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The next chapter: Kenny Thomas takes on the restaurant business after leaving the league

The former Kings player is now a restaurateur not far from his NBA home

Across the street from the Sacramento Kings’ new stadium one November night, you couldn’t tell the team had just lost to the San Antonio Spurs. Joyous Kings fans danced to the hip-hop music while others ordered cervezas, margaritas and street tacos at El Rey restaurant. There was also a growing line out the door of people looking in the big windows, eager to join the late, weeknight party.

Standing right next to the dining room-turned-dance floor, smiling, shaking hands and taking lots of pictures with fans was former Sacramento Kings forward and El Rey restaurant co-owner Kenny Thomas.

“When I walked up, we were at capacity, so I, technically, had to wait for others to walk out so I could walk in,” Thomas told The Undefeated. “I’d rather be at capacity and I can’t get in. It’s crazy. I walked up and people want me to try to get them in and I’m like, ‘Uh, we’re at capacity. I can’t do nothing.’

“Being at capacity, that means we’re making money. I don’t have no complaints. Every time I walk in here, I get nervous. It doesn’t seem real to me that I own this place.”

Before owning the cool Mexican restaurant, Thomas wasn’t an NBA All-Star, but he did have a solid career for 11 seasons.

The former University of New Mexico star was the 22nd overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. He also played for the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento. Despite being undersized, the tough, 6-foot-7 power forward led the Rockets in rebounding during his rookie season. Thomas averaged a double-double of 13.6 points and 10.1 rebounds for the Sixers during the 2003-04 season and a career-high 14.5 points for the Kings during the 2004-05 season. He also started in 406 of his 632 career regular-season games.

Kenny Thomas #9 of the Sacramento Kings gets to the basket around Sean Williams #51 of the New Jersey Nets on November 27, 2009 at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California.

Kenny Thomas #9 of the Sacramento Kings gets to the basket around Sean Williams #51 of the New Jersey Nets on November 27, 2009 at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Thomas says he began contemplating life after basketball when his playing time began to drop with the Kings during his last three NBA seasons. His NBA days ended in 2010 when he was waived during the Memphis Grizzlies’ training camp.

“I had a good career. In the prime, they say your prime is 27-28 to 32-33. I didn’t get the play in my prime. My last three years with the Kings I didn’t play much. Out of sight, out of mind, and I was getting older. I had 10 coaches in 11 years, but I wouldn’t change anything,” said Thomas, 39.

According to BasketballReference.com, Thomas made $54 million during his NBA career. He said he did a great job of keeping his finances intact thanks to solid financial advice. However, he got frustrated early in his retirement when he was unable to ink some business deals with his alma mater, New Mexico.

As Thomas searched for a post-NBA career in business, his attorney, Ken Harris, landed him a life-changing business meeting with Hall of Famer and mogul Magic Johnson. Thomas wasn’t shy. He asked lots of questions and got the advice he needed to spark his business dreams.

“He walked in the room. He had people in there sitting all in suits. He came in calling me, ‘Big Fellah,’ even though he’s 6-9 and long. I turned around and it was him coming from a boardroom,” Thomas said.

“He was 30 minutes late for an NBA interview, and they say he’s never late. But he took 30 minutes to talk to me. He actually saw that I had saved my money. After that, the sky has been the limit. He said he could tell that I was very passionate about what I was trying to do. I was just being me.”

Thomas remained in Sacramento after his NBA days and sought new business ventures through his company, Kenny Thomas Enterprises.

Interior of “El Rey”

Courtesy of Antonio R. Harvey

He came up with idea for El Rey in the summer of 2015 from a Mexican street cuisine restaurant he adored in the Phoenix area. He was able to land a property in the historic Ochsner building at a prime location across the street from the Kings’ new home, the Golden 1 Center, in the heart of downtown Sacramento. El Rey opened up in August as a “modern taqueria that brings the street vibes of Mexican cuisine.”

“I couldn’t steal the Kings’ name, so we came up with ‘El Rey,’ which is ‘the king’ in Spanish and I used to play for the Kings,” Thomas said. “So that’s how I came up with the name. It was a long process trying to get it open. Now we have Taco Tuesdays with DJs, we’re open to 2 a.m. and have a DJ on Saturdays and after concerts and events. And we’re right across the street from Golden 1 Center. It’s crazy.

“I wouldn’t think people would come up to me the way they are. But every time I’m at a Kings game, people say they love the restaurant. It’s created jobs and opportunities for people. [The appreciation] makes me feel nervous, but it also makes me feel good. It’s mesmerizing that this is happening.”

Thomas is also a partner in INFINITY 02 bottled water, which his website says “is stabilized by super-oxygenated bottled water that is imbued with trillions of stable oxygen molecules.” It was previously being manufactured in Los Angeles, but Thomas says it will be made in Sacramento soon. Thomas has a partnership with the Kings that has made the water available in the arena.

Thomas is a regular at Kings games and now sits in his courtside seat at the Golden 1 Center. He has begun doing some Kings television commentary for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area of late, too. The Kings have also supported him by holding a private event at El Rey. Thomas says he has also been invited to meet with Rockets owner Les Alexander soon, but so far he is very appreciative of the Kings’ support.

“The response I’ve gotten from the Kings has been amazing,” Thomas said. “They support me in everything and anything.”

Through Kenny Thomas Enterprises, Thomas is considering opening up another El Rey restaurant in Sacramento. He would love to mentor any current or former NBA player with a business idea. While Thomas isn’t hearing the roar of the crowd anymore as an NBA player, the love he is getting at El Rey is filling the void.

“People embrace me from the fact that I was an ex-Kings player,” Thomas said. “That has played a role in all the support that we’ve gotten. Even when I walk in, I start taking pictures from customers when I walk in. I’m not getting that response on the court anymore, but I’m getting it in here …

“It’s the second chapter of my life now. I wouldn’t change anything.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.