Wizards' Thomas back -- as starter, no less -- after heart surgery

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MILWAUKEE -- Wizards center Etan Thomas has managed to stay in the NBA for a long time by banging inside the paint, refusing to back down and outfighting bigger foes.

But a year ago, the 6-foot-10, 260-pound veteran found himself flat on his back, his sternum broken in two and a hole in his chest the size of a small basketball. Thomas was in an operating room at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, undergoing open-heart surgery to repair a leaking aortic valve.

"It's pretty amazing," Thomas said with a slight chuckle as he sat at his locker before his team's game against the Bucks on Wednesday night. "Crazy what [doctors] can do, huh?"

Thomas hasn't just made a full and complete recovery; he has returned to the Wizards' starting lineup as the replacement for the injured Brendan Haywood. In his first action in more than a year, Thomas had 10 points and eight rebounds in Washington's season-opening loss to the Nets on Oct. 29.

"I feel great now," said Thomas, who missed the Wizards' overtime loss to the Bucks with a sprained ankle suffered four days earlier at Detroit.

"The hard part is over. The hard part was last year after the surgery [rehabilitating]. I had to start from scratch -- I mean baby steps. ... I'd maybe walk from here to across the room twice, and that would be it for the day. I really wanted to come back [last season], but my body wasn't ready."

Thomas, 30, had long known he would need a procedure to repair a heart murmur first detected in middle school. But he said he thought it would come much later, long after he had retired from the NBA. He was stunned last October in training camp when a routine medical test showed irregularities that later led to the discovery of the leaky valve.

"I was feeling great. I was working out the day before," he said. "I took a regular test, like I take every year. [The doctor] said, 'Wait a minute now, something's a little different'. I was like, 'Now? Right before training camp'?"

Just like that, Thomas' life was turned upside down. Instead of worrying about pick-and-rolls and post-ups, he was wondering if he'd live to see his two young kids grow up.

Thomas said he would have been a lot more nervous about it if he had not talked to other athletes who had undergone similar surgeries. Ronny Turiaf, Robert (Tractor) Traylor and Fred Hoiberg were among the NBA survivors who reached out and offered encouraging words. Thomas remains in regular contact with Turiaf, who had open-heart surgery for an enlarged aortic root in 2005 but returned within a year to his Lakers team.

"They told me what to expect, what's going to happen, how it's going to feel," Thomas said. "Little things like, When you wake up, be perfectly still because you've got a breathing tube in you; if you wake up and start moving around, it's going to hurt. Just little stuff like that. It made it a whole lot easier."

Thomas wears a small pad under his No. 36 jersey to protect his sternum, which had to broken in order to perform the surgery, but otherwise said he feels no different than he did before the operation. His quick return has not been a big surprise to his Wizards teammates. They point out that he has established himself as an NBA player by fighting inside for every inch.

"That's just the type of person Etan is," guard Antonio Daniels said. "He's not a quitter."

Thomas doesn't see himself as anything special. He credits the doctors and medical staffers for getting him back on the road to health. Initially reluctant to talk about his experience, he changed his mind after getting letters from others who were facing similar situations.

"They'd say things like, I'm having surgery myself or my dad is having surgery. I heard about your comeback and now I'm not so scared," Thomas said. "I started getting a whole lot of letters like that. I talked to my wife and we decided that when God has blessed you with something, you have to give testimony."

Over his seven NBA seasons, Thomas has been known for his outspoken political views, love of poetry and trademark dreadlocks. Now he might be known as well for having come back from a potential life-threatening medical condition.

For Thomas, the experience has clearly given him a new appreciation for basketball and a better perspective on life overall.

"I'm so blessed," he said. "I know it doesn't always work out this way. I know it could have been a whole lot worse. If the worst thing that happens to me is that I miss a year of basketball ...

"When I was in the hospital, I saw little kids who were waiting for actual hearts. So I can't complain at all."