Isaiah Thomas was never supposed to be here.
He was never supposed to make it out of Tacoma, WA. Never supposed to be on the cover of SLAM Magazine. And sure as hell never supposed to be one of the NBA’s most feared scorers.
Last pick in the draft? He’ll be lucky to make the team. Traded by the Kings? Not even one of the worst franchises in sports wants him. Traded in a last-minute deadline deal between the Suns and Celtics? Nah, he’ll spend his career as a journeyman.
Good thing Isaiah spends more time putting in work than listening to critics. Because today he’s a two-time NBA All-Star, the best fourth-quarter scorer in the League, a legit MVP candidate and the face of the Boston Celtics.
What are y’all gonna say now?
It’s an unseasonably warm late February day in Boston when Isaiah Thomas strolls into the gym at Cambridge, MA’s Rindge and Latin School rocking a full Nike Tech Fleece sweatsuit and a pair of Air Max 90s. After showing off the cover of a local Boston magazine he was featured on recently, Isaiah and his agency rep joke, “We’re leveling up today!” before he begins to change into his Celtics road uniform and matching green-and-black Kobe A.D. sneakers.
As he’s changing, a small crowd trickles in. First, a few members of the school’s faculty. Then, Officer Michael Daniliuk of the Cambridge PD enters, hoping to get a minute to thank Isaiah for the charitable efforts he and his wife Kayla made after a massive December fire displaced 125 East Cambridge residents.
Isaiah’s face lights up as SLAM photographer Atiba Jefferson tells him stories about working with Kobe Bryant. Meanwhile, students start to pop in to try and sneak a pic for Snapchat. As the swarm grows, Thomas remains unfazed—nowadays, crowds hoping to get a glimpse of him are the norm.
He is a full-blown superstar. And he’s earned it. He came into the NBA in 2011 wanting to become one of the best, and he’s done just that.
“My job is to make people eat their words,” he says after the shoot. “I’m a guy who likes to speak things into existence. Whatever I say, I feel like I can accomplish because I put work in. I’m not where I want to be. I’m headed in the right direction, but I feel like I have so much more to show the world.”
Playing in his second full season with the Celtics, the 28-year-old is showing the world plenty. He is averaging 29.1 ppg, third in the league behind only Russell Westbrook and James Harden—and he’s etching his name into Boston lore right next to Larry Bird, Paul Pierce, Kevin McHale and more. He set a new Cs record by scoring at least 20 points in 43 straight games and his 16 35-point games are the most in a Celtics season since Bird was running around on the old Garden’s parquet. He also became just the sixth Celtic to score at least 2,000 points in a season.
On February 5, IT saw up close just how much the players mean to Celtics fans when Pierce, now wrapping up his career with the Clippers, played his final game in Boston. The Truth memorably ended the game by coming off the bench and hitting a three-pointer—with Zeke playing some relaxed D—as the crowd went wild.
“I was glad I could be part of that moment and see how they embraced him,” Thomas says. “The night before I was out to eat with Jamal Crawford and Paul came into the same restaurant and sat down with us. He was telling me, ‘If you win here, there’s no better feeling in the world because of these fans.’ The next day, seeing how they embraced him, that was an unbelievable moment. And for him to hit the last shot and go out like that, you dream of things like that.”
Thomas’ ascension to icon status with the Celtics was far from a sure thing when he arrived. Isaiah himself was initially unsure how the move would work out, especially after being traded first from Sacramento and then Phoenix less than a year into his contract. After getting the call that he was being sent out of PHX, Thomas was feeling down about playing for his third team in two years. But the people around him—both basketball legends and current players—knew this would be a career-changing move.
“I remember he was very down after the trade, and I talked to him an hour or two hours after and I was just talking and telling him how exciting and life-changing this would be for him,” says Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who has been close with IT4 since his days at Washington. “I just thought the way he played the game and the situation the Celtics were in at the time, it was a city and a franchise that would love him and love the way that he plays. I thought it was perfect.”
And sure, in hindsight the situation seems perfect now, but not even his closest friends expected things to take off this fast.
“To be very honest, the first thing I told him was, You can make an All-Star team over there,” says his best friend and fellow Seattle-area native Jamal Crawford. “I didn’t expect 30 points a night. I didn’t expect it this fast and for him to be in the MVP conversation. I didn’t expect all that. I did expect him to be an All-Star. The next level, I did not see it coming this fast.”
Crawford and Thomas have a relationship that dates back to Isaiah’s teenage years. When IT was playing prep ball at South Kent (CT) School, Crawford was playing for the Knicks, and Thomas would frequently stay at Crawford’s White Plains, NY, apartment on weekends. For as long as he can remember, all Thomas wanted to do was be an NBA player—and it was those weekends hanging out with Jamal when he learned what it took to be a professional baller off the court.
“I would be at Jamal’s house and see how he interacts with people and how he goes about his day,” Isaiah says now. “I wanted to be an NBA player, so my whole thing was, I have to do everything I can. When I got older and got into college and became a pro, Jamal taught me how to be a pro, how to be professional, how to come to work every day whether you’re playing or not, how to treat people who can’t do anything for you.”
As Crawford tells it, “When he was going to go [to South Kent], his parents were a little hesitant—he was going across the country for the first time and living alone. I was with the Knicks, so I’m like, Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he’s good. Every weekend he didn’t have school, he would come to my apartment, stay with me and come to games, and I would go to his. I would be the only one in the crowd. My wife and I would drive an hour, hour and a half to watch him play and we’d be some of the only people in the crowd. Since he was 16, we’ve talked every single day. I was a groomsman in his wedding, and he was a groomsman in mine. That’s like my brother. It’s deeper than basketball.”
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Thomas adds of the elder Crawford, who just turned 37. “Without him, there would be no me.”
The Wednesday night after our photo shoot, the Celtics welcome LeBron James and the Cavs for a nationally televised game. The Celtics, at 39-22, are right on the Cavs’ heels for the No. 1 seed in the East, and this is easily the biggest game of the year at the Garden thus far. The crowd is a little bigger than the one at Rindge and Latin, but Isaiah’s cool and calm demeanor hasn’t changed during his pre-game rituals.
Over the next four quarters, with several members of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots in the crowd, Isaiah flies around the court, zig-zagging through defenders, tormenting whoever is stuck guarding him. When he’s on the bench for a breather, he rarely sits. Tiptoeing the out-of-bounds line with a towel around his shoulders, Isaiah barks directions at his teammates like a surrogate coach, always involved with the game. Cavs PG Kyrie Irving and Thomas trade spectacular plays all game long.
When the camera pans to the crowd before the start of the fourth quarter, the jumbotron shows young Celtic fans pointing to their wrist, eagerly awaiting the fourth quarter heroics that IT has become known for. Everyone in the building knows what time it is—except for Iman Shumpert, who goes under a screen and leaves Thomas wide open for a go-ahead three with under a minute left.
“I embrace fourth quarters,” Thomas says. “My teammates and the staff look for me to make plays and be that guy in the fourth, so I try to take advantage. At the same time, when I’m in the gym by myself, that’s what I’m working for. To be in those moments and to be looked to as the guy when the game is on the line to take and make the game-winning shot.”
The Celtics withstand a monster 28-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist performance from LeBron to win 103-99. Thomas finishes with 31 points, 5 assists, 2 boards and 1 block. After the game, when a reporter suggests that the Cavs held him in check for most of the game, Thomas quickly interrupts him: “Nobody holds me in check.”
The reporter tries again. “I average 30 points for a reason,” Thomas says.
Up close, it’s stunning to think a player of Isaiah’s size and stature could average 30 a night in a league of mammoth-sized men. Much like Allen Iverson before him, Isaiah gets bumped when he tries to go over a screen, knocked to the ground when he goes to the basket and bullied in the post when he goes up against bigger opponents. But just like his friend Floyd Mayweather Jr, no matter how hard he gets hit, he keeps coming.
It’s a huge reason why legends of the game have lauded him. While tons of ex-players in the media blast many of today’s stars, Thomas seems to be universally loved and respected by ballers of all ages. Over the past two years, IT has gotten the chance to meet and talk with Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan, both of whom are admitted fans. At All-Star Weekend in Toronto two years ago, IT got a chance to sit down with Iverson, the start of a close relationship.
“He said he was a real big fan of mine,” Thomas says. “It didn’t seem real. You know, people say they’re fans of you, but he was, like, emulating my moves and telling me that he watches all of my games and that I’m cut from the same cloth. We exchanged numbers and we’ve gotten closer. He’ll text me after games and be like, ‘Man, that reminded me of myself.’
“He was one guy who, when I got to sit with him, changed everything, because he’s arguably the best pound-for-pound player to play, and I want to be right behind him. To sit down with Allen Iverson and for him to tell me, ‘You’re a real killa, just like me,’ nobody can tell me anything anymore. He gave me the OK to be me.”
Then at this year’s All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, MJ and IT flicked it up for Instagram, and the GOAT passed along a few compliments.
“[Jordan] actually told me, ‘Keep doing your thing, and take the night off when you play the Hornets,’” Thomas says. “That means everything. For the best player to ever play the game to watch what I’m doing, it says a lot.”
The love for Isaiah isn’t limited to legends, either. His peers respect his game immensely. Even LeBron called him a “clear-cut star” this season.
“I think he’s embraced, first of all, because of his size,” Crawford says. “Guys his size usually get weeded out in the NBA in general—they don’t really get a fair shot. His size and his heart, I think everyone sees that. Isaiah is a true student of the game. He works on his craft. He knows the guys who came before him, whether they were a star or not, and he respects those guys and pays homage to them. I think the OGs of the game really take to that because a lot of guys don’t always pay respect like that.”
Before Thomas dips for the day back at our shoot, the Rindge and Latin boys and girls basketball teams come into the gym to take photos with Isaiah and crack jokes with the local hero. At the time, the boys varsity team is riding a 19-game winning streak into the playoffs, and their head coach asks IT to say a few words to the team.
After being challenged to one-on-one games, Thomas gets real about the tough transition from high school to college. He leaves them with a word of advice: “Make the most of every opportunity.”
Speak it into existence, indeed.
Portraits Atiba Jefferson
BTS video by @VASHR, Reaction video by Shakil Uddin