It was fun reflecting this week on the past greatness of Paul Pierce. He was everything there was to like about a Boston sports star. Talented but hard working. Brash but charismatic. Knocked down but always fought back harder the next day.
That got me thinking that perhaps we should also step back and appreciate the greatness unfolding before us in Isaiah Thomas. Like Pierce he has always been talented but because of his size he has always had to work harder than anyone else. He’s completely unafraid to talk smack, but he’s got that disarming smile to win anyone over as well.
His performances in 4th quarters this year gave him a superhero-like quality. It was appointment viewing in the way that Pedro, Brady, and very few others have achieved in this town. The King in the Fourth would be a great graphic novel or short story.
In those stories heroes always go through some period of tribulation that pushes them to their limits. They usually respond by coming back stronger and more determined in the end.
This is no Hollywood script though. There are no actors playing his part. This is real life and the tragedy of his sister’s passing is heartbreaking. How he can manage to get get himself out of bed, never mind play a basketball game against the best players in the world is beyond me.
Al Horford had this to say about the past week.
“It was unreal. Everything that is going on for him off the court, and for him to still be able to function at this level, his will is very impressive. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it in that way, and he’s able to come in here and say, ‘No excuses,’ [when] he has a perfectly good excuse. He still comes out, he’s focused [like] he flew back with us from Chicago yesterday … it’s just a credit to him and his way to get prepared for the game.”
Brad Stevens went a step further at halftime.
“I wish I had that kind of character”
Make no mistake, it is plain to everyone that he’s crushed on the inside. He has said as much and you can tell that this is all kind of a blur at this point. Everyone deals with grief in a different way and for the moment Thomas seems to be using basketball as an escape and/or an island of normalcy in his life.
In truth, he hasn’t even played up to the high standard of basketball excellence that he established for himself this year. After his magnificent first game in round one (which I imagine he was running on pure adrenaline) he had some shaky games and wasn’t shooting from the outside all that well. But he still found ways to cut into the lane to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
This is the playoffs, where a team led by the diminutive Thomas was supposed to be exposed. Every opposing coach spends a great deal of time mapping out a strategy to diminish, isolate, and take advantage of Thomas. Brad Stevens does a phenomenal job of game planning counter-moves and ways to free up or protect Thomas but it is still up to Isaiah to execute.
Isaiah is the ultimate underdog. The tragedy of his family has shaken him to his very core. Getting literally smacked in the face and losing a tooth in the middle of a game is a mere trifle compared to everything else he’s dealing with.
Yet there he is, leading his team back from a 16-0 deficit in game one. Dropping 33 points and 9 assists with just 2 turnovers (and one block!). He’s back to smiling and talking trash and defying gravity the way we’ve come to expect from him.
Not forgetting Chyna, but perhaps in some way in honor of her. I don’t know Isaiah and I never had the privilege of meeting his sister, but I tend to think this is what she would have wanted to see. Not for the team, but for her brother to be himself and enjoy doing a thing he does so well.
All I can do is applaud and admire Isaiah Thomas for what he’s already done and continues to do in his life and on the court. He’s an inspiration.