Yesterday was one of those fun yet weary work days for me. After a long, tiring night of travel the night before and a few hours of fitful sleep after preparing for a long day ahead, I had some meetings and a really cool interview with a retired pro athlete whose personal story of triumph against the odds will give you goosebumps once digested in detail.
I hopped back on the road in the early evening last night and, while trying to relax, flipped through the pages of a book that I haven’t read since the late ’90s, Don Miguel Ruiz’ The Four Agreements. I was admittedly distracted from the pages while periodically checking in via social media to see how things were developing between the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Plopping down on my couch with some restless elation at around 10:00 PM last night, I was comforted when I turned on the television to see that the fourth quarter was just getting underway. And what proceeded to unfold inspired me in ways that truly touched my soul.
I’m not one of these folks that are new to the party. I’ve been following Isaiah Thomas since the Tacoma, Washington native played his prep school ball at the South Kent School in Connecticut in the late 2000’s, where one of his teammates was a kid from Philly that I’d been hearing about named Dion Waiters.
While still in high school, I’d heard the rumors of the diminutive sensation lighting it up in Jamal Crawford’s rugged and super-competitive Seattle summer Pro-Am league. Going up against Crawford, Jason Terry, Nate Robinson and other NBA players, as well as college stars and some playground legends whose hoops dreams crumbled in a succession of bad breaks and poor decisions, this kid who was becoming known around town as Mighty Mouse more than held his own.
I loved watching Thomas play the point at the University of Washington. He hypnotized me that freshman year, playing alongside Jon Brockman, Justin Dentmon and Quincy Pondexter, when he led the team in scoring as the Huskies took first place in the Pac-10.
His instincts as a scorer stood out to me back then, but he also showed a toughness within the physical realm of the game. In addition to getting buckets, he was a leader with court vision who was capable of dishing out some really crisp assists while creating opportunities for others. He was a beast in transition. But he also thrived within the tight confines of the pick and roll, utilizing something that most saw as a disadvantage, but was really an asset: his height.
With his low center of gravity, an ability to handle the rock on a yo-yo and elite change-of-speed-and-direction ability, he ate up double teams like Michael Sweetney at an all-you-can-eat Waffle House buffet. He was converting in the paint and making some excellent decisions on short and deep drive-and-kicks.
Quite simply, my man was a baller, his 5-foot-8 stature be damned!
I’m still smiling at the 28 points and the buzzer-beater-dagger he dropped on Arizona in the Pac-10 championship game his junior year. I can still hear my man Gus Johnson‘s excitement as the words jumped from his larynx, “Isaiah! Shot clock turned off! Game clock at eight! He’s gonna do it himself!!! Thomas! Shake! Crossover! Step-back! At the buzzer!!!…”
By now, the casual fans know the rest of the story. He was the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, and has proceeded to make mockeries with his hoops armed robberies ever since in a wonderful quest toward triumph at the game’s highest level, first in Sacramento and now in Boston.
A two-time All-Star, he’s one of the best and most dynamic players in all of basketball.
But last night’s performance proved that not only will he one day go down as the league’s greatest 5-footer, but the inner mechanics of his drive, will and determination are things that can motivate and elevate all of us in our times of pain, grief and sorry.
On what would have been his late sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday, he scored 53 points — including a 29-point detonation in the fourth quarter and overtime — as Boston sent the Wizards searching in its bag of expired magic tricks after their 129-119 victory at TD Garden to take a 2-0 lead in an Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“Today’s my sister’s birthday. She would have been 23 today,” Thomas said at his emotional postgame news conference. “So the least I can do is go out there and play for her.”
He’s not just playing for her, for his teammates, his coaches, the organization and the city of Boston right now, he’s playing for all of us.
We’ve all had or will one day have to deal with some debilitating grief. And to watch how Thomas, the NBA’s littlest big man, is fighting through it, using his passion as solace, is the bigger story than his remarkable 53-point performance and the Celtics come from behind victory.
After the game was over, I reached for the book that I’d been flipping through while on the road, The Four Agreements, and came across a passage in chapter five that deals with the concept of always doing your best under any circumstance, while keeping in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next.
Our lives are forever changing, and the impetus is around action and living our lives intensely, in the moment that is presented to us.
Ruiz writes, “We don’t need to know or prove anything. Just to be, to take a risk, to enjoy your life, is all that matters.”
We’ve all felt loss and pain, fallen on hard times, but there’s no choice but to stand up and keep going, to honor those that we’ve loved and lost, but also to honor ourselves and our purpose in life.
Isaiah Thomas is showing us through his own personal and inspiring example, that we can’t get overwhelmed by what has happened and what is to come.
What matters is what we do today, now, in this moment, The pain will always be there, but our spirit can always be renewed when we set out to be our best selves.
That’s when we transcend. That’s when we inspire others.