Yesterday, Isaiah Thomas, who’s currently on a ten-day contract with Charlotte and should suit up tonight against the Celtics, opened up about his dashed hopes of a reunion in Boston. Take the time to listen to his full answer and more importantly, the tone of his voice and the look on his face.
Isaiah Thomas on a reunion in Boston: "I've opened my arms to try and come back in so many ways... I've felt there's been times where Brad [Stevens] could make a call and give me an opportunity and it hasn't happened" pic.twitter.com/uYTHHF98IE— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) March 8, 2022
Here’s a snippet:
“I’ve tried to have conversations about (coming back to Boston), but it’s hard to speak on because I’ve opened my arms to try to come back in so many ways. And it’s not even playing and trying to pick up where I left off. I’m past that moment. I know there’s been times where I can help in that locker room. I’m not there every day, so I can’t speak on what’s going on. This is from the outside looking in, but I felt there’s been times where Brad could make a call and give me an opportunity, and it hasn’t happened, so that’s very frustrating because of the relationship we have, the friendship we’ve been able to have over the years.”
It’s heartbreaking stuff from IT. If you’ve followed his journey since leaving Boston, you know it’s been a grueling, pride-swallowing last five years. After a hip injury derailed his momentum with the Celtics, it subsequently dented his ability to sign a substantial contract after getting traded to Cleveland. After multiple surgeries, he’s diligently worked to find his way back to the NBA over the last three years and it’s a been a long road just to net the last three ten-day contracts he’s played through this season with the Lakers, Mavericks, and now Hornets.
What’s more, as much as he’d welcome any chance to get his footing back with any team, he truly wants to be a Celtic again. His words hit even harder considering how Kyrie Irving, the man he was traded for, compared Celtics fans to a “scorned girlfriend who wants an explanation for why I left but still hoping for a text back.” After also stomping on the logo in last year’s playoff series, he’s burned Bunker Hill, Tobin Memorial, and the Longfellow, all bridges that Thomas would love to cross over if it meant one more chance in green.
I won’t dare to even assume why Danny Ainge or now Brad Stevens hasn’t brought IT home. They’ve had their chances though. Most recently in December, there were seemingly several opportunities when the team was decimated by COVID and the league’s healthy and safety protocols. Thomas instead played for the Lakers — THE LAKERS — and the Mavs. And then after the trade deadline, Boston needed bodies badly and it still wasn’t IT Time.
Both Ainge and Thomas have publicly said that they’re both over the trade that sent him, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and picks for Irving. But for Stevens, who coached IT for two and a half years, not bringing him back is a little more curious. Thomas’ MVP run coincided with the Celtics finishing first in the Eastern Conference before losing IT in the ECF and the series to the Cavaliers in 2017. That’s arguably the high point of Stevens’ tenure on the Boston bench and certainly Thomas’ finest season.
After the deadline when Boston had numerous roster spots available, Brad Stevens flatly said that he’d address specific needs in the front court and adding shooters. On the more pointed question about bringing in IT, Stevens replied, “I love Isaiah. I’ve talked to Isaiah ever since he left...he’s just a special guy. He’s a special person.”
“I just thought with how close (Brad and I) are, how close I am to a person like that, I thought there would be an opportunity, but there isn’t,” Thomas said of what he perceived as a missed opportunity. “You move on and you wish them well and I still have a lot of love for everybody that impacted my life with the city of Boston.”
Maybe Stevens wanted to avoid the sideshow it would generate. Maybe he didn’t want to put IT in a position where his return would have been viewed as a kitschy marketing ploy or just another feel good story. Maybe he didn’t want to put pressure on Ime Udoka to play him, particularly during a time when the Celtics were struggling. Maybe he wanted to continue looking forward with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown rather than reminiscing past glory.
ISO JOE!!! pic.twitter.com/XaAQQmYk8I— Boston Celtics (@celtics) December 23, 2021
Remember when Joe Johnson hit that mid-range ISO jumper in his brief return to the team that drafted him? It was a nice trip down memory lane and at that time, provided some good cheer in an otherwise miserable month of December, but it was the stuff of social media, a Gino Time viral moment during Gino Time. Johnson didn’t even make it through his rookie year in Boston before getting shipped off to Phoenix; Thomas’ run as King in the Fourth was the stuff of Celtics’ folklore.
On Monday, Udoka directly addressed IT’s comments and said that, “point guard was never really a position of need.” With Dennis Schroder in the mix in December, the trade for Derrick White, and Payton Pritchard in the mix as a third ball handler, Thomas’ skillset wasn’t a fit. That sounds cold, but in the same token, it’s a respectful rejection, void of emotion and sentiment and unfortunately, that may be the highest respect they could show Thomas.
To Thomas’ credit, he’s aware that his hero stature in Boston could ironically be one of the reasons his former team hasn’t brought him back. Nobody knows what Thomas can do on the floor better than Stevens, but for the new President of Basketball Operations that hasn’t even completed his first year at the helm, the circus off the floor could be something he’d rather avoid. The 11-year now journeyman knows that, telling former CelticsBlogger and The Athletic’s Jared Weiss:
“(The fan support) means a lot. Like, I’ve never seen it, either,” Thomas said. “Me and my wife always talk about it; you would think I was doing stuff like Larry Bird was doing with how much love I’m getting. You would think I was doing it for 10 years and winning championships with the love I get from the city. I’m thankful, I’m appreciative, but that’s probably a reason why I’m not there, because of all that love.
“I know how to control the outside thinking I’m gonna go and pick up where I left off now, because if I came to that team, it’s not my team anymore. That’s (Jayson) Tatum’s team. That’s Jaylen Brown’s team. That’s Marcus Smart’s team. I would just help in any way I possibly can to get those guys over the hump. It hasn’t happened; it probably won’t happen, I’m focused on where I’m at now, and I’m happy where I’m at, and hopefully, I can be (in Charlotte) at least the rest of the season.”
The bottom line is that at 33, IT can still ball. In three games with the Grand Rapids Gold, he put up 45, 33, and 46 before Charlotte offered him a ten-day. (For what it’s worth, after IT’s departure, newest Celtic Nik Stauskas scored 100 points total in the next two games before getting the call from Stevens.) At this point, anything ceremonial on Boston’s part might seem disingenuous and premature. Thomas deserves a legitimate shot somewhere because his journey isn’t over and perhaps the storybook ending could still be with the Celtics.
On Sunday, Kevin Garnett will get his #5 raised to the rafters. His number will be retired and hang next to Banner 17. That was the ticket for Ticket and for most of the Celtics legends up there: win a championship and you’ll be remembered forever at The Garden.
KG famously yelled the words, “anything is possible!,” as the confetti rained down after drubbing the Lakers in Game 6. After joining Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, he helped turn around the franchise from a 24-58 lottery team into the Larry O’Brien trophy in one season and spent the next five seasons trying to do it again.
IT’s resume isn’t as long or nearly as decorated as Garnett’s. His two and a half seasons in Boston didn’t bring home any trophies. He wasn’t even with the Celtics as long as many first round draft picks. However, he arguably embodied the mantra that “anything is possible” more than KG. He captured the imagination of the fans and embodied the fighting spirit of the city. He played through pain, emotional and physical, and I’ll never forget that.
Three future Hall of Famers winning a championship isn’t exactly a sure thing, but I’d put those odds much higher than a 5’9” point guard leading a ragtag bunch to the Eastern Conference Finals. That may not be worthy of a special Sunday afternoon ceremony in his honor, but if anybody made me believe that “anything was possible,” it was Isaiah Thomas.