A Bond Unbroken


by Tyler Richardson / @Ty_richardson

The first time Nate Robinson saw Isaiah Thomas play he was hooked.

Maybe it was his size. Maybe it was the swagger that oozed from the high schoolerʼs pores. Maybe it was the fact that the kid just dropped 51 points on the best team in the state in a playoff game.

Whatever it was, Robinson knew one thing—Isaiah Thomas was going to be big. Real big.

“I am a fan for life,” Robinson said as he pointed directly at Thomasʼ heart. “I love his game. If he were to go up against any guard in the League right now, Iʼm picking Isaiah. If Iʼm going to war, Iʼm picking him to go with me.”

That is the kind of love that Robinson has for the scrappy point guard from Tacoma, WA, who he calls his “little bro.” As the two sit next to each other in Robinsonʼs upscale Eastside home, the bond is evident. Thomas, dressed in all black, touting an Oakland Raiders beanie, has a tough demeanor like any good point guard should. You can tell he has that playground savvy, that “me against the world” mentality.

He doesnʼt want to smile, but he canʼt help himself while “big bro” sits next to him.

Robinson never stops laughing or telling stories. He only gets serious when he talks about why Thomas will make it in the NBA and the relationship the two have.

A certain glow radiates from Thomas as he speaks about Robinson and the impact he has had on his life. Not only has he taught him how to be acrobatic around the rim, but also how to be a better man and father. As they work on their game every day, it is more than just step-backs and crossovers that Robinson teaches—it’s life lessons. Being a young father and playing in the NBA is tough, but luckily for Thomas, he has the perfect teacher.

“I look up to him in so many ways he doesnʼt even know,” Thomas said. “Itʼs a blessing from God to have somebody like him. Somebody I can learn new things from every day.”

The two men feed off each other. Doubt and criticism drive their motivation, as they look to erase the word “canʼt” from the basketball dictionary. There is an unspoken connection that runs deeper than the human eye can see. More than just love for a common game. While the ball and the hoop might bring them together, it is loyalty and respect that keep them together.

The comparisons on the court are undeniable. Both are undersized guards—Thomas stands around 5-9 and Robinson around 5-8. Both played at UW and are icons in the state of Washington. Both play with reckless abandon and arenʼt afraid to go at anyone in the League (ask JR Smith or Carmelo Anthony). The comparisons on the court are endless, but each man has his own identity and is continuously learning from the otherʼs personality.

“Nate is the type of guy you want to be around all the time,” Thomas said. “ His energy just rubs off on you. He is like a little kid. I am around him all the time because Iʻm never bored with him.”

Robinson never had a big brother; he was the big brother. Raised by a single mom, he learned to be a man the only way he could—from his mother. He was drafted 21st overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2005 and immediately traded to the Knicks. In a big city, with a new lifestyle and no place to live, Robinson was a little lost. Thatʼs when friend and mentor Jamal Crawford, who Robinson went to high school with and idolized since the eighth grade, took him in and showed him the ropes.

“Man that early part in New York I was living with Jamal,” Robinson said. “He told me, ʻMy house is your house.ʼ He taught me how to fly out there and Iʼve been flying ever since. Thatʼs what Iʼm trying to do for Isaiah.”

That “my house is your house mantra” is something Robinson repeatedly tells Thomas every time the young guard asks to come over. The door is always open at the Robinson household and Thomas is more than happy to be a fixture on the couch.

Whether it is to get some shots up or play with the kids, the two men are family in every sense of the word, and family is there through thick and thin. Like Thomas’ sophomore year when he seemingly couldnʼt do anything right for a struggling UW team. Coach Lorenzo Romar was angry with him, the team was losing and he was frustrated. The weight of the state was on his back and the criticism wouldnʼt stop. He picked up the phone and called the only man who he knew could help—his big bro.

“I told him just to do him,” Robinson said. “Just go out there and hoop and let them see what you can do. Everything else is out of your control.”

Thomas went on to help lead UW to a Pac-10 championship and a Sweet 16 berth.

One of the many things Thomas has picked up from his mentor is something both guards refer to as the “cutthroat” mentality. For them, being cutthroat is not just an attitude they have when they step on the court, it is a way of life.

“The first thing Nate told me was not to let anybody in the League come at me first,” Thomas said. “I got to go at them first. I will be playing against Chris Paul and Deron Williams and I am going to go at them. Thatʼs the only way they will know the young fella is ready.”

Thomas, the last pick in the 2011 Draft, has a list he keeps with him called “The Cutthroat List.” On it are the names of every guard taken before him in this yearʼs Draft. He says every time he plays somebody on that list he will go at them as hard as he can no matter the situation. Robinson slowly nods his head as Thomas speaks of the list and the mentality, almost as father approving his sonʼs first fight.

“I watched the Draft and every pick go by,” Robinson said. “For him it will make a great story. Heʼs going to show the world. Respect is earned and he will make people respect him.”

You can see the fire in Thomasʼ eyes when he talks about being the last pick in the Draft. It burns, deep. His face tenses up and that playground scowl comes out as he explains the “longest day of my life,” and how much it hurt. Quickly he catches himself, as if he knows everybody will soon see what they passed on.

“I am just blessed to have my name called,” he says. “Nobody has ever given me a chance in life and [Sacramento] gave me a chance.”

Both men look at each other and grin sheepishly, nodding their heads again in what seems like perfect unison. Nobody gave either of them a chance and through that common ground they have bonded over more than just basketball. Their friendship has grown into a brotherhood that will last a lifetime.

When asked what their relationship will look like in 30 years, Robinson doesnʼt hesitate to answer. “You ever seen the movie LIFE?” he says. “We are going to be like Claude and Ray, old as hell on the front porch, grandkids running around, talking about when we used to play.”

Born in Staten Island but raised in the city of rain, Seattle, WA, Tyler Richardson grew up watching Gary Payton, Mark Jackson, Kevin Johnson and John Starks. He plans to cover the Sonics as they make their triumphant return to the 206.