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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Nearly two years after his last NBA game, Tyrus Thomas hopes to return to the league. Not, he said, because he needs the money. He's just missed the game.
Thomas returned to the court at the D-League Showcase on Friday in hopes of making his way back to the NBA. He is making $9.3 million this season from the final year of his amnestied contract with Charlotte.
"The last two years I've just been miserable," Thomas told Yahoo Sports on Friday morning. "I hate when people say, 'You're getting paid, so it's cool.' No, it's not [expletive] cool. I'm [expletive] miserable sitting at home.
"I'm not broke. I'm not desperate for money. When playing basketball is what you love to do and you physically can't do it and you still have that urge to do it, it's tough."
After one season and a Final Four appearance at LSU, Thomas was selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft. He averaged 7.7 points and 4.8 rebounds during seven seasons with the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats, who are now the Hornets. Thomas enjoyed his best season with the Bulls in 2008-09, averaging 10.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals.
He was traded to Charlotte on Feb. 18, 2010, and was re-signed to a five-year, $40 million contract on July 12, 2010. Charlotte amnestied Thomas after he averaged a career-low 4.8 points and 2.3 rebounds in 26 games during the 2012-13 season. He was also plagued by a calf injury and questions about his attitude.
"After I was amnestied, I felt I was left for dead, as far as the NBA world was concerned," Thomas said.
Thomas spent time in his hometown of Baton Rouge and also San Antonio. He stopped watching basketball until just recently. He also grew tired of the constant questions about when he would return to the NBA.
"I wasn't my old jovial self," Thomas said. "I wasn't around my family as much. I was kind of shying away from everybody just because I didn't want to talk about anything. The questions … 'What's up with ball?'
Thomas was puzzled by a health issue that made him feel lethargic his last NBA season. He wanted to sign with an NBA team for the 2012-13 season, but didn't because "he wasn't feeling like myself." After visiting several doctors, a cyst on his spinal cord that was compressing nerves was discovered in November 2013.
The surgery "was scary for me, so it took me a while to decide if it was something I was going to have," Thomas said. "Was playing basketball worth risking the possibilities of what could go wrong?"
Thomas' love for the sport eventually overcame his fear of having surgery. He had the surgery in March 2014 to remove the cyst and was cleared for physical activity last October. He began playing basketball again in November.
"Some days I wouldn't feel as strong as I should be," Thomas said of his spinal issue. "Some days I felt weird. I would have headaches for no reason. I wasn't feeling like myself. I didn't know what the problem was, whether it was a physical problem or mental problem. But I wanted to figure it out before I started back playing so I could be as effective as I can be."
Thomas was drafted at 18 and suddenly became an instant millionaire and professional athlete. He described himself as a "kid," whose mental capacity at that time didn't match his physical talent.
"I wasn't groomed for the bright lights of the NBA," Thomas said. "My first year in college was my last year. I wasn't heavily recruited by the school I went to, but at the same time, I wasn't really open too much because that just wasn't realistic to me to have people help you."
Thomas said another problem was adjusting to playing for seven different coaches in seven NBA seasons.
"When I really didn't understand their methodology and how they taught, I kind of stayed away from it," Thomas said. "I can look back now and say, 'He really was trying to help me.' I should've listened more to the message than the tone."
Thomas also wished an incident in which then-Bobcats coach Paul Silas shoved him into a locker after an argument following a game during the 2011-12 season never made the news.
"Paul is like family to me," Thomas said. "Regardless to what the media thought, the situation we had wasn't for the media. It was a family situation."
Thomas thinks he was "misunderstood as a player," but took the blame for his eventual departure from the NBA.
"There was a lot I could've done differently to help myself in a lot of situations that I didn't take advantage of," Thomas said. "…I put the onus on myself for things that happened both on and off the court. Just my attitude."
Thomas has gone from the private jets, five-star hotels and elite salary of the NBA to the D-League, which has commercial flights, bus trips, shared hotel rooms and a pay level not much above the fast-food industry. Still, Thomas claimed he couldn't be happier.
"I haven't played ball in almost two years," Thomas said. "This is an opportunity for me to see where I am physically. I don't know what my body is going to be. I think the rehab and training that I have done has been sufficient to get me to this point to get me back playing ball.
"I have been miserable not playing ball. Just playing ball on any level, that's what I love to do."
Thomas finished with 13 points, four rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes In his debut with Iowa on Friday against the Delaware 87ers during the D-League Showcase here. Thomas said he's concentrating on succeeding with Iowa and "having fun." He told his agent Roger Montgomery not to tell him about any interest from an NBA team unless it's serious.
"My task is Des Moines," Thomas said.
Thomas last played in an NBA game on April 17, 2013, and called this D-League stint "his last opportunity." He was asked what it would mean to return to the NBA again.
"I was in my darkest days mentally, physically, emotionally," Thomas said. "I just didn't know if I'd ever play basketball again. I know I'm going to get called up – it's just a matter of when – just because of the person I am and the determination I have. I would probably be really emotional just because everything I went through."
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