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.’”