Isaiah Thomas: The Biggest Little Man in Boston

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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.”

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Before joining the Celtics, Thomas gained notice for his Pizza Guys ads in California.

Unlike James’s rookie $90 million contract with Nike, Thomas’s Pizza Guys deal didn’t shoot him to the top of any Forbes lists, but the ads helped make Thomas a cult favorite. Opponents began yelling, “What’s up, Pizza Guy?” and Thomas says All-Star center Dwight Howard even approached him and mentioned the ads.

His days as the Pizza Guy, though, were numbered. As part of a sign-and-trade deal in the summer of 2014, the Kings inked Thomas to his current contract and flipped him to the mediocre Phoenix Suns. He played limited minutes in only half a season as a backup with Phoenix, a club overloaded with small, quick guards, before his new team unceremoniously shipped him to Boston. For the second time in his life, Thomas stepped onto a flight to New England with hopes of saving his basketball career.

 

Thomas may have boarded a plane in sunny Phoenix, but he was greeted in Boston by the snowiest winter in city history. He quickly underwent a team physical and then FaceTimed with his new head coach, Brad Stevens. At first, Stevens wasn’t sure how to use the jetlike point guard. Would Thomas start or come off the bench? All Stevens knew was that Thomas’s career so far had been a bumpy road and that he was coming to town with something to prove. “That’s a powerful, powerful thing if that energy is funneled correctly,” Stevens says. “Here was a guy dying to win.”

Trading for Thomas didn’t pose much of a risk. Boston needed a scorer, it didn’t give away much in exchange, and Thomas’s contract didn’t break the bank. Plus, Danny Ainge, the president of basketball operations, had a longtime crush on the little guy. “I’ve always wanted Isaiah,” the usually cagey exec told the Herald after the trade. “Isaiah was my first call last summer in free agency.”

During Thomas’s first game with the Celtics, against the Lakers in February 2015, Stevens got his first glimpse of his new point guard’s intensity. Thomas scored 21 points in an overtime loss, but was ejected in the fourth quarter after arguing a foul call with a referee. Stevens wasn’t exactly pleased, but he understood where Thomas’s fierceness was coming from. “I don’t think reining that in is something coaches think a ton about,” Stevens says. “A guy with fire and passion’s a good thing.” It was exactly what Thomas wanted to hear. “When you have a coach that has confidence in you, that’s half the battle,” he says. “All the NBA is about is opportunity and confidence.”

In 21 games as a reserve with Boston during his first season, Thomas averaged 19 points and 5.4 assists. By the next year, he’d fought his way into the starting lineup.

To help sum up Thomas’s effectiveness last season, the refreshingly eggheaded Stevens points to usage rate (the percentage of a team’s possessions a player is involved in per 40 minutes) and assist-to-turnover ratio (the number of assists a player has for every turnover he commits). Only one NBA player with a usage rate as high as Thomas’s and at least six assists per game had a better assist-to-turnover ratio last season: perennial All-Star Russell Westbrook. Stevens calls Thomas’s numbers “off the charts” and makes a point to praise his ability to score late in games when it matters most.

By late January, around the time Thomas was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, Celtics fans wearing his No. 4 jersey began popping up all over TD Garden. It was, he says, “definitely a dream.”

Without much help on offense, Thomas managed to steer the young Celtics into the playoffs for the second year in a row. It was a short trip, though. In the first round, Boston lost to the Atlanta Hawks. Thomas led both teams in scoring and minutes played. In the locker room after the decisive sixth game, he was exhausted and sat with a towel over his head before tearfully addressing reporters. “This should hurt everybody,” he said at the time, “[and] we can come back next year even stronger.”

 

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Despite losing in the playoffs last season, Thomas vowed to “come back next year even stronger.” / Photograph by Toan Trinh

It certainly hasn’t been all heartache. At his basketball clinic this summer, Thomas is eager to tell me about a recent trip, one that included another (albeit slightly more accomplished) former late-round draft pick by the name of Tom Brady. With several members of the Celtics organization, they’d traveled to the Hamptons to meet NBA superstar Kevin Durant in hopes of luring him to Boston. The pitch failed and Durant joined the Golden State Warriors, but getting the chance to hang out with the Super Bowl–winning Patriots quarterback still has Thomas geeking out. He wants me to know that some all-time-great athletes are “kind of assholes.” Not Brady. “The coolest dude I’ve ever met,” says Thomas, pointing to his cell phone. “We text to this day.”

In his voice I hear a hint of disbelief, acknowledgment of the surreal nature of his current success. For one thing, Thomas’s Pizza Guys days are over. He now endorses Nike and Slim Jim. Over the summer, Thomas married his longtime girlfriend, Kayla Wallace, with their two sons, James and Jaiden, by their side. Yet Thomas is still trying to outrun the doubters and the nagging qualifiers that remain glued to his 5-foot-9 frame. A recent Globe story listing Thomas among Boston’s best undersize athletes seemed to bring the point home: The Mount Washington–size chip on his shoulder remains intact and rarely out of view.

Almost on cue, this summer—in what’s become an off-season ritual during Ainge’s reign—NBA writers began slinging rumors of Ainge’s desire to deal for the kind of physically gifted superstar that someone Thomas’s size supposedly can never be. At this year’s draft, however, the man once nicknamed “Trader Danny” played it straight, using the third overall pick to select underhyped University of California freshman Jaylen Brown instead of dealing it away. When the selection was announced at the official Celtics draft party, disappointed fans hoping for a blockbuster trade booed.

Ainge’s inaction may have upset die-hards jonesing for the Big Three 3.0, but it’s left the Celtics with something their rivals lust after: flexibility. Even after Boston signed All-Star center Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal, the team’s roster remains the third youngest in the NBA and includes few expensive long-term contracts.

Heading into this season, the overachieving Celtics haven’t had to mortgage their future. For that, Thomas—whom former Sacramento coach Malone calls “one of the best guards in the NBA”—deserves a fair share of the credit. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’ll get as much as he likely deserves. “That’s the way it is,” Thomas says, “and that’s how it’s gonna be.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2016/11/06/isaiah-thomas/