WALTHAM, Mass. — Isaiah Thomas needed help.
Just days earlier, he learned his younger sister, Chyna Thomas, had died in a car crash along Washington's Interstate 5. This was on April 15, one day before Game 1 of the Boston Celtics' first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls.
Thomas decided to play anyway—he believed doing so would be the best way to honor his sister—but he and the heavily favored Celtics, despite being the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, found themselves overmatched by the Bulls early on.
Chicago stole the series' first two games. Game 2 was a particularly difficult one for Thomas—he had just 20 points on 6-of-15 shooting and five turnovers—so afterward, he reached out to a friend, one he thought could help expose counters to Chicago's stifling traps.
That friend was Kobe Bryant.
"We've been in communication the last couple weeks since my sister passed," Thomas told reporters in Washington, D.C., on May 3. "He's been a big help since Game 2. We actually watched film together on the phone for 30 minutes. He was going over my film with me and teaching the things that he looks at when he watches film."
The two first met last winter during Bryant's farewell tour, when Lakers were in town to face the Celtics. This would be Bryant's last game in the city. Thomas, the diminutive dynamo who grew up watching him on TV, wanted a chance to pick the legend's brain, even contacting a member of Bryant's inner circle to help facilitate the meeting, according to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.
They spoke pregame and hit it off. Bryant, according to Thomas, shared a favorite parable about a lion's ability to ignore distraction when hunting for food. He told Thomas that he admired his game and gave the former No. 60 overall pick his phone number, telling him to reach out anytime.
Years ago, the notion of members from the Lakers and Celtics working together would have been frowned upon. For the past 60 years, the two franchises have engaged in a tug-a-war for NBA supremacy, having faced off in the NBA Finals a record 12 times. The Celtics have won 17 tiles, while the Lakers have 16. No team has won more.
"I didn't think you'd ever see an active Celtic [working] with an active Laker, but I think this is more about how the rivalry is kind of dying right now," Joshua Bateman, a lifelong Celtics fan who runs the FanSided blog Harwood Houdini, told Bleacher Report. "Other than maybe Avery Bradley, there's no bad blood between any of these Celtics and the Lakers, and there hasn't been for a long time."
Bryant's connections to the Celtics run deeper than most Laker greats, too. He might have grown up a Lakers fan, but in December 2015, he told ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes that he grew up reading "everything about" Red Aurebach, the legendary, cigar-smoking former Boston head coach. The Celtics, according to Holmes, even considered drafting Bryant in 1996; they were one of the few teams he worked out for before the draft.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Imagine that! My pre draft workout with the C's 1996 with the late Dennis Johnson #countonhistory http://t.co/v4CSF2cJ2013-2-6 18:00:15
Twenty years later, Bryant was retired and watching games from home, looking for ways to stay close to the sport and league he loved. He and Thomas remained in touch throughout this season, according to assistant coach Jerome Allen, but the relationship was a casual one. After the death of Thomas' sister, Bryant called to offer condolences.
"That's probably the craziest thing that's happened to me," Thomas said last week. "I remember when I was at home in Washington and I was on the phone and my mom kept saying, ‘Who are you talking to?' I'm like, I had to put it on mute and I told her, 'It's Kobe!' She started tripping a little bit. That was fun."
Soon after, while he was back with his family in Tacoma, Washington, between Games 2 and 3 of Boston's first-round series, Thomas decided to send Bryant some film and take him up on his offer from the previous year.
Kobe Bryant @kobebryant
Nope. He plays with #MambaMentality but he is now and forever will be known as the #MightyIT https://t.co/tWH8FEH9Lz2017-5-3 07:35:51
"That first time, they spent quite a lot of time on the phone together breaking down that particular game," Allen told Bleacher Report. "Kobe watched the entire game. He was able to reference certain clips, and they had a long dialogue."
Bryant showed Thomas what he was seeing from the Bulls' defense and shared how he would have attacked. He had specific plays in mind that he asked Thomas to watch with him.
"Mentally, you could tell he's the greatest ever," Thomas said, who responded to that film session by cutting his turnovers and leading the Celtics to four straight wins over the Bulls. They also won their first two games of their second-round series against the Wizards before dropping two straight in Washington.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Boston.
"I don't know too many guys who would take it upon themselves and email Kobe Bryant game footage and say, 'Listen, I'm struggling, what do you see?'" Allen said. "Not many guys at this level would have that humility to go out there and say, 'I need help.'
"That's one of the things that makes Isaiah so special."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA and other things for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @YaronWeitzman.