Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Well into his 16th NBA season, Bulls big man Kurt Thomas has entered that exclusive club of players who have lasted 15 years or more in the league. He’s eight games away from his 1,000th regular-season game and has appeared in 89 playoff games.
But for a while during his rookie season, Thomas wasn’t sure his pro career ever would get off the ground.
“My first training camp, I thought they were going to cut me,” he said.
Of course, that didn’t happen. After being selected by the Miami Heat with the 10th pick in the 1995 draft out of Texas Christian, Thomas was able to shake off some nagging early injuries to average nine points and 5.9 rebounds as a rookie.
He has played for eight teams in his career, and his best stretch came from 2000 to 2005 with the New York Knicks. He averaged double figures in scoring for five consecutive seasons, the only double-figure scoring seasons of his career.
“My goal was just to play 10 years,” Thomas said. “Then after I got to 10 years, 15 years became my goal. After 15 years, my goal was just to see how long it’ll last.”
At 38, Thomas is the second-oldest player in the NBA — seven months younger than the Boston Celtics’ Shaquille O’Neal and one day older than the Phoenix Suns’ Grant Hill. But if the Bulls’ game Monday against the Milwaukee Bucks is any indication, Thomas still has plenty left in the tank.
He pumped in a team-high 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting and also had nine rebounds and five assists. But the most impressive number on his stat line might have been his minutes played — 44 — in the Bulls’ 92-83 victory.
Thomas ended up playing so much because coach Tom Thibodeau felt most comfortable with him on the court.
“I liked the way he was shooting the ball and also his defense,” Thibodeau said. “I know he’s a guy that can handle it, so we stayed with him.”
After the game, someone asked Thomas if it felt like he played that many minutes.
“Oh, it definitely felt like it,” he said. “But I was feeling good, was in a nice rhythm, and my teammates were pushing me, patting me on the back. . . . By the second half, I don’t even think about it.”
He probably was thinking about it — and feeling it — Tuesday, but he has three days to recover because the Bulls don’t play again until Friday.
“I’m definitely looking forward to these three days off,” he said. “We’ve played a lot of games these last three weeks. We definitely need the rest.”
When he signed with the Bulls, Thomas was an insurance policy in case one of their big men went down with an injury. He didn’t play much in the first two months, but he has been starting since center Joakim Noah had surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament in mid-December.
Thomas is paying dividends and is a big reason the Bulls are a solid 15-6 while Noah has been out.
“It just shows we’re a team,” Thomas said. “We’re solid from 1 through 13.”
When Noah returns, perhaps as early as mid-February, Thomas will be content to go back to his former role.
“This is Joakim’s team,” he said. “I’m just one of the guys trying to help out.”
Despite the difference in their ages, Thomas and point guard Derrick Rose, 22, have worked well together on the pick-and-roll. Most of Thomas’ open jumpers against the Bucks were on pick-and-roll plays.
“I’m mad that he’s not a little bit younger and I could play with him a bit more,” Rose said. “But I’m going to cherish this time I’m playing with him.”
At this stage of his career, Thomas said he’s taking things year by year and will assess his situation after the season.
“I just enjoy playing the game,” he said. “I enjoy playing with these young guys. They make me feel younger than what I am, so I’m just having fun out there.”