Tacoma native and former UW star Isaiah Thomas is playing with a heavy heart during the NBA playoffs in the wake of his sister’s death in a car accident. His emotional story and gutty play make him easy to root for in this postseason.
First, think of a man who was the last pick of the draft because nobody thought his game would translate. That’s somebody you pull for.
Next, think of a man who stands 5-feet-9 in a league littered with seven-footers. That’s someone you pull for, too.
Finally, think of a man who lost a sibling in a car crash a day before the playoffs started. Gotta pull for him as well.
And when you consider these all apply to the same man, well, it’s pretty clear who you should be cheering for.
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If Puget Sound basketball fans are looking for a figure to rally around, they have one in Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Tacoma native has spent most of the season defying odds and the past two weeks enduring heartache.
It was just April 15 when his sister, Chyna, was killed in a one-car crash at the age of 22. And since then, an improbable star has been doing the impossible.
“When I found out the news, I wanted to give up and quit,” Thomas said at Chyna’s funeral last week. “I realized quitting isn’t an option. That’s the easy way out.”
Nobody would have blamed Thomas had he checked out mentally or physically when the postseason began. The tears streaming down his face before Game 1 of the first round were as authentic as they were agonizing.
But when tip-off came, the former Washington Husky shifted back into the miniature monsoon that has plagued opponents all season, scoring 33 points on 10-of-18 shooting. Unfortunately for Boston, Chicago won the game by four.
Who knows what was going through Thomas’ head during those 48 minutes? Maybe he was numb. Maybe he had the perfect distraction. Maybe he was playing the most motivated basketball of his career.
But two days later, it seemed that exceptional focus transformed into emotional fatigue, as Thomas went 6 of 15 from the field in a 14-point loss. The most telling stat that Thomas’ mind may have been elsewhere? He finished 7 of 13 from the free-throw line despite shooting 91 percent during the regular season.
One thing you have to remember about Thomas, though, is that he’s as resilient as he is brilliant. This is a guy who started his NBA career as the third-string point guard for the Kings before working himself into the regular rotation. He’s a guy the Suns refused to start after trading for him, even though he averaged 20.3 points in his final season in Sacramento. He’s a guy who was long considered too diminutive to dominate — too atypical to be an NBA standout.
Then came this season, when Thomas scored 28.9 points per game to lead Boston to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
All year long, Isaiah has been a textbook underdog story. The 10.2 points he averaged in the fourth quarter are the most since the NBA started tracking the stat.
Even so, manufacturing buckets against men a foot and change taller than him is one thing. Quickly bouncing back from tragedy is another. And yet, he found a way.
The Celtics went on to beat the Bulls in six games, prompting Thomas to spill emotion he’d kept pent up for days. After Al Horford threw down a jam to put Boston up by 22 in the fourth quarter, Isaiah reportedly let out a scream that lasted throughout most of the TV timeout.
Two days later, he put up a game-high 33 points in a 12-point win over the Wizards, then flew back to Tacoma for Chyna’s funeral.
“I figured it out today, that in the last 16 days, he’s played seven playoff games and traveled back and forth to Seattle twice,” said Lindsay Bemis, Thomas’ coach at Curtis High in Tacoma. “It speaks of an inner-strength that he has that few others do.”
Obviously, nothing Thomas does on the basketball court can dull the pain of his loss. After beating the Wizards, he told ESPN’s Doris Burke that “I do everything for my sister now,” and it’s clear he’d quit hoops forever if it would bring Chyna back. Even so, a title run would bring joy to a family that’s embracing every smile it can muster.
How can you not hope for that?
Thomas has one of the more genuine personalities in the league right now. You won’t see him dissing opponents, you won’t see him dressing down reporters, and until a couple of weeks ago, you wouldn’t see him flashing anything but his trademark smile.
At this point, it’s difficult to determine who will win a championship. But it’s easy to pick who to root for.