Due Re­spect

Where Boston - - CON­TENTS - BY DAVE WEDGE

Grow­ing up named af­ter one of the great­est NBA play­ers of all­time, one might think Isa­iah Thomas’ road to glory was pre-des­tined. His jour­ney from be­ing the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft to one of the league’s top play­ers and the face of the Bos­ton Celtics tells a dif­fer­ent story.

Isa­iah Thomas is a study in de­ter­mi­na­tion, fo­cus and over­com­ing ob­sta­cles.

“I al­ways have mo­ti­va­tion. I al­ways play with a chip on my shoul­der, just be­ing small,” says the 5-foot, 9-inch point guard. “When I was the last pick in the draft, I felt like it was dis­re­spect­ful. I felt like I out­per­formed a lot of peo­ple drafted ahead of me. I al­ways told my­self that all I ever needed was a chance. So whether I was drafted first or last, I’ll take ad­van­tage of what­ever op­por­tu­nity I get.”

Thomas is al­ways the small­est guy on the NBA court, but these days no one un­der­es­ti­mates him. He’s lit the league on fire this sea­son, torch­ing teams nightly for 25, 30, 35 points, with his sashay­ing drives, an­kle-break­ing fakes and dead­eye three-point shoot­ing. When he dropped 52 on the Mi­ami Heat in a De­cem­ber win, it was the fourth high­est sin­gle game scor­ing per­for­mance in fran­chise his­tory. Only two Celtics have ever scored more: Larry Bird (60, 53) and Kevin McHale (56).

“When I was a lit­tle boy, I al­ways dreamed about be­ing in the spot­light and be­ing that guy,” he says, sit­ting at his locker at the TD Gar­den be­fore prac­tice. “It re­ally hasn’t hit me that I’ve done that. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, that’s leg­endary stuff right there. [It’s what] I’ve al­ways dreamed of and it’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing.”

Thomas grew up in a rough sec­tion of Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton, called the Hill­top, also home to New Eng­land Pa­triot Lawyer Mil­loy as well as fel­low Celtic guard Avery Bradley.

“Not too many peo­ple make it out of there. But I guess it de­fined me,” he says. “Ta­coma’s a rough, grind-it-out neigh­bor­hood and that’s the type of player and the type of per­son that I am.”

Thomas, 27, said his par­ents and his love of bas­ket­ball were what kept him on the right path and helped him avoid the pull of the dan­ger­ous streets.

“I had goals I wanted to reach. I had the right peo­ple around me,” he says. “I was never a fol­lower. My fa­ther al­ways taught me, ‘don’t be a fol­lower, be a leader,’ so I was never re­ally with the wrong crowd. I wanted to reach the NBA.”

In a sense, bas­ket­ball has al­ways been in his blood. His name was de­ter­mined af­ter his fa­ther, James, a Los An­ge­les Lak­ers fan, pledged to name his son af­ter Detroit Pis­tons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas if the Lak­ers didn’t win the 1989 cham­pi­onship. Thomas’ par­ents didn’t wait for the series, though; they fell in love with the name and dubbed him Isa­iah—adding an ex­tra “a” in the Bi­b­li­cal tra­di­tion. When Thomas was of­fered a full schol­ar­ship to Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, his par­ents helped him trans­fer from Ta­coma’s Cur­tis High School to Kent School in Con­necti­cut, a pres­ti­gious board­ing academy where he could get his grades up.

“It was in the mid­dle of nowhere. I didn’t like it when I did it, but it was the best thing for me,” he says of Kent. “While it was tough and de­press­ing, [with­out it] I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be where I am to­day.”

At UW, he won the Pac-10 three times and went to the NCAA tour­ney three times be­fore he was drafted by the Sacra­mento Kings. Now in his sixth NBA sea­son, he’s an All-Star and is hav­ing his best year yet, lead­ing the Celtics in scor­ing at 29 points per game and qui­et­ing crit­ics with Paul Pierce/ Larry Bird-like shoot­ing nights. Cleve­land Cava­liers star LeBron James re­cently sang Thomas’ praises, say­ing, “They got a clearcut star and that’s Isa­iah.”

These days, Thomas hangs out with NBA stars and celebri­ties like box­ing su­per­star Floyd May­weather, but he hasn’t for­got­ten his roots. He goes back to the Hill­top reg­u­larly for char­ity events and give­aways. A fa­ther of two young boys—James and Jaiden—he mar­ried his wife Kayla, a Ta­coma girl, last sum­mer.

And he takes ad­vice from Celtics greats like Bill Rus­sell, Bill Wal­ton and Nate “Tiny” Archibald. “They keep say­ing, ‘Just keep be­ing you. The city, the fans, they’re go­ing to fall in love with you be­cause you give it your all ev­ery time out.’”

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