Man with a mighty heart

Isaiah Thomas’ entire career is like a blockbuster, Hollywood script. It’s the classic tale of the underdog triumphing against all odds.

True grit... Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas.   -  AP

The NBA playoffs are all about heart. The stakes are maximum at this stage of the season, and the big players, the best of the best, simply don’t let go of the opportunity. It is this stretch, this two-month long, nerve-wracking schedule of playoff drama that determines individual legacies. It is why the New York Knicks’ Willis Reed came out to play in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals despite a thigh injury to inspire his team to victory. It is why the Detroit Pistons’ Isiah Thomas played with a sprained ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals and why Michael Jordan battled flu and severe dehydration in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals to overcome the Utah Jazz. These men did not let adversity get the better of them. They played through their pain, possibly aware that the opportunity to perform on the game’s biggest stage may not present itself ever again. That is how champions are made.

Somehow, the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas must be aware of this. The same Thomas who lost his sister a day before the 2017 playoffs began. In the normal course of life, a player grieving at the loss of a family member would have excused himself from any kind of professional proceedings. Such an absence is perfectly understandable for the vagaries of life, of which an unexpected death is but one manifestation, are bigger than any game. It was a time of mourning in the Thomas household and the city of Boston felt his loss.

But Thomas turned up to play for the Celtics against the Chicago Bulls in the first-round despite the immense personal trauma he was undergoing. Boston fell behind 0-2 after the first two games at home, but then won four straight to close out the Bulls. Thomas played every one of the six-game series.

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Thomas put up 33 points and 9 assists a few hours after attending his sister’s funeral as the Celtics took the series opener against the Wizards. The game also saw Thomas lose one of his teeth during a play and he spent the next few days with a swollen mouth following a couple of multi-hour dental procedures.

If you think that was adversity, Thomas turned in, undoubtedly, the best performance of the post-season, and his career, when he dropped 53 points on the Wizards in Game 2 to lead the Celtics to an overtime win. Twenty-nine of Thomas’ points came in the fourth quarter and the five minutes of extra time. This on a day when the Thomas family would have otherwise celebrated his sister’s 23rd birthday. “The least I can do is go out there and play for her,” Thomas said after his inspirational Game 2 showing.

Thomas’ entire career is like a blockbuster, Hollywood script. It’s the classic tale of the underdog triumphing against all odds. His diminutive height always had the naysayers disputing his ability to succeed at the game’s highest level, which perhaps explains why Thomas was the last pick, the absolute last pick (60th overall) of the 2011 Draft. He spent his early career being traded by the Sacramento Kings to the Phoenix Suns, to the Boston Celtics and playing off the bench in 45 of his 46 games while at Phoenix. Today, the same Thomas is a franchise player for the Celtics and was an MVP candidate for much of the 2016-17 regular season.

The eminent basketball writer, Zach Lowe, succinctly remarked on Twitter of Thomas’ career following his Game 2 heroics against Washington: “I can’t recall a story quite like IT’s. Last pick, given up on by one bad team, traded by another, becomes franchise centerpiece. 5-9. Crazy.”

Thomas himself was aware of the many obstacles that could have hijacked his career. Instead, he always found a way out. “When I played basketball, I didn’t see height. I felt like I was just as tall as everybody else,” Thomas once said. “I’ve been against all odds my whole life, but that’s not going to stop me. It’s just made me work even harder. It’s just made me want to prove them wrong.”

That is exactly how champions are made.