Isaiah Thomas’ ‘never-give-up mentality’ an inspiration to his kids, Salt Lake City Stars – The Athletic

By Jay KingMar 13, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — As Isaiah Thomas and the Salt Lake City Stars huddled around coach Steve Wojciechowski to prepare for the fourth quarter of a G League showdown against the Milwaukee Herd, thousands of elementary schoolers lining the Delta Center stood up to belt out the lyrics to a couple of their favorite tunes. The arena, filled mostly with children on school field trips, briefly became a concert hall for young kids. Their shrieks bounced off the walls, reverberating everywhere inside the professional basketball arena. At the urging of the JumboTron, the children sang along to “Let It Go,” the famous track from “Frozen,” before transitioning to a high-pitched version of “Baby Shark.”

It wasn’t exactly the environment Thomas became accustomed to over an 11-year NBA career. But now, nearly two years after his last NBA appearance, the former Boston Celtics star has joined the G League to keep his grind alive. He is still pursuing his dreams, to set an example for his two sons and daughter but also because he doesn’t want to give up a game that has filled him with every emotion over a lifetime of ups and downs.

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“I just love this s— too much,” Thomas said Tuesday after registering 34 points, seven rebounds and five assists in a 139-129 win.

Why keep going? At age 35, Thomas believes he still has years of good basketball left in him. He would love to make it back to the NBA, but for the time being, he sounds deeply appreciative of the opportunity in front of him. Based on his explanation of the situation, teams weren’t clamoring to give him another shot. He said he needed to help facilitate the G League signing himself. It’s no coincidence that he landed with the Utah Jazz’s affiliate. Danny Ainge, an executive in the organization, helped pull some strings to give Thomas another chance.

“Danny helped make this thing happen,” Thomas said. “He connected the dots.”

Many players in Thomas’ situation would have stopped chasing a return years ago. At the peak of his career, his body abandoned him. A bad hip injury sapped him of the burst that once allowed him to blow by almost any defender. After the Celtics traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, he never approached his Boston impact again. The Cavaliers experiment didn’t last long. He had seven stops after that, including two with the Los Angeles Lakers, but didn’t stick anywhere. His trademark efficiency diminished, turning him into an all-offense player who couldn’t fill it up like he once did. He could have walked away with two All-Star appearances, $34 million in career earnings and a hive of fans who would never forget the indomitability he embodied in Boston.

“It would be so easy to just quit and be at the crib,” Thomas said. “Anybody can do that. I just know I have so much more left in the tank. The biggest hill I had to overcome was being hurt. That was depressing because I’d never been in a situation where I can’t control what’s going on. And once I was able to overcome that, it was like, just sharpen my skills, be ready for the next opportunity. And I know the crazy thing about it is I’m 5-9, so I know these opportunities don’t come all the time. And with a guy being hurt at 5-9, they kind of look past you; they don’t think you could be as special as you were before. But ask anybody who’s gotta guard me: I’m that same player. And I’m just super thankful to be out here. Like, for real. I’m appreciative of everybody that’s been pulling for me.”

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Still blessed with a gift for putting the ball in the basket, Thomas has scored at least 30 points in each of his three games with the Stars so far. He started his scoring early on Tuesday. After dishing a fancy assist on one of his first touches, he drilled two 3-pointers in a row moments later. His 11-point first quarter helped Salt Lake City build an early 45-18 lead. He drilled 7 of 13 3-point attempts, punishing the Herd when they left him open. After one particularly tough off-the-dribble make over a 6-foot-8 defender, Thomas smiled as if savoring the degree of difficulty. He spun around to celebrate another try while it was in the air, almost like Stephen Curry likes to do, but the shot clanged off the rim. Thomas’ loud cursing afterward could be heard behind the scorer’s table.

He missed all of it, though. The competition. The challenges. Heck, even the ability to move freely around the court.

“I’m blessed, man,” Thomas said. “I had a few tough years where sometimes you just feel like quitting because it’s too much. But I always say that’s the easy thing to do. So I just stayed at it, continued to trust the process, continued to enjoy the journey. Whether it was ups or downs, I’m back playing basketball. I’m back healthy. It’s just a super cool feeling because I never thought I would be able to play with no pain no more.”

It seems safe to say Thomas will never return to the stardom of his past, but how many people get to touch the sun twice? That he’s still trying is a testament to his resilience. Heart has always been his superpower. It kept him invested in the game throughout this long layoff. He said he’s not just doing it for himself these days. He wants to set an example for his children.

“I don’t want them to hit a wall in life and give up,” Thomas said. “They’re really seeing me and watching my every move right now, so it’s like even if I wanted to, I couldn’t give up. I’ve got a few more years of this at least. I’m going to chase everything that I possibly can, give the game everything I possibly can. And I know, even if it don’t have to do with sports (but) just life in general, it’s helping my kids and it’s going to help another kid that’s going through some real things that they can’t control. That’s the most important thing. I know I’m helping my kids, but if I can help one person with what they’re going through, that’s my job. And I’ve done it.”

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Thomas’ goal of reaching the NBA again might have seemed impossible over the past couple of years, but so did the idea of a 5-9 guard becoming one of the most unstoppable players in all of basketball. Throughout 2 1/2 seasons in Boston, Thomas soared past all reasonable expectations for a guard his size. He brought the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. He finished fifth in MVP voting. He earned two All-Star selections and a spot on the second-team All-NBA. He helped lift Boston out of a rebuilding phase and back into relevance.

No matter how life smacked him, Thomas fought back. And he’s not ready to call off his mission yet.

“I’m going to just continue to fight, continue to do it with a smile on my face,” Thomas said. “And I know at some point somebody’s going to give me a chance. And I always say I’m going to just laugh at the things I’ve been put through. It just tests you, that’s all. The game is going to test you no matter how good or bad you are.”

Thomas said he has tried to help the younger Stars with their professionalism. His words should carry weight. He played with LeBron James and Nikola Jokić. He broke down film with Kobe Bryant. He dueled with many of the greats. Thomas knows what it takes to maximize potential, to pour everything into a basketball journey.

“When Isaiah’s talked about it, he’s done it,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s done it himself. He’s seen the best players in the world do it. And I think that’s lifted our team. And he’s just been an absolute joy. He’s thrown himself into the group. He’s shared obviously outstanding play, but he’s also shared himself and his knowledge with the group. It’s been an honor to be around him, and I know the guys that are playing with him are learning from him each and every day.”

Thomas’ new team tipped off at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, 8 1/2 hours before the Celtics and Jazz met on the same court. In the main event, Boston ran away from Utah with a 20-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. Jayson Tatum finished with 38 points to pace the Celtics, who also got big outings from Derrick White and Luke Kornet.

The JumboTron didn’t call for any children to sing “Let It Go” or “Baby Shark” during the NBA game. Hey, parts of the G League are different from what Thomas used to experience. He didn’t sound at all bothered by that. It’s always been about the basketball for him.

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“I’m just trying to move the game forward in each and every way and showcase the never-give-up mentality,” Thomas said. “Because I just know I’ve got a lot left. I know I have at least a few years left to give the game everything I have. And I’m just going to keep striving to be that.”

(Photo of Isaiah Thomas and Kenneth Lofton Jr.: Melissa Majchrzak / NBAE via Getty Images)

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Jay King is a staff writer for The Athletic covering the Boston Celtics. He previously covered the team for MassLive for five years. He also co-hosts the “Anything Is Poddable” podcast. Follow Jay on Twitter @byjayking

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