz stood strong in the pocket, no matter how his daughter’s mother tried to degrade him. He spoke without malice and his countenance remained stout. He warned us of these potential snares in dealing with the system, we lose sight our emotions because of the parties involved. He encouraged men to fight the system and fight to be in the lives of their children. Today, Shepherd has partial custody of his daughter and does not pay child support. Although state laws differ, a father’s quest to be in the life of his children should be relentless.

My greatest fear when my marriage ended was another man raising my son. Thankfully, those fears never came to fruition allowing my son and I to be inseparable. Quentin’s mother and I never went to court for anything concerning his welfare. She never threatened me when I struggled financially and I appreciate that. She never held him away from me for any reason. I’ve talked to some great fathers who were dealt less favorable hands when it came to custody and financial responsibility. I definitely consider myself one of the fortunate ones.

Perry VisionPoet DiVirgilio

Perry was physically impressive. He stands about 6’7″, with a voice as commanding as stature. Raised at 22nd and Indiana in North Philadelphia, Perry was no stranger to life on the edge. I grew up on the other side of Broad Street, (11th & Huntingdon) so I can relate. Perry was recently profiled on CNN’s ‘Who is Black in America’. He recounted the words of old heads who told him he wasn’t a man until his heart was broken. From there, he launched into a poem — which reached my innermost man. The title of the poem is: For Jammar, Vic and Nas. Perry went in with both feet.

Elder men in North Philly told me:
You’re not a real man until you’ve had your heart broken
Elder women tell young boys,
You’re not a real man until you’ve had your heart broken.
I never understood why a boy has to be broken to become a whole man.
Like a girl butchering a boys heart is rites of passage
Like manhood can only be measured in fragments
No one loves harder than a boy for the first time.
They love like parachute-less jumps behind enemy lines love
Love like head first dive into her pool and expect her water to be deep enough to consume you
Broken boys know how to love
Mending men are never taught how to recover.

It took me 5 years to get over my first heart break
My first love was a statuesque athletic girl.
She was fine in a pair of ball shorts or a prom dress
Had electric eyes
and a tuning fork tongue that modulated my heart strings
She was the first female to tell me she loved me after my mother disappeared
A year later she followed.
What followed was over compensation fueled by hyper-masculinity
A mad scientist turned monster piecing girls together trying to recreate my leviathan love

My 2nd head first dive came over a half decade later
She seduced me with lavender lips and a velvet voice
Told me soul mates never dissipate
But neither did those passion marks on her neck I didn’t give her
Or the purple bruises on my heart that matched her collarbone
I tried to piece our love back together with memories and tears
But most things that break are never reassembled in it’s entirety
There are always pieces missing
abridged chunks of trust
specks of self respect
bits of yourself left scattered and lost in the carpet

They say being a real man means ignoring the chinks in your heart’s armor
The cracks in the walls
Just stand your post and hope a woman never decides to invade your fears
Capture your trust
Pillage your pride
There will always be a woman who marches over your mountainous ego with a war elephant stomp
Most men are POWs of love.
Been prisoners since our first heart break.
We don’t recover well.
We still fight the war years after we’ve lost
We’re lost
In emotional solitude
We broke
We silent
Wear our heart on our scars
Be broke
Be silent
Love again.
Half heart, half foot out the door
Love with safety nets
Insurance policies
Love like lease
Love with no ownership
Love with just your feet in the water
Love just enough so you don’t like it.
No relapse
No denial
No admission
No addiction
They say black men love like avocados
Dark and hard on the outside
Soft and Green on the inside
That’s manhood
That’s a man

Man like the emotionally nomadic elders who were once battered boys broken by girls
Elders who should’ve told us to not be afraid to fly and fall
Elders who should’ve told us manhood isn’t measured in fractions; we are born whole
When I’m an elder,
I’ll tell young soldiers of love manhood isn’t reborn in forest fire soil
It isn’t found by the lowest common denominator and crossed multiplied
A man isn’t measured by the trail of battered and beaten bits left behind him.
You’re not a real man once you get your heart broken.
You’re a man when you learn how to recover
And love just as hard

The so-called OG’s have emasculated us more than any romantic encounter. What happened to the men who pushed us to seek and education and a good paying job? Instead we were urged to be hustlers, or a pawn in a game with no winners. Playas and pimps are the result of scarred and jaded men who never got back on the horse after they fell of.

They were too busy blaming the horse.

I thought of my own issues about love. From the girl who shot me down because I was too dark, to my divorce and the bitterness I allowed to consumed me for a time. Perry has no children of his own. He is the coach of the Philly Slam group which came in first in last year’s worldwide poetry competition. He has traveled across the country mentoring and encouraging youth to reach within themselves soul and come out with something they thought was never there. His weekly writing sessions — attended by no less than 50 aspiring poets and writers has enabled young men and women to channel more positive and constructive energy.

Malik Rose

My run-ins with Malik Rose have been met with a handshake and a big smile. Malik looked out for one of my cousins during his NBA days with the San Antonio Spurs. My younger cousin wore a size 17 shoe and had trouble getting anything close to that size. Malik’s uncle was my cousin’s teacher. He reached out to Rose — who sent my cousin several pairs of sneakers at no charge. To this day, the two have never met, but Rose remembers the story well.

Rose spent 13 seasons in the NBA and is the owner of two world championship rings with the Spurs. Born and raised in West Philadelphia, he attended Overbrook High School and later became an All-American at Drexel University. He was a second round pick of the Spurs in the 1996 draft.

Malik’s oldest brother was murdered at the age of 18, leaving him as man of the house. Rose’s father wasn’t a part of his life until his name started to appear in the Philly sports section as a high school basketball star. Since the age of 13 Rose has stood by his mother’s side helping to raise his younger siblings. Any altercations or issues fell into Rose’s lap. As a 13 year-old he was thrust into manhood. Rose used basketball to fight off his frustrations of knowing who his brother’s killer was and never retaliating. That’s serious discipline.

Relating to Rose was simple, yet painful. The reality of my father’s death and my responsibilities as a man came when my mother and I went right from the hospital to the funeral home to make final arrangements. The enormity of the task and the heartache it entailed gave the me feeling of an out-of-body experience. Today, Rose has a healthy relationship with his father and is a father himself. A two-year old daughter occupies most of Rose’s free time. To be the best father and husband he could be, Rose never considered raising a family while active in the NBA.

Royal Ivey

Royal Ivey wasn’t a headliner on the panel. Much like his job with the Philadelphia 76ers, his contributions come in a supportive role. Many in attendance could sympathize with Ivey’s story. The Hollis, Queens native grew up in a two-parent home with a father who was addicted to crack. Throughout the family’s struggles, Ivey remembers his father’s words to never look down on anyone and always help someone if you can. Throughout his addiction, his father remained supportive of Ivey and his pursuit of a career in the NBA. Despite suiting up for a handful of teams in his eight NBA seasons, Ivey still manages to dedicate his time and finances to improving the lives of young and old. Whether it’s a turkey giveaway, basketball camp or rap sessions with young adults, Ivey has stayed true to the core.

Ivey is single and has no children. Like Malik Rose, Ivey doesn’t want his career to become a distraction to what he hopes is a prosperous family. I’m happy to say Royal Ivey’s father has been clean 12 years and remains a pillar in his life.

Etan Thomas

Etan Thomas closed the session with his own story — which began in New York City and later to Tulsa, Oklahoma. While in Oklahoma, Thomas encountered gangs who had come from big cities like Chicago and Denver to set up shop in unsuspecting Tulsa. Thomas’ choices during this time would alter his life. Etan focused on sports and academics. He encountered friends who just as skilled and talented, but were unable to avoid the lure of the streets. When gangs arrive in cities like Tulsa, their mission is to recruit local teens looking for street cred and fast money. Those were minor perks to many who were without a father and in some cases, both parents. The gangs provided a loyalty and faux support some of these young men and women had never experienced from blood relatives.

Thomas gave a discourse about his trip to the juvenile ward at Rikers Island. He spoke in a gymnasium filled with about 500 young men who were incarcerated for an array of crimes. These juveniles ranged in age from 13 to 17. Upon turning 18, he is sent to the main unit of the prison. In his interaction with the young men, Etan asked how many knew their father, very few hands went up. When asked how many were fathers themselves, dozens of hands were raised.

It’s a story which has become too familiar, generations of Black men have been compromised for money, drugs and criminal acts among themselves. Left in their wake is a new, fatherless generation left to fend for themselves, headed down the same path. As fathers and as men we are the last hope for our children, all of our children. We are out of excuses, our babies are being shot, raped and abducted in our presence and all we’ve done is look the other way or go about the task half-assed. We’ve done little to understand these young bleeding hearts searching for a listening ear, a watchful eye or even a shoulder to lean or cry on. erry is more than just a coach to the youth he calls his babies. Feel free to add counselor, role model and father figure to his services.

Black men as a whole have been the missing link in the progression of our youth. Time is out for passing it off to mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters. Let’s create more answers and less excuses. This generation is more advanced than any in human history and we’re falling behind.

If we continue to sit back and allow our children to miss out on the bountiful benefits of education, technology and science, we will be held solely responsible for the impending doom of our people.

There are many paths to being a successful parent, Etan Thomas has just blazed another trail.

2 Responses to “Etan Thomas: A session with a lesson for fathers and men”

  1. D. N. says:

    Beautifully done. And Perry’s poem felt like love.

  2. michelle says: