MINNEAPOLIS – In the midst of a growing moment, the culmination of years of work, Isaiah Thomas never loses his footing. A decade into his career, the 32-year-old can keep it real.
So yeah, he’d like to think that everyone at Target Center — who was getting up on his feet Friday night as he checked in to his first worthwhile NBA game in two years — knows his story. But he knows there are other traits that make him an automatic fan favorite.
“I think being 5-9 helps,” Thomas said with a smile behind his mask. “Like, I’m the height of a normal person, so people cheer for me just because.”
These days some grassroots approach is needed.
It’s impossible to mince words about the challenges the Lakers (16-14) are going through: As of Saturday, they had six players plus additional staff and coaches in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, and with round-the-clock testing , another case always seems to be catching on. Those difficulties are only accumulating at the up-and-down start of the season, as the title contenders have never really arrived as elite. The latest blow was an injury to Anthony Davis which the team learned would cost him at least four weeks and probably more.
Isaiah Thomas knows tough times—sometimes the past five years feel like one, long slide: “Obviously my sister passed away in ’17, and then it felt like everything went downhill.”
It was a career turning point, which until then had been a steady, inspiring growth. Thomas was a final draft pick out of Washington in 2011, making his way to an All-NBA guard with the Boston Celtics. But he suffered a hip injury in the 2017 playoffs – right after his sister Chyna Thomas died in a car accident.
That injury would persist for years, limiting him to subsequent stints with Cleveland, Denver, Washington, and a short 2018 stint with the Lakers. His grief in his personal life, along with his physical limitations, affected his mental health for a long time.
“It was so frustrating, when your mind was telling you to do something, but your body wouldn’t allow you to do it,” he said. “And that was my first major injury, so it was like, ‘Basketball is everything to me.’ So it really stopped me from being who I am. It kept me from being really happy.”
Where Thomas was once a fleet-footed scorer who could attack from anywhere, he was reduced to a spot shooter and playmaker. More often than not, his frustration was his dominant emotion – something that contributed to the split between him and LeBron James’ Cavaliers in 2018 when he was traded to the Lakers.
Thomas recalled playing it “really on one leg” and admitted that he was unprepared to face how emotionally scary it was to be injured. But the two saw each other in the gym at informal pick-up games over the summer, and James walked away seeing more of the older Thomas on the court.
“He was not healthy in Cleveland and he was just playing with pure patience and his hip was not letting him be what he was before the injury,” James said Friday night. “Obviously he has his pop back, his shot back, and it’s good to have it.”
The Lakers worked for Thomas this summer, coach Frank Vogel said, eventually opting to keep open roster spots, which they would eventually pass on to Austin Reeves and Avery Bradley. At present, both players are under NBA protocol.
Thomas had decided to try to find a route to the NBA only through the G League. He garnered a lot of attention last week when he scored 42 points for Denver’s G League affiliate, including some social media praise from Lakers players and coaches. When the Lakers were suddenly hit by a COVID-19 outbreak, general manager Rob Pelinka called Thomas.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted, it’s something I worked for,” he said. “Luckily I got the opportunity. I mean, to be able to be on the Lakers again, to be able to be teammates with Hall of Fame people, Hall of Fame coaching staff, is amazing. ,
Being back in LA reminds them of who isn’t here anymore: Kobe Bryant. Thomas and Bryant were close, and Thomas said that Bryant often texted him after big games or other big events in his life. When he came to the Lakers in 2018, Bryant was a resource; Now his loss feels like an open wound.
“I wish he was here, not only for himself but for everyone else,” said Thomas. “But you have to keep moving forward as much as possible. But he was someone who was so important in my life and this time it’s different that I haven’t been able to text him and talk to him, especially with this 10-day contract.” I have the opportunity with
Thomas understands that he may be auditioning for a roster spot with another team after the Lakers’ guard recovers. He knows that if this pandemic hadn’t happened, he probably wouldn’t have been in this situation. His rise in the NBA came only in an era of great struggle for the league, not to mention the world.
But now there’s another thing about Thomas: Even though his return is a small light in difficult times, he’s still happy to shine.
“I’ve said it before: I’m not inspired by anything other than a love of the sport,” he said. “That’s where I’m at right now. Any way I can help this team, any way I can help with any opportunity I get, I’m going to do it with a smile on my face.” I have lived and worked as hard as I can.