'I Got My Joy Back': Isaiah Thomas' Trip to Hell and Back

Two years ago, he reached the pinnacle of his long NBA journey, but in a matter of weeks, he lost his sister and his career. Now the two-time All-Star is back and finding a reason to smile again.
photo of Leo SepkowitzLeo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorNovember 11, 2019

The summer of 2017 ticked by at an unbearable rate. Isaiah Thomas, heartbroken and injured, searched for ways to pass the time. Each day, he received messages from doctors and pseudo-professionals who swore they could cure his ailing hip. Desperate, he flipped through them all. He read books about the hip. He downloaded apps about the hip. He sat on the couch and watched NBA reruns—Hardwood Classics and his own recent highlights, full of dives to the rim and total elation. Days passed slowly. On many of them, Thomas preferred to stay inside. Still, his two sons had a knack for coaxing him outdoors, and so he would limp on over to the basketball court behind their home in Issaquah, Washington.

Courts have been a sanctuary to many, and none more than Thomas. In April, he had lost his younger sister, Chyna, in a car accident, and decided to play a playoff game one day later. He scored 33 points in 38 minutes. "Basketball has always been the only thing that can help when I'm going through something tough," Thomas says. "For those few hours when I played, that blocked out everything. I needed that. It was therapeutic."

Standing on the court with his kids, however, he found little comfort. Thomas had torn the labrum in his right hip about a month after Chyna's death, in the conference finals against Cleveland. He opted for rehab instead of surgery. The recovery time was a mystery. Back in Issaquah, he could hardly even run. As James, six at the time, and Jaiden, five, passed the ball around, Thomas struggled to keep up. He couldn't bend comfortably, couldn't reach down to their level. Sometimes, the ball would bounce on by.

Summers in Washington were supposed to be a celebration of basketball: Jamal Crawford's Crawsover tournament and the Drew League. Plus everyday runs and Thomas' own event, the Zeke-End, in the town of Tacoma where he moved as a boy. Even there, however, he was forced to watch from the sidelines. He longed to play again. "Not touching a basketball—that was depressing, for real," he says.

His father, James, saw the devastation in his eyes. "It just felt like everything was turning upside down," he says. "We had the bottom knocked out from us as a family; not just with my daughter's death but with Isaiah being injured at the same time."    

The Thomases leaned on their faith and on each other. As Isaiah worked in the gym to strengthen his hip, Isaiah's mother, Tina Baldtrip, and his wife, Kayla, cheered him on. Still, Thomas despised rehab. The same questions would echo in his mind each session. Is my hip really going to be OK? Am I ever going to play without pain? On the darkest days, he thought of giving up. Then he'd see his sons and remember the point of his anguish. He wanted to be a model of perseverance for them. He also wanted to remain a star as they grew older and fell in love with the sport.

Over time, Thomas' hip improved, though little could be done for his heart. Tina, who was not Chyna's mother, recognized a helplessness in Isaiah for having lost his younger sibling in particular. "He was like the protector of his little sister," she says. "I kept saying, 'It's not your fault.'"

In difficult moments, James would grab hold of Isaiah and dig deep for words of encouragement: "It's gonna be all right. We got to stay together. We got to get over this wall," he would say. "We've been through it before. Not through this, not through death, but through the walls coming up." Thomas' path had been full of them, and more stood ahead.

On May 3 earlier this year, as the Nuggets entered the fourth overtime period of a playoff marathon, Thomas sat on the bench and dreamed. The prior two seasons had been a blur. Boston to Cleveland to Los Angeles to Denver. The first trade was gut-wrenching, the second one dispiriting, though nothing was worse than this: obscurity. Irrelevance. Thomas was playing for the veteran's minimum. He'd been glued to Denver's bench for a month. He was a cheerleader, a token veteran, a journeyman.

Isaiah Thomas won the hearts of Celtics fans and NBA rivals when he led Boston to a Game 7 win in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals a month after his sister, Chyna, was killed in a car accident.
Isaiah Thomas won the hearts of Celtics fans and NBA rivals when he led Boston to a Game 7 win in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals a month after his sister, Chyna, was killed in a car accident.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The series with Portland was tied at one game apiece. As Game 3 wore on, Thomas watched as the Nuggets fumbled crunch-time possessions time and again. The players were exhausted to the point of incompetence. Starting point guard Jamal Murray even moved with a limp. On the bench, Thomas envisioned himself checking in and saving the day. He could hear how the world would celebrate him again, the way it had during his heyday in Boston. There, he had been not just a great player—finishing fifth in MVP voting—but a heroic one.

All he needed was the chance to shine again. In the stands, some two dozen of Thomas' family members, having made the short trip from Washington, longed for the same moment. The real Isaiah would tap in, and all this waiting would be over and forgotten.

The moment never came. Denver lost Game 3 and the series too. Two years after playing postseason hero, Thomas failed to log a single postseason minute.

He reached free agency for the second consecutive summer. His footing in the league was slipping fast. He had once quipped that it'd take a Brink's truck to sign him to a long-term deal, but July 1, he again accepted the veteran's minimum worth $2.3 million, this time from the Wizards.

The situation this year is far more promising than it had been in Denver: Thomas is fully healthy, and the Wizards are giving him all the minutes he can earn and handle. The money, however, is the same.

Had Thomas never torn his hip labrum, he'd likely be in third year of a max contract, paying around $30 million annually. Already, some $55 million has vanished from a deal that never materialized, and Thomas is only now entering what should be his late prime. On his current pace, he will likely miss out on $100 million to $150 million because of the injury.

The Thomases try to put those figures out of mind. They are a family that preaches positive energy, swearing off toxic thoughts. Plus, as Kayla says, "We're definitely not hurting. We live a very blessed life."

Thomas himself remains conflicted about the money, conceding that he does still wonder about it. "To go from being about to make a $100-something million to making a million or two, that hurt right here," he says, tapping his chest. "It's just having that security. It's making sure everybody in my family is good. All I'm worried about now is making sure my kids is good, and my wife, my parents. That's all I care about."

It helps that he is still only 30. Thomas' earning days are not over. "We speak everything into existence," he says. "It took a while to get paid [before his contract extension in 2014, worth $27 million over four years]. I can wait a little longer."

Now in his ninth season, Thomas is reflective about his time in the league. He is appreciative of the journey that led him here, even if it wasn't always pleasant. "I'm at a good place mentally," he says. "I got my joy back." Even when asked a heavy question—about being hurt, doubted, denied considerable money—he has a habit of thinking hard momentarily, acknowledging the gravity with a blank stare, and then flashing a wide grin. "I've seen all of it," he says. "That's why now I just smile."

Most recently, Thomas tore a ligament in his left thumb, which is why, as he sits at a steakhouse in D.C. ahead of the new season, he's wearing a black splint on that hand. The injury occurred in practice, as Thomas swiped for the ball on defense. He figured it was a common jam, but an MRI revealed the tear and the need for surgery. When told the diagnosis, all Thomas did was laugh. Sure, from one lens it was another gut-punch in a career now full of them. But that's not how Thomas saw it.

Less than two years after being one of the leading contenders for the MVP award, Thomas was left on the bench for Denver's entire postseason run last season.
Less than two years after being one of the leading contenders for the MVP award, Thomas was left on the bench for Denver's entire postseason run last season.Bart Young/Getty Images

"The good thing about it is, it's away from my hip," he says. "It might be a blessing in disguise."

Thomas is even good-natured about his departure from Boston. He remains in touch with many folks from the Celtics, including head coach Brad Stevens, and still appreciates the love that he received there. "Boston will always have my heart, because I went through a real-life situation there, and that city rolled with me," he says. Even when it comes to basketball—and the Celtics' failings during the Kyrie Irving era—Thomas says he's moved on.

"I don't wish them bad luck," Thomas says. "It's just, you can't duplicate what's real. What we had was real. There was a time I was upset. I felt like it was handled the wrong way for a franchise player. But I don't hold no grudges."

As Thomas has grown older—and been forced to spend some time away from the game—he has shifted his priorities.

"I think when he was younger it was more, 'I have to prove people wrong, prove my haters wrong; everyone doubts me,'" Kayla says. Even before the injuries, Thomas was written off as an undersized last overall pick. "As he's gotten older and been through the trials and tribulations that he's been through, it's turned into, 'I need to do this for the people who supported me, who stuck with me. I want to do it for them.'"

Thomas' inner circle has tightened in recent years. As he bounced around the league, he grew jaded, wary of the business side of things. He doubted if any team was really invested in him. The Lakers, for instance, acquired him from Cleveland mostly for salary-cap benefits, and Thomas knew it. "He lost a lot of trust in people close to him," Kayla says.

Following his trade from the Celtics, Thomas fired his agent (whom he has since rehired.) He also narrowed the number of medical professionals he consulted with—now he relies on one trainer and designs his own health regimens. "I know everything about the hip," he says. "I had to. I couldn't put my faith and trust in anybody else."

While Thomas' world has grown a little smaller, it is also more supportive. "To have the right people around me, the right positive energy, that's the biggest thing," he says. Each morning, when Isaiah and Kayla wake up, they rate their energy level, striving for a perfect 10. (On these occasions, Isaiah will celebrate on Twitter.) There are mornings where it's more like a six, in which case Thomas might play music in his room and spread open his blinds to look down on the early-morning bustle of D.C. There are also mornings where Chyna's death weighs heavy.

"Shit, to this day it's tough," he says. "I'm still processing it. I'm the head of my family—I have to be strong for my dad and my stepmom and my siblings."

Thomas is in constant touch with them, and he shares his parents' knack for finding uplifting words in difficult moments. Recently, James called during a particularly melancholy day without Chyna. Isaiah—who last year had his own daughter, Journey—understood his father's need for a certain comfort that only family can provide. "Still to this day I rely on the phone call now and then, just [for him] to say, 'I love you, Dad, and it's going to be OK,'" James says. "He's done good stepping up."

Thomas has his NBA family too. He grew close with Derrick Rose when the two were together in Cleveland; nobody could better commiserate about injury recovery. Jamal Crawford, a fellow Seattle native, has been a mentor to Thomas for more than a decade. Lately, he's noticed a more upbeat attitude from his old friend.

"I think he sees the light because the opportunity in Washington is there for him—the minutes, the role, everything," Crawford says. "He's happier, he's joking a lot more, he's laughing a lot more. He's just like the old Isaiah, before everything started going the way everything started going."

Isaiah's first regulation basketball was a gift from his father. James bought it for him at an old sporting goods store for $70 or $80, a big-ticket item for a working-class family. It was oversized in Isaiah's hands, and he brought it everywhere. "Linus and his blanket" is how his father describes them. Take the ball away when it was time for dinner or homework and Isaiah might cry. The ball was more than a toy, after all. It was a ticket. In Spanaway, Washington, where Thomas was born, and Tacoma, where pickup runs were more intense, Isaiah leveraged the ball for a spot in local games. Then he showed what he could do with it.

Thomas and his children at the retirement ceremony for his University of Washington jersey in 2018.
Thomas and his children at the retirement ceremony for his University of Washington jersey in 2018.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Still, he worried about his size. Constantly. He begged his mom to take him for checkups with the doctor so he could receive new height projections. (Tina instructed the doctors to pretend they weren't sure where Isaiah might top out, even though the truth was obvious.) Impatient, Thomas took matters into his own hands, grabbing hold of metal bars in his family's garage and hanging there, stretching his body, hoping to gain an inch. He wore baggy clothes, assuring those around him that he'd grow into them in time. Nothing worked, though on the court it didn't matter. Thomas became a dominant player despite his size. His games became family events.

Nearly every time he played, the Thomas family was there—parents, grandparents and sisters, LaQuisha and Chyna. "Every gym I was in, she was in there," he says of Chyna. She attended not just games but also road trips and basketball camps. "She grew up like a basketball player, but she didn't play," Tina says. "She was there for everything."

Basketball was something the family could share. Tina loved Tim Duncan—"Timmy"—despite the geographical distance, and she watched the Spurs when she could. James grew up in Los Angeles and remains an avid Lakers fan today. Recently, he moved back to Spanaway and thought back to early memories of Isaiah's obsession with hoops. How he'd wear a Lakers uniform on picture day at school, stealthily changing out of the clothes his parents had dressed him in that morning. How he'd wear the jersey again on Halloween. How he rejected every other sport—every other thing, really. How he'd accompany his father to games in the park, facing grown men, holding his own. How those afternoons brought the two together.

"Having him there in the game made it easy for our communication, made it easy to watch my son grow up," James says. "Isaiah enjoyed basketball more than anything."

Thomas' oldest son, James, had it all mapped out. As Isaiah reached free agency this summer, he would simply sign with the Heat, and the family could move to Miami, where they'd recently vacationed and enjoyed themselves. "They think it's like 2K where you can just trade yourself," Thomas says. His kids dreamed of winters on the beach, far away from Cleveland, or Denver, or Boston. "When I signed with the Wizards, they were so mad."

Worse even than the weather in D.C. was Washington's place in the league. James wanted his dad on a contender, at the very least. The Wizards went 32-50 last year. Isaiah calmed him down. "I'm like, 'Bro, we're gonna be good—I'm on the team! We're gonna be straight!'"

As free agency opened, Wizards' brass, led by coach Scott Brooks, flew to Los Angeles to meet with Thomas. They pitched him aggressively. He loved what he heard. "It was a want," Thomas says. "We want you here. We want to be a part of your story. We want to help you get it back and more. I haven't felt wanted since Boston."

In Washington, opportunity abounds, especially in the backcourt. Starting point guard John Wall is expected to miss the season with a torn Achilles. The Wizards are desperately in need of a playmaker beside Bradley Beal, not to mention a veteran who can help mentor rising stars like Rui Hachimura (21) and Thomas Bryant (22). Thomas is a natural fit.

After missing the first two games of the season while recovering from thumb surgery, he promptly returned in his best form since Boston. He dropped 16 points in his debut, unexpectedly keeping the Wizards close with San Antonio. His second game, against Houston, was even better: 17 points and 10 assists as the Wizards scored 158.

For the most part, Thomas looks like his old self. He dives to the rim and gets his teammates involved. (His kids have been involved with the team too and have warmed to the city.) He's shooting 36.4 percent on threes, his best mark since '16-17, and, yes, his lower body looks strong hoisting them. He's even introduced new moves, like an odd one-legged three-point leaner. It's something he added this summer, the first since 2016 spent working on basketball instead of hip strength.

After three games, Thomas was inserted into the Wizards starting lineup, and Washington won by 16. His role will continue to grow, and Thomas figures the stats will follow. "Who knows if I can average 30 again," he says, "but if the opportunity is there, I'll bet my life that I can."

There will be trying moments. Even at full strength, Thomas is an undersized defender (5'9") in a league of obscene guard play, and teams will target him. (Washington has responded by playing 2-3 zone 20 percent of the time Thomas is on the floor (according to Synergy Sports), taking some pressure off him.) The Wizards are likely to miss the postseason, though Thomas isn't worried about expectations. He thinks back to those old Celtics teams, elevated by confidence and outside skepticism, and believes he can find the same magic in D.C. "We don't have the best talent, but we have good players with good energy, and that's all you need," he says.

Regardless, there is more at stake for Thomas than a trip to the postseason (and the early knockout that would likely ensue). The past two years may have passed by slowly for him, but the NBA moves at warp speed, and it nearly left him behind. Thomas' stardom is a memory, shaded in Celtics green. Kayla has noticed that when fans stop Isaiah on the street, it is always to celebrate his time in Boston. She looks forward to the day that he's praised for lifting up some other fanbase from some other city. Perhaps D.C. "I'm ready for him to prove he was a great player way before the Celtics, he was a great player for the Celtics, and he'll be a great player after the Celtics," she says.

Thomas is striving to do the same. "I don't think about Boston," he says. "I don't want to be just, Boston."

Becoming something greater will be Thomas' challenge every night on the court. Within his family, and back home in Washington, he has nothing left to prove.


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