‘They Gave Up On Me’| Isaiah Thomas, A Model of Perseverance, Makes His Way Back To NBA With 10-Day Lakers Contract

(Photo: Art By David Grubb)

COVID-19 has been all bad for a bunch of NBA players who have been banished to safety protocols. According to USA Today, “as of Thursday evening, there were at least 39 players — roughly 8% of the league’s total player roster… in the league’s protocols.”

However, this coronavirus resurgence has led to a golden NBA comeback opportunity for one of the greatest ballers under six feet in league history. 

According to Yahoo, “if granted permission by the NBA to sign reinforcements and temporarily exceed the roster-size limit, the LA Lakers are planning to sign former All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas to a 10-day hardship contract Friday, according to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations.”

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols Thursday, joining Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brooklyn’s James Harden.

Westbrook was cleared to play against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, but the Lakers are still short handed as they approach this week’s games.

Marvel of Perseverance 

Isaiah Thomas has been a “marvel of perseverance” since the 5-foot-8 Tacoma, Washington, native played his prep school ball at the South Kent School in Connecticut in the late 2000s, where one of his teammates was a kid from Philly who was making waves on the hoops circuit: Dion Waiters.

While still in high school, rumors were rampant about 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. 

Thomas was a star attraction at point guard his freshman year at the University of Washington. He hypnotized fans, 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 were obvious, 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 crispy 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 was known for eating up double teams. 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!

Who can forget 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 Gus Johnson‘s elation 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!!!…”

“A last second J…Cold blooded!”

By now, the casual fans know the rest of the story. He was the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, and proceeded to make mockeries with his hoops in a quest toward triumph at the game’s highest level. 

His time in Sacramento with the Kings and Boston is where he spent the first six years of his career (with a 46-game pitstop in Phoenix). The overlooked shorty with mad game became a Top 15 NBA player, a two-time All-Star and a dynamic MVP contender when he averaged 28.9 ppg for the Celtics in the 2016-17 season.  

Tragedy Turns To Triumph 

His signature NBA performance occurred in the midst of great family tragedy: the tragic death of his sister Chyna as the result of a one-car accident on April 15, 2017, an evening when the inner mechanics of his drive, will and determination motivated and elevated him at his highest point of grief.

The image of Thomas quietly sobbing on the sideline before returning to the court one day after Chyna’s death is unforgettable. 

With the ongoing conversation and growing awareness about mental health that exists today, Thomas probably would not have participated in that April playoff game against the Bulls and he probably would have sat out the playoff game on his late sister Chyna’s 23rd birthday in May. 

Thomas played that night and 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.”

That entire experience would end up being the pinnacle of his NBA experience. Injuries have derailed Thomas’ career since then. The 32-year-old hasn’t played in more than 40 games, since he played in 76 during the 2016-17 season.

Thomas has bounced around like a ping pong ball since then: 15 games with LeBron and Cleveland, 17 with the Lakers, 12 with Denver, 40 with Washington and the New Orleans Pelicans where he played his last three NBA games 2020-21. 

Despite his accomplishments, the 18.1 ppg career scorer with an eFG percent of 50.6 found himself unemployed. It’s clear that his height remains an impediment, whether NBA GMs want to admit it or not. The shade hasn’t stopped Thomas’ basketball spirit, although he’s come close to having it crushed. 

“They Gave Up On Me”

In August, he broke down after dropping 81 points at the CrawsoverPro-Am Summer League in Seattle.  

Desperate to keep his hoops career alive, Thomas joined Team USA in February for the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup qualifiers, then was named to USA’s roster as an injury for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup. He also made headlines this summer by scoring at a Pro-Am game in Seattle.

Mighty Mouse Drops 42 In G-League Debut

Thomas can still fill it up and if his recent G-League explosion is any indication (Thomas poured in 42 points his debut for the G League Grand Rapids Gold), he’s ready to get some buckets for the Lakers. IT ran circles around the opposing defenders — “swishing and dishing,” as announcer Walter Clyde Frazier would say. 

Another sports shutdown is the worst nightmare for most fans. Through all of the uncertainty and frustration, Isaiah Thomas showed us through his own personal and inspiring example that we can’t get overwhelmed by what has happened and what is to come.

After his G-League performance he once again thought of his sister.

 

One more shot. If anyone is deserving of it, if any good can come from this pandemic cycle we are stuck in, Isaiah Thomas should be first in line to reap the benefits. 


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JR Gamble joined The Shadow League in 2012. The General Manager of Content & Social Media is in his 25th year of covering sports and culture professionally. He has covered a wide variety of major sports and entertainment topics across different mediums, including radio, newspapers, magazines and national TV. His passion is baseball, the culturing of baseball and preserving and documenting the historically-impactful accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans in baseball.