In a worthwhile moment spent on Twitter (an increasingly rare occurrence nowadays), a sportswriter friend noted that he’d never seen a player win the respect and adulation of Boston sports fans as quickly as Isaiah Thomas did after Celtics boss Danny Ainge heisted him from the Suns in February 2015.
To confirm what you surely already suspect, yes, the sportswriter friend is of a much younger generation, young enough that he probably knows Pearl Jam from the oldies station.
But beyond reminding me of how I’m accelerating toward being ancient, it did stir an enjoyable conversation about Boston athletes who were practically instantaneous icons.
Bobby Orr’s name came up faster than he could go end-to-end on the Garden ice. Larry Bird’s legend was established around the time of his first no-look pass. Pedro Martinez mesmerized from his first innings at Fenway. Nomar Garciaparra, with all of his easily mimicked batting quirks that preceded yet another scorched line drive, did too.
And there are many more. This region’s history is so rich in sports tradition that a couple dozen more Hall of Fame names would have to be mentioned before we got to Thomas and his place in Boston sports lore.
I do know this much: Anyone who scored 33 points in a playoff game and ended the night with a different smile than he had at the beginning is sure as heck worthy of a tribute video on the night he returns in a rival uniform.
There will be no video during this visit, per Thomas’s request. But I am certain that Celtics fans will cheer uproariously for him, even as he sits out the second half of a back-to-back after making his Cavaliers debut Tuesday, the months-long delay the result of his recovery from a hip injury suffered in the Eastern Conference finals in May. And he will deserve every decibel of appreciation and acknowledgement.
“I know it will be all love,’’ Thomas told reporters before Tuesday’s Cavaliers-Blazers game in which he scored 17 points in 19 minutes. “I keep saying that I gave that city everything I had, and they showed me genuine love back, and I think that love is going to last forever.’’
Thomas arrived in February 2015 and was traded to the Cavaliers this past August in a blockbuster that brought Kyrie Irving to the Celtics. Thomas wasn’t a Celtic for even 2½ years, but in his time here, he achieved enough that he should be regarded as a Celtic for life.
The love is real. Pretty impressive for a basketball player who had to overcome being named Isaiah (Isiah) Thomas in Boston. It would be tough to cheer a Red Sox shortstop named Derrick Jeter, you know?
It seems as though Thomas was a Celtic longer than he was because so much happened while he was here. Perceived as a sixth man upon his arrival, it did not take long for him to prove that he was so much more. Eventually, with his fearless, pinballing drives to the basket and ever-improving jumper, he became a prolific scorer for a player of any height, let alone one that stood a legit 5 feet 9 inches only on days when his posture was perfect.
Thomas led the Eastern Conference in scoring last season (28.9 points per game), the second-highest single-season scoring average in Celtics history, behind only the extraordinary 1987-88 version of Larry Bird (29.9). He must have been a nightmare to defend, but he was a dream to watch on the many nights when his whole repertoire was working at once.
He left it all on the court (including that tooth). He played with the hip injury beyond appropriate expectations. He played Game 1 of that Wizards series despite aching from his sister Chyna’s death in a car accident. On what would have been her 23d birthday later in the same series, he scored 53 points, an extraordinary feat under normal conditions, let alone when your heart is shattered.
In certain ways, Thomas was quintessentially Boston, or how Boston sees itself. He might have been an underdog, but he didn’t carry himself like one. He could be a little bit salty and vengeful, which has manifested in some oft-repeated frustrations with how the trade went down. That’s not a character flaw. It’s human nature.
Thomas adored Boston so much that he served as the de facto one-man recruiting committee, selling Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and nearly Kevin Durant on the virtues of becoming a Celtic. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t a Celtic himself.
Stark reminders that professional sports is foremost a business can stagger even those who are already well aware. Thomas fell for Boston. He was dispersed to Cleveland. Wouldn’t you be frustrated too?
Maybe we should have known that Ainge, no sentimentalist, would have no qualms with trading him for Irving once he became available. Irving is a superior player, and one who has won over Boston fans rather rapidly with his own flash and style. He’s the conventional superstar the Celtics have coveted since Father Time started swatting away Paul Pierce’s stepback.
It’s perfectly reasonable to love the trade and still deeply appreciate Thomas, who was always entertaining and ever-essential in the Celtics’ relative success while the bridge was built from one great era to potentially the next.
Some of my sports media colleagues can’t resist spinning this into a melodrama, but I guarantee he will be paid appropriate and raucous homage Wednesday night. A tribute video to cue the cheers won’t be necessary.
No one has forgotten what Isaiah Thomas meant here, even as Celtics fans now hope the postgame highlights pay tribute to Irving, the best player Thomas ever helped bring here.