Ailene Voisin

Ex-Kings forward Kenny Thomas reinvents himself as restaurateur

It was late one night earlier in the week, after the Kings’ final preseason game. The restaurant El Rey on the K Street mall was loud and crowded, with a line forming at the door. The bar was mobbed. One or two empty tables near the front were vacant but yet to be cleared.

Suddenly, a giant of a man – Kenny Thomas is 6-foot-7 and a few pounds heavier than the 245 pounds of his NBA playing days – hurries over and grabs the empty beer bottles, scoops up the used plates and hustles to find a dishrag.

“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” he asks, with a grin. “Sometimes I look around and can’t believe it myself. But I had to do something. Nobody is paying me $10 million a year to play basketball anymore.”

The former Kings forward isn’t merely an employee, though. He is part owner of the taqueria that opened Aug. 11 and is situated a half-court shot from Golden 1 Center. The location, he explains, was critical. The closer to the arena, the better. The other significant factor was the timing. Similar to a fast break, you want to get downcourt before the competition catches up.

Other than Malt & Mash, the Irish pub that shares the building but limits its service to those 21 and older, most of the nearby surroundings are in various stages of development. Thomas and his partners are also constructing a third eatery on the ground floor of the Ochsner Building, which was built in 1895 and, looking to the west, borders the site of the annual ice rink.

The theme for the third establishment has yet to be determined, though Thomas suspects the menu will include American cuisine. El Rey – The King in Spanish – primarily serves a variety of tacos, burritos and other Mexican fare, with several types of salsa, salads, and chip and dip combination.

Thomas – whose ownership group includes longtime Sacramento restaurateur Trevor Shults (Barwest, Vanguard 1415, Crawdads on the River) and nightclub investors Bob Simpson, Randy Clyde and Thomas Heenan – has other business interests. He is president and CEO of a bottled water company and an apparel line, and is involved in commercial real estate both here and in his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M.

Yet his obvious affinity for El Rey is more than a little fascinating considering he has maintained a low local profile since being released by the Kings in 2010. Except for a brief tryout with the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2010-11 preseason, the onetime power forward attended a grand total of two NBA games: the Cavaliers’ visit last season and the Kings’ finale at Sleep Train Arena.

“Nobody knew I was still here,” he said. “But I love California. My two boys are in school here. And my closest friends live here. Why would I leave?”

Thomas, 39, adds that he spent more than half his life traveling and welcomed the opportunity to establish roots. A military kid and an only child who was born in Atlanta, he lived in several U.S. cities and spent five of his formative years in Nuremberg, Germany. He attended his first three years of high school in El Paso, Texas, before his parents relocated again to New Mexico, where he led Albuquerque High to the Class 4A state championship and earned a scholarship to the University of New Mexico.

An undersized power forward, he nonetheless remains the Lobos’ all-time leader in rebounding and ranks second in scoring and blocks. Besides being selected by the Houston Rockets in the first round (22nd overall) of the 1999 NBA draft and traded to the Philadelphia 76ers three years later, he provides the answer to a Sacramento-centric trivia question: What current restaurateur was a featured piece of the trade that sent Chris Webber – who formerly owned a restaurant in Natomas – to the 76ers in 2005?

Thomas laughs when reminded about the circumstances that brought him to Sacramento, then shakes his head. Life in the NBA can be difficult. He played for 10 coaches in 11 years. But life after the NBA can be even more trying, he suggests. He is going through a divorce. He misses those $10 million paychecks. He has been forced to reinvent himself and – as the soft-spoken but high-profile face of El Rey – overcome his shyness.

As patrons entered the restaurant during our conversation Wednesday afternoon, Thomas maintained a watchful eye on his surroundings. He pointed out blank wall space that needs another big-screen television, alerted the bartender about a patron who needed attention, and excused himself briefly to welcome a familiar face.

Kings employees are some of his best customers.

“The food is great,” said assistant coach Duane Ticknor, who walks past El Rey and down the K Street mall en route to his apartment. “I’m in there all the time, mostly for lunch.”

Thomas, who doesn’t have a set schedule but frequents the premises, usually can be found in the third booth on the right when not working the room or providing tours of the yet-to-be completed third restaurant that will include a patio area facing the arena and abutting the ice rink that construction crews have been working on for the past several days.

“It’s crazy, huh?” he said. “People come in, and they are shocked that it’s me. You just never know.”