When Isaiah Thomas visited a homeless shelter as a freshman, his compassion surprised Lorenzo Romar. It wasn't the last time the Huskies' guard would surprise his coach, forging a bond that continues to grow.

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Before a visit to the Union Gospel Mission three years ago, Lorenzo Romar pulled Isaiah Thomas aside and prepped him for what he was going to see at the Seattle shelter.

It was the first of many times the Washington Huskies guard surprised his coach.

Turns out Thomas spent time in his teenage years feeding the hungry, tending to the sick and comforting the homeless.

His father, James, would take Isaiah and his sister, Chyna, to a mission in downtown Tacoma, where the future Husky would learn the true meaning of assists.

“We’d serve food or do whatever was needed to be done,” Isaiah Thomas said. “We did that every Saturday or every other Saturday. We’d get up at 6 a.m. I did that through middle school and high school. I didn’t like getting up, but it was something I liked to do when I got there.”

When Romar took his team to the Seattle shelter in 2008, he learned something important about his young guard. That visit helped forge a bond between coach and player, a bond that has helped pull Washington to back-to-back Pac-10 tournament titles. As the Huskies prepare to open their third straight NCAA tournament Friday, Romar no longer is surprised by anything Thomas does.

Importance of giving

James Thomas believed it was important to expose his children to those who were less fortunate.

“You can’t forget how easy it is to fall,” James Thomas said. “I had friends that made it big in sports, and I’d be down at the food bank and I’m feeding them.”

During their Saturday outings to the mission, James talked to Isaiah about the importance of staying humble.

“It kind of woke him up seeing guys that were really good basketball players, guys that would go to college or supposed to be a pro, but didn’t turn out to be that,” James said. “I think that was an eye-opener to always strive to be the best, but to know that in a blink of an eye all of this could turn.”

Isaiah Thomas remembers the lessons.

“I was taught it’s better to give than receive,” he said. “Just give whatever you can.”

Romar saw Thomas put his words into action the day they visited the Seattle shelter.

“When he said this is no problem for me and that (he) used to do this all the time, I just thought, ‘That’s big time, right there,’ ” Romar said. “That said a little bit about him, something about him that I didn’t realize.

“Anything we’ve done in community service or in the sense of being a servant, he not only does it but he embraces it. That’s just a side of him that a lot of people don’t see.”

The relationship between coach and player grew exponentially that day.

Over the next three seasons, Romar placed the team in the hands of the 5-foot-9 guard.

Three years ago, Thomas was the leading scorer on a team that won the Pac-10 regular-season championship and a first-round NCAA-tournament game.

Last year, he was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Pac-10 tournament as the Huskies captured the tournament title and then advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16.

This season, Thomas leads Washington (23-10) into Friday’s second-round matchup against Georgia (21-11) at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena.

“I always talk about him being an underappreciated winner,” Romar said. “I don’t think anybody really understands that about him. We tend to get caught up in the points he scores and, lately, the assists and statistics.

“But when his career is done and over, his legacy will be that of a winner.”

Isaiah’s legacy

Thomas ranks seventh on UW’s career scoring list with 1,690 points. He’s in the top 10 in three other categories — fifth with 400 assists, ninth with 118 steals and third with 164 three-pointers.

“I want to go down as the greatest Husky of all time, but that only happens if we win, especially at this time of the year,” Thomas said. “Everything else will take care of itself if we win.

“But I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about some of those things. When I came here, I dreamed this would happen.”

Thomas doesn’t like to spend much time contemplating his legacy or reflecting on the past. There is still too much to accomplish.

The days that stand out are the times when his relationship with Romar grew the most. They admit it hasn’t always been easy.

Romar gave Thomas, a torrential scorer in high school, the green light ever since he scored 27 points on 9-for-12 shooting in his first exhibition as a freshman.

But there were times last season when they were at odds over Thomas’ shot selection and decision-making.

Thomas stumbled through a 7-for-21 shooting performance last season in consecutive losses to UCLA and USC. He missed the next game due to a stomach virus, and Washington scored 123 points in a blowout against Seattle University.

The following week, Washington trailed 37-31 at home against Arizona. UW players, and Romar, complained the ball wasn’t moving offensively. No one blamed Thomas, but he was benched in the second half and the Huskies won, 81-75.

It’s the only time Thomas has been benched at Washington.

“He cheered his teammates on, but he was boiling inside,” Romar said. “He was hot. But those situations you go through, you grow.

“I’m trying to grow. He’s trying to grow. The team is trying to grow. We have to work through some of those conflicts.”

Thomas called it his lowest point personally at UW.

“I was mad at the time, but it made us grow and become stronger and become closer,” he said. “After that, I was in his office, wanting to talk to him to see why he did it.

“It made us closer. And it made me more accountable to what I’m doing on the court.”

Without a word

Their relationship grew even more this season when Thomas took over the point-guard duties after Abdul Gaddy suffered a season-ending knee injury.

And the bond between Thomas and Romar was forged forever last Saturday in the waning moments of the Pac-10 tournament championship game.

With the game tied in overtime and fewer than 19 seconds remaining, Romar considered calling time out to set up a play.

He glanced at Thomas, who dribbled up court. Without a word, they understood each other like never before. Romar had that same kind of nonverbal communication with former guard Will Conroy. Now it’s starting to happen with Thomas.

Without saying a word, each knew what was going to happen. Romar signaled the other Huskies on the court to spread out and give Thomas room to work in the middle of the floor.

The guard responded with a step-back jumper at the buzzer that won the game and is probably one of the biggest shots in school history.

“That’s something that maybe he didn’t let me do at the beginning of my career,” Thomas said. “That shows a lot of trust that he has in me when I told him, ‘Nah, nah, don’t call a timeout,’ “and he was like. ‘All right.’

“The relationship that a point guard and a coach has is the best when a coach (says), ‘OK, you take it over.’ He’s put the ball in my hands. That’s trust, and I’m trying not let him down.”

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Climbing the charts
Though only a junior, Isaiah Thomas ranks in the top 10 in four key career categories for Washington:
Stat Rank Total
Scoring 7 1,690
Assists 5 400
Steals 9 118
Three-pointers 3 164