Last week, with Isaiah Thomas on the other end of an afternoon Zoom call, the forecast hadn’t yet shown what was about to happen this week. We didn’t know the man would get a call from the G League’s Grand Rapids Gold. We didn’t know he’d go off for 42 points in his very first game, blending all of the off-the-dribble step-backs, head-down drives to the rim and catch-and-shoot threes that we’ve seen for more than a decade into yet another signature performance.
But, then again, we should’ve known that there was a storm brewing. It’s what Thomas has always done. As cliché and tried as that sounds, it’s not another trained media line for the lefty. It’s what we spoke to him about—his true, unyielding love for the game.
A love so consuming that even when the storm of his personal basketball fury got swept up by a bigger storm of injuries and external doubt, he refused to waver. He refused to let the passion leave him. He stood in the middle of that rain and wind and got stronger, the foundation of his love growing even more fortified by what was going on around him.
“Before I loved anything, basketball was one of the first things I loved other than my parents and my family,” Thomas told us on that Zoom call. “As a kid, that was really the only thing that got me excited, like, in life.”
“And it’s just the same exact feeling that I had, when I was a kid, that I have now,” he continued. “It’s just something that’s difficult to explain. So that feeling hasn’t went anywhere, even as I got older, as I accomplished, you know, so many things in the game of basketball, especially in my career in the NBA, college. The love never changed.”
It’s not just talk. It’s in his walk, in his sprints, in his jumper, in his lionhearted downhill attacks at taller defenders.
The difference in how much more he loves it than most others is still clear. The desire pouring out of him in his first G League outing hasn’t changed since the sixth grade, which is when he realized that other ballplayers couldn’t match the level of his love. Because, as Thomas broke down for us, his love is about loving all of it. Storms and sunshine. Storms and sunshine. Storms and sunshine.
Before that understanding came to him in the sixth grade, he had already made up his mind. He knew, as a fourth grader, that he truly wanted to make the League. But, as he would continually find out, the weight of his dreams were far too heavy for others to pick up.
“I remember that was the first time I told a teacher, you know, at the beginning of the school year, what do you want to be when you grow up,” he said about that moment as a fourth grader. “And that was the first thing I said to the teacher. And it was, like, a no-brainer. And I remember a few kids kind of giggling. That hurt my feelings. And I always remembered that feeling.”
Pac-10 Tournament Champion, MOP and game-winning shot-maker in 2011.
Two-time NBA All-Star.
All-NBA Second Team in 2017.
Career-threatening hip injury, surgery and rehab.
Years out of the spotlight, facing what would be soul-crushing uncertainty for most others.
Basketball-world alerting 42 points in his first game in the G League.
“More so earlier in my career it was, like, ‘Man, they’re saying this… I’m gonna prove ‘em wrong.’ Now, it’s like everything I really do is for the love of it,” Thomas told us. “So, I’m not motivated by anything else but the love of the game. And, you know, I think that’s the difference between me and a lot of other players and how people always ask how do you keep going? I really love it.”
Because we spoke to Thomas before he sent out an alarm clock to NBA general managers, we didn’t get the chance to ask about this next step in his journey of physical, mental and emotional strength. But he did leave us with two golden nuggets. He said that if we all really paid attention, that if we could see life through his eyes, we’d “see the definition of hard work each and every day.”
“I tell kids, like, if you don’t love it, shit, loving it is half the battle,” he starts his other nugget of wisdom with. “I love it so much, it doesn’t matter how much work I gotta put in, or how early I gotta get up, or how late I gotta stay. Because it’s not work to me. It’s just something I love. [Basketball is] the best thing that really ever happened to my life, you know, other than my family and my kids. Basketball is that important to me.”
So through the storms and through the sunshine, be it a G League court or someday soon at an NBA arena, Isaiah Thomas won’t stop. Love knows no quit.