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Farewell Isaiah Thomas and the lessons sports teach

Lessons learned from this week’s big trade.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Lots has been written, and still will be written, about the big trade that brought Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the last of the Nets picks. We’ll break down the impact on the court and what it means to the cap sheet. Then we’ll do it all over again. But for me, this trade hit home in a different sort of way.

I have a seven-year-old daughter. As with most kids, the single thing she wants most from her parents is time. Because so much of my personal and professional life revolves around sports, a lot of our time together is spent on something sports related. That can be watching or playing sports. If you ask her about sports, she’ll tell you that her favorites are swimming and soccer (because she actively participates in both), but her favorites to watch are football and basketball.

She’ll then go on to tell you that Sundays are for football and the Patriots are the best. She loves Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowsi, or “Brady and Gronk” as she’ll put it. She’ll also tell you that Peyton Manning is an evil bad guy and that he kicks puppies and she hates the Colts and Broncos because those were his teams. I may or may not have had something to do with that. You can take the boy out of New England, but you can’t take the New England out of the boy.

Where she’ll really light up is talking about basketball. That is Daddy’s favorite and the one we watch the most. She’ll tell you her team is the Celtics. She’ll tell you she doesn’t like the Cavaliers or LeBron James. But what will really get her going is to tell you about her favorite player: Isaiah Thomas. She’ll tell you she wears #4 because that is Isaiah’s number. And he’s her favorite because in her words: “He inspires me. He’s small, but it is impressive that he can make shots on all the bigger players. He gets knocked down, but gets right back up. And he plays for the Celtics and helps them win.”

Well… until Tuesday, August 22nd. Then this happened:

For a moment, I regretted ever raising a sports fan. All too often sports are filled with pain, only punctuated by fleeting moments of sheer glory. And now I’ve inflicted this on my daughter. (Side note: thanks for all the kind messages that have been sent telling her she is a real fan and to keep her chin up. I’ve read them all and when she’s ready, I’ll certainly share them with her too.)

Then the moment cleared and I remembered some of the reasons I love sports. The sense of being part of something bigger. The community it brings. But most importantly the bonds they build and the lessons they teach.

All of my best friends came through sports. Either as teammates growing up or bonding over our shared love of the game. I’m 39 and still struggle to relate to other guys if they aren’t sports fans. It is among my many failings, as my wife would tell you. Speaking of my wife, I proposed to her in part because, not only would she tolerate planning our lives around games and understand that I spend 12 plus hours every Sunday watching football, she joins me on the couch for a large chunk of that time. And now my best buddy in the entire world is wrapped up in this craziness, too. She’s still too young to stay up late to watch the whole of a Celtics game, but her first question in the morning is “did they win?” She cried when the Cavs ended the season, only a week or so after crying after I told her that Isaiah Thomas was hurt and couldn’t play again for the rest of that year.

Isaiah Thomas is her guy. We might live pretty far away here in Orlando, but she isn’t any different than any number of kids around her age back home in Boston. She has IT t-shirts and jerseys. She stops cold when anything about him is said on the TV or radio. And if he is playing, she sits and watches. She loves nothing more than watching him score over “all the bigger players” or yelling out our version of Celtics public address announcer Eddie Palladino’s “IIIII T for THREEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” after he drilled a triple and fired up the crowd.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

And now she’s heartbroken. It has been a few days now, but any mention brings the tears right back. As her dad, my main job is to protect her from any sort of pain and I can’t help feel like I failed her. Not only did I fail her, but I actively contributed in it by encouraging her sports fandom. But after a few more tears, she goes back to being the happy, go lucky kid she usually is. It will continue to lessen, but that sting will always be there. You never get over seeing your first favorite player leave your favorite team. Never.

There was a time when wins and losses and trades and signings drastically impacted my mood, sometimes for days. For the most part, I’m now fairly dispassionate on the basketball side of things. I’m big enough to admit that a lot of my current excitement about the Celtics is selfish. If the Celtics are good and interesting, there are things to write about and people will want to read those things. That is good for me as a member of the media. My thoughts tend to drift towards my own self-interest there.

But at heart I’m still a Celtics fan and I always will be. And Isaiah Thomas captured my heart and imagination as no Celtics player had in years. A lot of that had to do with the experience of sharing it with one of the most special people in my entire life. I explained to her that we can still root for IT and be his fan, but she didn’t want to hear it. And deep down, I also knew it would never be the same.

I have a friend here in Orlando who didn’t grow up with a favorite basketball team, because there wasn’t a team where she was raised. So, she is a fan of players, chief among them LeBron James. She was a Cavs fan, then a Heat fan, a Cavs fan again and will be a fan of whatever team he goes to next. In a lot of ways I’m jealous of her. I think she might really have it figured out when it comes to being a fan. Why not just root for players instead of teams?

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

If you are reading this, chances are you are a Celtics fan. But why are you a Celtics fan? For some, maybe even most, you were probably raised in the Boston area. That is the most natural path to fandom. For others, like my daughter, maybe you were raised elsewhere but your parents were tied to the team. Maybe you were a Larry Bird or Paul Pierce fan and became a Boston fan because of that. Maybe you picked them because they had the most championships, you like green or some other reason that makes sense to you and you only.

Now here you are, whether it be years or decades later, tied to this team. But what I have realized is that, to some extent, we are all just rooting for laundry. We love the players in those green and white jerseys, but we love those green and white jerseys the most. Larry retired, Paul got traded, and now, Isaiah is gone, too. But we’re all still here. We’ll talk ourselves into Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. We’ll argue about if Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum should play more. Chances are that by Opening Night, we’ll have moved on from Isaiah Thomas for the most part. The season is starting and there is an almost entirely new group of guys in green and white to cheer on.

For one here in my house, she is feeling her first real pain as a sports fan. I mean gut wrenching pain that brought the sobs in that video. But a valuable lesson is being learned, not just by her, but by me, too. She’ll tell you she is mad at the Celtics and mad at “their boss who traded Isaiah. He’s mean and he’s wrong.” I know a lot of Boston fans who feel that same way. I’ve heard from you on Twitter and on message boards and elsewhere. But that tends to be more about the team and what they gave up. For her, it is all about IT.

If you are a parent, or just deal with young children, you know how hard it can be to explain big picture things to them. I tried to explain to her how good Kyrie Irving is and how the Celtics might be better off for a lot of years now. But if you are a parent, or just deal with young children, you know their gift of boiling it down to the simplest answer possible. Her response? “I don’t care. Isaiah is really good too and he’s my guy. I don’t care if the Celtics are good. It won’t be the same because Isaiah won’t be there.” For that I have no answer. And I’m not sure she’s wrong. Maybe she has figured out in seven years what I have missed in 39. Maybe it is ok to care about the player a little more and the jersey a little less.

Farewell Isaiah Thomas. Keep scoring on all the bigger players and keep getting right back up when you get knocked down. You will be missed by all real Celtics fans, but no more so than by your biggest, and my favorite, fan.

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