WASHINGTON (AP) -Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler did double-takes the other day, unsure if that really was Etan Thomas they saw walk by in the locker room.
Then the two All-Stars did what came naturally: They went over to welcome their Washington Wizards teammate with hugs, a little more than three months after he had open heart surgery.
``It's good to be back. It was a long process,'' Thomas said Monday before sitting on the sideline in a three-piece suit and tie during Washington's 102-84 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. ``But it definitely feels great just to be back with my teammates, to be back on the road to coming back to playing.''
He showed up at practice Saturday to say hello and check in with everyone, although he still is waiting for team approval to return to action. Thomas never had any doubt that he would OK, healthwise, and he harbors no doubt that he will wear a Wizards uniform and be out on the court during a game before this season ends.
``I understand when you hear 'open heart surgery,' that doesn't sound like an ankle surgery or anything like that. It sounds really serious, but you just have to really know all the facts,'' said Thomas, a father of two, including a daughter born in December. ``If I couldn't come back safely, it wouldn't even be a thought. I love the game of basketball, but I love life, too.''
The 29-year-old Thomas had known since middle school that he had a heart murmur and that it likely would be something he would need an operation for. But he also figured he'd be in his 50s or 60s when that time came.
Instead, it was during a routine preseason physical that he was told surgery now would be a good idea. These days, Thomas said, the largest concern is his sternum, which had to broken as part of the 4 1/2-hour operation in October to replace his leaky aortic valve.
``We're going to give him all of the time in the world he needs to get back to being part of our top guys,'' coach Eddie Jordan said.
What neither Jordan nor Thomas would do is discuss a specific timetable for practicing or playing. As Thomas pointed out repeatedly Monday, it's not up to him; it's up to the Wizards' doctors to determine when he'll be able to do either of those.
``That was the first question I had: Can I safely play? Can I safely practice? Can I safely do all the things that I want to do in returning to the game that I love? And they told me 'Yes,''' Thomas said. ``They told me that wouldn't be a problem.''
So now it is a matter of waiting.
He walked out to the court early in the third quarter Monday, greeted by fans with fist bumps and high-fives and warm applause. He sat on the last folding chair on Washington's sideline, then stood on the periphery of the huddle during timeouts, his hands in his pockets.
Thomas is the team's longest-tenured player, having played six seasons for the Wizards. He started a career-high 32 games last season, averaging 6.1 points and 5.8 rebounds, dividing minutes at center with Brendan Haywood.
Their competition for playing time spilled off the court, though, leading to at least two fights. Thomas was suspended by the Wizards after one brawl.
Thomas called that animosity ``water under the bridge.''
``No one wants to see anybody in that situation; you're real cold-blooded if you can't feel for someone in that situation,'' said Haywood, who has flourished this season, entering Monday with career-best averages of 10.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.
A moment later, Haywood was asked about playing time and team chemistry and how things might change once Thomas is ready to play.
``Right now we have a pecking order - myself, then Andray Blatche, then whoever,'' Haywood said. ``And at some point, if he works his way into that, then so be it. But right now that's how it's established, and I think that's how it'll continue to be.''

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