CLEVELAND — LeBron James remembers.
Santa Barbara, California, is beautiful in late September. On Sept. 21, it was mid-70s without a cloud in the sky. But rather than enjoying the weather, James was leading 17 other members of the Cleveland Cavaliers through a workout that would set the stage for the upcoming campaign, taking place a little more than a week before the start of the preseason.
Veterans like Kendrick Perkins and Richard Jefferson ran with young guys like Kay Felder and Cedi Osman. But if there is anything worse than being cooped up indoors during a Santa Barbara autumn, thus signaling the end of your offseason, it's being indoors and confined to a trainer's table.
Isaiah Thomas—more than three months before his 19-minute, 17-point Cavaliers debut on Tuesday—was the newest member of the team. But he wasn't on the floor in Santa Barbara. Instead, the Tasmanian devil-type player who thrives on movement and action spent his time undergoing rigorous stretching routines as a part of his rehabilitation from the hip injury that ended his postseason three months earlier.
As much as James wanted to swoop in and begin showing Thomas the way with his new team, he stood back and let the All-NBA point guard proceed with his recovery.
"It was too early," James told Bleacher Report of working with Thomas at his camp. "You have to feel it out to see when he's ready. But when he was ready, that's when I came in and did my thing."
James admits that had he been confronted with this sort of circumstance in years past, he may have treated it differently. When asked if it was something he had to learn along the way, James nods, saying it's the kind of process that takes time.
Videos of Thomas' rehabilitation oozed determination. He was by himself in a gym, running down the sideline of a basketball court with "Pick me last again" draped along the wall behind him. The trade and his road back to the NBA floor gave him motivation to achieve even more.
It started as just working with the medical staff. Then it was light jogging that morphed into faster speeds. Then it was one-one-one and two-on-two. In late November, the workouts moved to three-on-three with contact from athletic trainers.
Polling the Cavaliers' locker room, the adjectives to describe the 5'9" Thomas are endless. Kevin Love calls him "headstrong." Jose Calderon calls him "a competitor." Dwyane Wade smiles when asked what he's learned about his newest teammate and calls him "feisty."
"He's feisty. I.T. is feisty. To have an injury like he had, to get traded after everything he's been through, you have to be strong here," Wade told Bleacher Report as he pointed to his head. "To not give up. His whole story is about not giving up. To be as small as he is and as good as he is...you know he's a tough-minded guy. To see it up close, to see all the work and everything he's been through, we are excited for him."
That front-row seat, however, didn't include much participation from his teammates. For much of his rehabilitation, Thomas rode solo.
While Thomas leaned on head coach Tyronn Lue throughout his process—Lue missed 10 months during a stretch in his career after undergoing microfracture surgery—Love admits Thomas never once asked him about his shoulder injury and rehabilitation process that caused him to miss six months. All Love, James, Wade and the rest of the Cavaliers could do was wait for their point guard to become more comfortable with his surroundings and those who would play a substantial role in his next chapter.
So, how does a skeptical player with a chip on his shoulder go from parachuting into a pre-preseason workout knowing little about his teammates to singing a Tony! Toni! Tone! classic with them during a New Year's Eve bash? Just like his physical rehabilitation, Thomas' current comfort is the product of one part organizational culture and one part time.
"When you're traded like that, it was something he didn't think that would happen," Wade said to Bleacher Report. "But he was traded to a good team, a team in the hunt. And then you start hanging around, you start to get around guys, get to know them, get to know their family, and you become friends. You become family in a sense.
"He sees that everyone in here just wants the best for him. Players, staff, coaches, everybody wants the best for him. We've all been waiting for this moment for him. When he sees that, it makes him feel at ease in a sense. It doesn't change what happened, but it definitely makes you feel at ease."
Though fans became accustomed to Thomas cheering on the Cavaliers as they rattled off wins in November, the guard had been a part of the team behind the scenes through his entire journey. His first game as a member of the Cavs on Tuesday night was momentous, but it was simply the culmination of all his hard work.
While his teammates had a shiny new point-scoring weapon on the floor alongside them for the first time, Thomas' initial moments with his new team were more transparent, fan-facing versions of what had been going on for several weeks.
"He was with us every day," Jose Calderon told Bleacher Report. "He may not have been on the court, but he was in the gym with us every trip. I know [his first game] is big, but because of the way he was working behind the scenes, for us, it's not a lot of change.
"He was really integrated. He went with us to dinner. He was there for all of the different stuff. He was recovering, but he was with us in the highs, the lows, and the middles."
The Boston Celtics officially sent Thomas to the Cavaliers on August 30. Three weeks later, he was in Santa Barbara with his new teammates, still scorned from the trade, but he started to embark on a new beginning.
Thomas took the next step in that journey Tuesday, returning to the NBA floor for the first time in seven months.
"It hasn't been fun, but it's about to be fun," he said as he paced from his locker to the showers pregame. Becoming fully immersed in the fanfare that surrounded his return, Thomas turned to teammate Tristan Thompson at the locker next to him and said, "I feel like a damn rookie."
But a rookie he was not. Thomas is a true veteran. A feisty, headstrong, 5'9" ball of competitive fury who doubled as the subject of one of the biggest stories of this NBA season.
Thomas' family was in attendance Tuesday as he was greeted with a standing ovation from the Cleveland fans who have been eagerly waiting for that moment from the day the trade was announced.
And the teammates who had a front-row seat for every moment of his rehabilitation—from the Santa Barbara stretching to the mid-winter scrimmages—finally had their collective patience pay off.