May 2, 2017.
Do you remember where you were?
It was the day Isaiah Thomas dropped 53 points on his sister’s birthday, who had passed away just a few weeks earlier in a tragic car accident.
Some might describe it as one of the most powerful moments in NBA history.
Thomas – the 5 ‘9 point guard, who was the last pick in the 2011 draft – had already overcome many odds in order to emerge as a superstar, and earn consecutive bids to the All Star game.
He captured the hearts of the city from the moment the Celtics acquired him from Sacramento in 2015. He became known as Mr. Fourth Quarter, averaging almost 10 points per game in the final period in the 2016-17 season.
That year, he averaged nearly 29 points per game – one of the highest all-time marks in the franchise’s history.
But nothing compared to the emotions of May 2, 2017: 53 points – 29 of them coming in the fourth quarter and overtime alone — and a victory over the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Most Game 7s, most Finals games don’t quite compare to the emotions of that night.
“I don’t know how it happened,” Thomas told Marc D’Amico on the View from the Rafters podcast. “It felt like I was really in the gym by myself. It felt like I was working on moves by myself. I couldn’t hear anything – I wasn’t hearing the crowd, I wasn’t hearing anything that was going on.”
“I was just so locked in,” he said. “It was like, this is a big day for my family as well. It’s my sister’s birthday. She just passed a few weeks ago. It was very difficult for me, but it was bigger than that actual game for me and my family. I was just in a zone – that’s a zone I’ve never been in.”
Isaiah Thomas persevered through the sudden death of his sister to put together one of the most memorable stretches in NBA history.
On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas was killed in a car accident in Washington State. Isaiah learned of the tragic news shortly after that day’s practice.
The next day, in a remarkable turn of events, he dropped 33 points in the first game of the 2017 playoffs, a loss to the Chicago Bulls.
“My teammates didn’t know how to interact or act around me,” Thomas said. “The energy of what we built the last two years kind of got thrown out the window just because I was going through a real life situation. Physically, I was there. Mentally, I was back at home.”
The Celtics went on to win that first-round matchup against the Bulls, dropping the first two games at home before winning four straight to advance to the conference semifinals. Thomas, who was grieving throughout the entire playoff run, acknowledged how difficult that period of time was, not just for him, but also for his teammates.
“I thank my teammates first and foremost for sticking with me, being so respectful of everything that was going on, and most importantly, being there for me – each and every one of my teammates, and not just my teammates but the coaching staff, the video coordinators, the equipment managers, everybody was literally there for me,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of why the city fell in love with me – because not only did my team go through this situation, the whole city went through this situation with me.”
The pain and grief was palpable to anyone who tuned into watch. While the personal loss was Isaiah’s, it was one that the entire city of Boston took on.
“I was going through it with the whole entire state, the whole entire region, the whole entire fanbase who loves Celtics basketball,” Thomas said. “So I think that’s a big reason why the city loves me as well, because we went through something that was so tragic, and made something out of it for those two months, or however long it was.”
Thomas acknowledged he was able to help turn around that Bulls’ series, despite the team falling down 0-2, because he realized he had to act as normal as possible around his teammates.
“They’re walking on eggshells as well, because they’re sensitive about the situation,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know how to treat the situation or treat me at the time – once I started to open back up and be myself, just a little bit, at least during that time of us taking the bus to the arena, being at the arena, taking the bus back to the hotel, during that time I had to try to be as normal as possible around my teammates, because I could see it took a toll on my teammates just because they didn’t know how to interact with me, they didn’t know how to go about the series.”
The Celtics ultimately defeated the Bulls and moved onto the conference semifinals against the Wizards. Thomas averaged 27.4 points and 7.1 assists in that series, which the Celtics won in seven games.
Most memorably, he exploded for 53 points on the night of Chyna’s birthday.
“I was the energy to the team,” Thomas said. “Everybody helped each other, but if I brought the energy, everybody followed. “
Thomas recognizes his relationship with Boston remains incredibly unique:
It was love at first sight between Isaiah and the city of Boston. He reflected on getting ejected in one of his first games in green, and how that night, he was told that the city would ‘effin love him.’
“When I experienced that [standing ovation] my first few games of the home stand after I got traded, it felt like college,” Thomas said. “The energy felt like college, the love I got right away. Since that day, it’s been the same love – no matter if I’m playing for the Celtics, no matter if I visit Boston, whether on social media – the love has been so genuine. I don’t know why, but I’ll take it. You can’t explain the love we have – the city of Boston, the organization, everything about the Celtics, and myself. It’s like a storybook.”
Thomas’s run in Boston was cut short when he was traded in August of 2017 to the Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving.
In 179 games for Boston, he averaged 24.7 points and 6 assists. To this day, he holds the highest career scoring average of any Celtic.
“I was only there for two and a half years,” Thomas said. “You would think I won the championships that the Celtics are known for winning, that the city of Boston is known for winning. It was something that, I guess you can’t describe.”
A native of Washington State, Thomas doesn’t spend a ton of time in Boston. But, he knows he is always welcome.
“It feels like a second home for me,” he said. “Anytime I come back to Boston, anytime I talk about the Celtics, any place I’m at in the whole entire world, people bring that up: ‘Man, I love when you played for the Celtics. You made me fall in love with the game.’ I’m appreciative of the opportunity the Celtics gave me. I appreciate the love that the Celtics world, Celtics Nation, the city of Boston gives me to this day. It’s genuine. It’s hard to describe, but it’s there. You would think I played 10 years there and won 10 championships, how much love I get each and every day, each and every year that I’m around here.”
Thomas has not given up on his dream of returning to the NBA.
It’s no secret that Isaiah is still trying to get back in the NBA. He has played for 10 different NBA teams, most recently a four-game stint with the Lakers in 2022. But, he’s still hoping a team decides to sign him, an NBA veteran who has done things on the basketball court most people — and most NBA players – could only dream of.
“I’m staying ready. I’m 34 years old. Healthy. Just trying to stay as mentally and physically ready as possible, “ Thomas said. “I still want to pursue my NBA dream of being on a roster and contributing, taking advantage of any opportunity I get. I know I can help an organization in more ways than just putting the basketball in the hoops.”
Nearly two years removed from his last professional game, Thomas knows that getting a team to take a chance on him might not happen. That doesn’t mean he’s giving up on it.
“My mental is in a good place where no matter if it does happen or not, I’ve given it all I can control, everything I can possibly control,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, I’m just going to continue to stay ready, continue to be around the game. Hopefully, at some point, I get a call and I can take advantage of the opportunity.”
Meanwhile, he’s taken the time to reflect on the remarkable things he was able to accomplish during his Celtics tenure, something he didn’t do when he was actively playing.
“I wish I could go back and be in those moments, because it was so ‘onto the next.’ Or, I wish I could be in those moments now, in terms of just – I was such a killer, I didn’t appreciate those moments at those times.
To this day, Thomas said people thank him all the time for making them fall in love with the game of basketball.
“People come up to me and really be like, ‘you changed my childhood.’ Obviously that makes me feel old, but that’s the reason why I keep going,” he said. “I’m super thankful for those moments. I’m super thankful for the Celtics for giving me an opportunity that nobody really would. I’m super thankful for the city for bringing me in with open arms. I didn’t understand what I did – the records I was breaking, the class I was in.”
Isaiah Thomas knows that the NBA is a game of opportunity.
He got his on February 19, 2015, when the Sacramento Kings sent him to Boston.
“I needed an opportunity. I needed a team to give me an opportunity that I always felt that I deserved. The city, I think, needed a player like myself. It just came together.”
You can watch the full episode here.