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New York City
December 2002

Kurt Thomas Aims to Teach Students Financial Literacy
By Tom Kertes

Incredible, but true: sometimes spending time with a lawyer can be a good thing.

“One day, about five years ago, I was just sitting around talking to my attorney kind of randomly, about all kinds of things,” Knicks center-forward Kurt Thomas said. “Then, suddenly, he stopped me in my tracks by asking one simple question: ‘what are you doing with your money?’”

The answer was “nothing.” “I was already in the NBA, so I had something saved,” Thomas recalls. “But, frankly, it was just sitting there.” However Thomas, who was an excellent student as a psychology major at TCU, didn’t need much encouragement to change the status quo. “I was galvanized,” he said. “Once my attorney mentioned some avenues about how I could actually make my money work for me, I was on my way.”

To the library, at first. Following many months of research—“I read all the information available,” said Thomas—he gradually became as knowledgeable a player in the stock market as he is on the basketball floor. “This experience was opening up a brand new world for me,” said Thomas. “And I realized that if I somehow could have learned all this at a younger age, I would be so much further ahead in my life.”

The next step was a natural for Thomas, a man who’s been profoundly involved in helping others—especially young people—all of his adult life. A power broker famous for his physical play and withering glare on the basketball court, he was already the recipient of the 2001 “Beyond the Game” Award by the Humanitarian Sport Hall Of Fame for consistently “going beyond the boundaries of the court into the community to lead by example and serve others.” Now he saw an opportunity to impart his economic know-how to New York City Public School students. “I thought it was important,” he said. “This is knowledge that kids, especially in the inner city, have no way of receiving. Financial literacy is not taught anywhere, unfortunately. And, since outside of school this would not be a part of these students’ lives, this would be something new and exciting, not to mention very useful, to them.”

Thomas touched base with the team’s Community Relations Department; it did its own research and discovered the “Stock Market Game”. “Actually, ‘The Game’ has been around since 1977,” said Damon McCord, Dean of Students at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School. “And it has been widely acknowledged as the best possible way to experience, and learn about, the market. But it was never known, or available to, public school students before. And it probably never would have been—if it wasn’t for Kurt.”

Putting their heads together, Thomas and McCord created the “Kurt Thomas Investment Challenge”, a fast-growing program about to embark on its third year. “In 2001, we started out just in my school, with about 30 students,” McCord smiled. “Then last year we were already in five New York City schools with over 300 students playing.”

The on-line game, which became part of the schools’ standards-based economics high school curriculum, involves teams of 3-5 students playing the market with an imaginary $100,000. “The main thing is the reading, all the studying you do about the companies and the markets, the hundreds of hours of research,” West Side student Kerry Collymore said. “No exaggeration, this was an experience that totally changed my life.” To say the least: Collymore, a winner of one of the six paid summer internships with Merrill Lynch the “Kurt Thomas Investment Challenge” provided, wanted to be a mortician but now aims to earn a career in corporate finance. And his friend, fellow-winner Hector Villalone who had “no idea what he wanted to do” with his life, is currently in Monroe College preparing for a future in investment and economics. “I would have never gotten involved in this game if it wasn’t for Kurt Thomas,” he said. “I was a big Knick fan—and, frankly, there’s nothing like the power of celebrity to draw you into something that otherwise would be so alien to all your previous experiences in life.”

As the students were milling around thanking Thomas at the Game’s year-end banquet, the 6’9”, 235-pound big guy with the ornery on-court demeanor couldn’t get a huge grin off his face. “I averaged a 20 [points]-10 [rebounds] in college and a double-double in the NBA last year,” he said. “Those accomplishments were sweet. But this is sweeter.”

In grateful acknowledgement of his crucial role in creating the “Investment Challenge”, and “for helping our young people in so many ways”, Thomas received the “Wealth Creation” Award from Bedford Stuyvesant’s Bridge Street Development Corporation in a touching, yet often mirthful, ceremony. “Kurt, thank you for everything you’ve done,” Chairperson Monique Greenwood said. “And thank for your gorgeous, handsome presence as well.”

“It is my parents who deserve the thanks,” said Thomas. “My father is an engineer and mom works for the post office. And, growing up in Dallas, Texas, all I heard about at home was how important it was to help out friends, neighbors, and people in need. So I learned at an early age that that is what makes you the person that you really are.”

“And you don’t do it for publicity,” Thomas added. “These kids are sharp. They’ll tap you for a phony in a New York second. So the credit must go to my mom and dad; they instilled in me that the single most important thing in the world is doing the right thing.”

Thomas is such a gentleman’s gentleman off the basketball court that it’s almost impossible to believe that the same guy is the Knicks’ wild-eyed enforcer on it. “That stuff—the look, the glare, all the bumping—is just part of the game,” he says with a smile. “But working with these kids to make their lives better, that is what it’s all about. That is real.”#

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