Isaiah Thomas: The Biggest Little Man in Boston

This season, the Celtics’ best player is also the shortest guy in the NBA. It just might be crazy enough to work.
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Photograph by Tim Kennedy

Isaiah Thomas started getting antsy just before dawn. Sports Illustrated had released its list of the top 100 NBA players the previous day, and the Celtics point guard had clocked in at number 45. Thomas knew he’d ranked a whopping 43 spots higher than he did the year before, but that was hardly the point. Standing barely 5-foot-9, the 27-year-old has been on a lifelong quest to prove to the basketball world—executives, coaches, teammates, sponsors, and the media—that his potential for greatness outweighs the reality of being a little guy in a big man’s world. So on Friday, September 16, during a balmy morning in Boston, he lashed out on Twitter.

“45?” he typed to his 400,000-plus followers. “SI rankings are a JOKE!!”

In reality, it’s remarkable that Thomas ranked as high as he did on the list. Since he entered the league as the very last pick in the 2011 draft, two struggling franchises, the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns, have traded him away. Even in Boston, despite leading the Celtics to the playoffs last season, becoming an All-Star for the first time, and scoring 22.2 points a game—11th highest in the league—he still struggles to shake his status as a glorified afterthought.

During the post-season, for instance, on the heels of the Celtics’ best year since the second coming of the Big Three, ESPN reporter Chad Ford suggested that Boston’s emerging fan favorite “can be dealt” and that the team should replace him by drafting a highly touted college point guard. Unsurprisingly, Thomas fired off another tweet: “That’s how you feel huh? LOL This is what keeps me motivated, thank you!”

Each quip, gibe, and insult adds to the chip on his shoulder, which is already the size of the 2015 Tide Street snow pile. “I go by ‘Stay paranoid,’” Thomas says. “That’s been my motto. No matter what, I’m just like, ‘Stay paranoid’ because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’ve never been given anything. Some guys come in this league and it’s just there for them. They’ve got the opportunity to mess up.” Due to his size, Thomas wants me to know, he’ll never be afforded that kind of leeway. “It’s damn near impossible to mess up,” he continues. “I can’t. I’m small. I’m short. Everything’s against me.”

In this post-Moneyball era, professional sports franchises practically fetishize undervalued athletes but rarely unearth truly hidden gems. In the pintsize former pizza salesman (more on that later), the Celtics have actually found one. But even after his breakout season, Thomas is steeling himself for an uncertain future. His relatively modest four-year, $27 million contract is up in 2018, and there’s no guarantee that Boston will re-sign the speedy lefty. After all, if there’s anything Thomas has learned, it’s that a player who could be mistaken for a ball boy isn’t usually treated like franchise royalty. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Thomas says he’s found a home across the country with the Celtics and hopes that this time things will be different—that people will finally look beyond his size. Still, he admits, “It does get frustrating. ’Cause it’s like, What else do I gotta do? 

 

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Determined to prove doubters wrong, Thomas fought his way into Boston’s lineup. / Photograph by Tim Kennedy

It’s August, and Thomas has just spent the first morning of his two-day basketball camp picking on people closer to his own size: elementary, middle, and high school kids eager to learn from one of the few NBA players with whom they can see eye to eye. Inside the stuffy Reading Memorial High School gymnasium, his sweat-soaked kelly-green T-shirt conceals a tattoo of Mighty Mouse on his right biceps. Exhausted but smiling—Thomas is always smiling—he climbs into a chair that appears too big for him. As we talk, his gray Nikes dangle and sway above the ground.

Given the blood spilled on the old Garden’s parquet floor during Celtics–Detroit Pistons clashes in the 1980s, it’s a minor miracle that Boston has fallen in love with a man named Isaiah Thomas. The story of why his parents named him after one of the Celtics’ most reviled nemeses goes something like this: James Thomas, a Los Angeles Lakers fan from Inglewood, California, bet a buddy that if the Pistons and their All-Star point guard Isiah Thomas defeated L.A. in the NBA Finals, he’d name his son after Thomas. On February 7, 1989, four months before the Pistons won their first championship, Tina Baldtrip gave birth to a boy. James and Tina, who separated early in their son’s life, can never be accused of going back on a bet—they honored the wager but chose to spell Isaiah the biblical way.

Saddled with the name of a Hall of Famer, Thomas had a lot to live up to on the courts in Tacoma, Washington, where he grew up. Because of his size, he quickly learned the only way to earn respect was to dominate, and the only way to do that was to go for the jugular. Family friend Alonzo Weatherby, now Thomas’s business manager, says Isaiah gravitated toward playing against older, bigger kids, and always had something to prove. By the time Thomas was a junior in high school, he was averaging 31 points per game and had become a local celebrity. “It got out of hand,” says Weatherby, who remembers Thomas getting mobbed by fans at a local mall. Unfortunately for Thomas, his success on the court didn’t carry over to the classroom. If he wanted to be eligible to play college ball, he needed to improve his grades. So in November 2006 he boarded a cross-country flight to rural Connecticut, where he attended the all-boys South Kent School. Needing to repeat his senior year and living apart from family for the first time, Thomas says it was one of the most difficult times in his life. Fortunately, he was used to overcoming doubts—including his own.

The first thing Thomas recalls after arriving in Connecticut was that his cell-phone service cut out. He knew he needed to be there to boost his grades but wondered if he’d made a mistake. “Back then I hated it,” he says, “but it was the best thing that’s happened for me. It made me grow up.” He managed to stick it out for two years by reminding himself that it was the only way he’d ever get to college, and if he couldn’t do that, he’d have no shot at making the NBA. After graduating from South Kent in the spring of 2008, Thomas was finally ready to enroll at the University of Washington. During three seasons with the Huskies, he averaged an impressive 16.4 points per game. He capped his college career by sinking a buzzer-beating fadeaway jump shot to give his team a Pacific-10 Tournament championship. At that moment, Thomas felt ready to turn pro. The question was whether the NBA agreed.

A handful of players shorter than 6 feet have thrived in the pros—Calvin Murphy at 5-foot-9, Spud Webb at 5-foot-7, and even Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues at a mere 5-foot-3 all come to mind. Still, NBA scouts weren’t terribly excited about Thomas, an underclassman whose physical attributes didn’t exactly scream sure thing. Experts predicted a team might draft him late in the second round. Even if someone did take a chance on him, though, a roster spot wasn’t guaranteed.

On the night of the 2011 NBA draft, Thomas grew impatient waiting to hear his name called and left what was supposed to be a celebratory family gathering at his apartment to go to the gym. Dejected, he finally returned home and had just hopped in the elevator when his phone rang. It was his agent: The Sacramento Kings were taking him with the final selection of the second round—the very last pick in the draft. Thomas felt a surge of energy. “All I wanted,” he says, “was a chance.”

 

For a starry-eyed 22-year-old dreaming of an NBA championship, playing for the Kings—a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006—wasn’t the most glamorous proposition. In fact, a few months before Thomas arrived in Sacramento, things were so bad that the Kings’ embattled owners threatened to move the franchise to Anaheim to start all over. To Thomas, though, none of that mattered: He made the All-Rookie second team his first year in the league and by 2013 was playing like a pit bull trapped in the body of a Yorkie. “I didn’t back down from nobody,” says Thomas, who in 2014 averaged 20.3 points per game. His then–head coach, Mike Malone, agrees. When it comes to Thomas, he says, “small is not something I think of. I think of big. I think of big heart. I think of big balls.”

Despite Thomas’s best efforts, however, he still lacked star power. Endorsement offers weren’t pouring in. So when the Northern California restaurant chain Pizza Guys needed a new celebrity spokesman, Thomas was available and eager. Michael Morgan, the restaurant’s vice president of operations, says Thomas spent a commercial shoot graciously talking to onlookers on set. “He wasn’t off in his own world,” Morgan says. “He was just a regular guy.” Unlike, say, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, Thomas’s charisma is not derived from a cartoonishly larger-than-life presence, but rather from his ability to literally see eye to eye with the public. “Why can’t people relate to LeBron James?” Malone says. “’Cause LeBron James is 6-foot-8, 250 pounds. You know what I mean? Isaiah Thomas is a kid that you can relate to. Hey, he’s 5-foot-9. He doesn’t jump to the moon. He’s the guy next door.”