Ten years ago the short and scrawny junior at Curtis scored 51 points in a state semifinal against Franklin — and lost. Thomas went on to star for UW and made his first NBA All-Star Game this season. But that game 10 years ago is still central to his mythology.
Under the strange, gloomy lights inside the Tacoma Dome, the legend was hatched, and over the next decade, reality gave way to hyperbole.
In 2006, a short and scrawny junior at Curtis High School in University Place struck a match, scored 51 points in a state semifinal game against Franklin — and lost. His name was Isaiah Thomas.
He was listed at 5 feet 9 and threw down dunks that defied his height. He hit deep and then deeper three-pointers. He made 16 of 30 shots.
A look at Isaiah Thomas’ basketball stats in his career:
Scoring average his junior year at Curtis High
Scoring average with Washington Huskies, 2009-11
Scoring average in the NBA, 2011-16, with Sacramento, Phoenix and Boston
He attracted attention wherever he went, and hardly any of it slowed him. Nor did it matter that Franklin had two players who would play big-time college basketball in Venoy Overton (Washington) and Peyton Siva (Louisville).
The state tournament’s scoring record for a game had stood for more than 50 years until Thomas came along, and that’s still the mark. His 40.5 points per game during that tournament also is a record. And yet over time the shadow of that game has only grown.
His business manager thinks he scored 52 points. The man who coached against him remembers him scoring 54, but ultimately concedes, “Or the legend of that game just grows bigger…”
Thomas went on to star for UW and made his first NBA All-Star Game with the Boston Celtics this season.
But that game 10 years ago is still central to his mythology.
“Everybody to this day still talks about that 51-point game,” Thomas said.
Here is a look back by some who were there, and their positions at the time:
Cameron Dollar, UW assistant coach: “In recruiting, you’re always telling other people about guys you’ve seen. And you’re always interested to see if they’re going to produce. But because of how Isaiah was, I could take it to the bank that he was going to bring it every time I told someone to go watch him.”
Lindsay Bemis, Curtis coach: “The bigger the game, the better he played. He just had that confidence. But a lot of people didn’t call it confidence when he was 16 (laughing).”
Jason Kerr, Franklin coach: “We re-inserted a game plan that we had used against Brandon Roy his senior year, which was: We’re going to let him be alone, but when he puts it down, we’re going to come at him. That, and we told our guys they had to stay mentally in the game even when shots went down. Much of the prep was on how we were going to try to take the ball out of his hands and make somebody else beat us. We did not anticipate that we were going to send two, and then in the second half send three, defenders at him. And he’d still pull up and bang a shot in our face.”
Bemis: “I kept telling him, ‘You’ve got to pull up and shoot that little tear drop. You’ll never be able to take it in there against the big guys when you get older.’ Yeah, I was wrong about that one, too. Did you see the block he had against DeMarcus Cousins recently? You can hear in the background somebody yell. Well, I know that voice. It’s him. As he’s blocking the shot, he’s yelling, ‘Get that (stuff) out!’ I thought (laughing), ‘All right, we’re going to have to go to the athletic director’s office in the morning for yelling that.’ But that’s him. He thrives on that.”
Zeke Hill, Curtis teammate: “It’s funny watching his games now, because all the moves he did in high school, he does now but only better. His hesitation, his crossover, it’s all the exact same. No one could stop him then, and no one can really stop him now.”
Before the game against Franklin, Thomas walked onto the court wearing red shoes — a striking contrast not only from his all-blue uniform but also from the shoes worn by his teammates.
Hill: “Isaiah was a rebel. He’s very, very different. He wanted to stand out. Not that he didn’t stand out already, but he really wanted to stand out. We all got the same shoes, right? We knew if we wore red shoes we would get in trouble. But Isaiah was like, ‘Forget it.’ He wore them anyway. That was his personality.”
Bemis: “Earlier in the year, I made him take off his white tights. I made him wash off the tattoo he had drawn on his arm; it wasn’t a real one. So it was 10 minutes before tipoff against Franklin, and someone said, ‘Isaiah is wearing red shoes.’ I know where they came from. His AAU coach, Jim Marsh, brought them to him. He played for Jim with Friends of Hoop, and the story I got was those were his new shoes for Friends of Hoop. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. All I know is I have one friend who still gives me grief for letting him wear red shoes. I saw a picture on Halloween of Isaiah and his soon-to-be wife, Kayla, who was a Curtis cheerleader. She’s got her cheerleading outfit on, and he’s wearing a Curtis uniform with his red shoes. I just roared. ‘That’s him!’ ”
We’re chasing this little dude everywhere he goes with two and three bodies...” - Franklin coach Jason Kerr
Thomas: “I looked at some shoes in my closet, shoes that I liked, brought them to the arena, and then I kind of snuck them on. My coach, I knew he wouldn’t have let that happen. I put them on right before we ran out so he couldn’t say nothing. I just had the red socks along with it. I don’t know, it’s something that everybody remembers. When I did it, I wasn’t doing it just to be different. I liked the shoes, and I had some red socks, and I thought it looked good.”
Daniel Vasquez, Franklin player: “The first play of the game, he came down and shot a three like he was Steph Curry, and once he did that, it was like, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be a tough game.’ ”
Kerr: “Our goal was to let him have the ball, but when he started to make an attacking move within the three-point line, we were going to send an extra body. And he recognized it and just pulled early and from deep and started hitting.”
Vasquez: “This guy had the ultimate green light. Not even Peyton or Venoy had that kind of green light.”
Kerr: “The part I always laughed about is what you’re watching from 100 feet away is not always what you’re seeing on the sideline. He had some good banter down there.”
Thomas: “Before the game, they were just talking. Everybody was talking. But once I got going, it was like Michael Jordan stuff that no matter what they did, they weren’t going to stop me that night. Those were all guys I had played against from the AAU days, so we already had a little battle. I was talking stuff to the bench, to the players on the court, to the coaches. That was me. I learned that from Gary Payton. But they definitely got the last laugh.”
Chris Sprinker, Curtis teammate: “He’s one of the players who won’t say something so everybody can hear it, but he’ll make sure that you and everyone around you can hear it. Specifically, I remember when we were playing Emerald Ridge and their crowd started chanting, ‘Gary Coleman.’ That was in the first half, and our coach was pretty upset. But I think Isaiah ended up having 38. He feeds off of negativity.”
Kerr: “I even got mad at the announcer in the middle of the game.”
I remember looking up and he had 32 at the half. I just went, ‘Oh, my goodness.’” - Curtis teammate Zeke Hill
Vance Dawson, announcer: “After Isaiah hit his third consecutive three, each one further back than the first, I ran out of things to say. So I said, ‘Isaiah Thomas! Are you kidding me?’ Jason Kerr turned around and said, ‘Who are you announcing for?’ Of course he said it meaner than that, and of course I said back what I said, and that’s not going to make (this story).”
Kerr: “At that point it was just like, ‘This is an intense game, and anyone that’s in the path, you’re going to get a piece of it, too.’”
Dawson: “I learned a valuable lesson that day: You (unintentionally) can sound like you’re one-sided when one team is doing everything good. But it was just amazing. He could not miss. He really couldn’t. The whole premise of what I said was out of shock. If I could have swore I would have. I literally would have said, ‘Are you (bleeping) kidding me?!’ ”
Bemis: “In the Tacoma Dome, they have that big scoreboard, and they have your jersey number and your points next to it. I remember looking up and he had 32 at the half. I just went, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ ”
Kerr: “It’s rare when you can be out there on the floor and you can look at your kids and know they’re doing everything correctly, it’s the correct game plan, there’s not anything you can do defensively to the guy but throw him to the floor — and yet it’s still unstoppable. When you’re in that moment, boy, are you perplexed as a coach. What do we do now? Credit to my coaches at halftime, because I was standing there going, ‘I have nothing.’ ”
Kerr and his coaches gathered, down 44-33 at halftime, and settled on a game plan. They had no choice but to send waves of defenders at Thomas, two or three at a time, and hound him like wolves. No touch could go uncontested. No shot could go up easily. Franklin had to throw everything it had at Thomas.
Kerr: “We’re chasing this little dude everywhere he goes with two and three bodies, and he’s trying to dribble out of all of them and giving it everything he’s got. This guy is just exhausted.”
Sprinker: “We saw every single defense that had ever been invented that year. But I think that was the most pressure I had seen.”
Kerr: “But even then, while we’re doing that, he’s still getting buckets. It took us two full quarters to grind away at their lead to even be able to have a shot at it, and then we barely got it going in the last minute of the game to take control and win. Give him four more minutes, and we lose.”
After Franklin rallied for an 80-76 win, reporters stopped Thomas outside the locker room. He downplayed the record, telling them he had come to state with one goal — to win a championship — and had come up short. Only later did the legend take off.
Bemis: “Isaiah could take a lot of criticism for his demeanor on the floor. But, boy, you could never criticize his heart or will to win.”
Hill: “First time I’ve seen him cry. You could see after the game he was at a loss for words. He was hurt. Nobody in the locker room said anything but Isaiah and the coach. The seniors, we were looking at each other like, ‘We blew it for him.’ ”
Bemis: “The next day, we got beat on the buzzer in a consolation game to South Kitsap, and I think he had 40 again. He walked out and got on the bus with his head down. I remember putting my arm around him and said, ‘Man, you put on a show. You’ve got to sit back and relax. You’ll enjoy this.’ But he said, ‘Nope, we should have won it.’ ”
Bemis: “At my son’s wedding, part of the wedding party was a guy whose nephew played for Jackson High School. In the first game of the tournament against us, his nephew checked Isaiah. And he said, ‘My nephew was so happy that Isaiah had his lowest game of the state tournament against him.’ He only had 36 in that game.”
Kerr: “I worry that at some point the legend will grow, and he’s going to have scored 85 points on us.”
Dawson: “There are few games that I truly remember. But that’s the top game I’ve ever done.”
Thomas: “Guys to this day talk about it. Even to this day, the older guys before me like Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry all talk about that game.”
Kerr: “From our lens, it took us 10 deep to take down that one guy. And we locked him up to, what, 51 points? It’s amazing that you have to give that much effort to hold him to that. Because otherwise what would he have had? 60? 70? That’s the part that has always really stuck out to me.”