It’s hard for anyone over the age of 15 to get emotionally attached to professional athletes anymore.
They’re too exposed. There are too many ways for us to learn their flaws. We know more about our favorite athletes than ever before, and usually — whether it’s what they do at home or how they vote or what they’re like when the cameras aren’t on — that information doesn’t paint them in a particularly good light.
But for Boston Celtics fans, Isaiah Thomas was one of those players who made it easy to get attached to. Everyone knows “it’s a business,” but that doesn’t make it any easier to become detached when a player changes team.
Which is what Thomas did Tuesday, by no choice of his own, when the Celtics traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a blockbuster deal that brought four-time All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to Boston.
The trade could set up the Celtics as NBA Finals contenders next season and for seasons to come. Thomas, meanwhile, is coming off a hip injury and is due to hit free agency next summer. From a business standpoint, it’s a trade that made sense for Danny Ainge to make, and it should make Boston better.
Then why are so many Celtics fans either flat-out against the trade or so darn conflicted?
Thomas is a big reason why.
The supposedly undersized guard was a great player for the Celtics. He averaged 24.7 points per game over two-plus seasons, exceeding the numbers he ever put up in Phoenix or Sacramento. He was a legitimate NBA MVP contender in 2016, earning his second consecutive All-Star Game selection while scoring a career-high 28.9 points per game. He was sensational in the playoffs this spring … until the hip injury.
It stings to part ways with a player like that, but Irving is better, bigger and more durable. But losing Thomas isn’t just a basketball business thing. What hurts the most, of course, has little to do with anything Thomas did on the stat sheet.
When the Celtics acquired Thomas at the 2015 NBA trade deadline, C’s fans didn’t know much about the player or the person. They knew he was small but could score and some might have remembered his willingness and ability to take the big shot, which he displayed in college at Washington.
But it soon became obvious that Thomas was cut from a different cloth. He didn’t let his size hold him back. He was fearless, both in the way he played the game and the way he took on all comers — even if they were (much) bigger.
Thomas also seemed to embrace the idea of playing in Boston from the jump. It’s the sort of thing that other cities and mainstream blogs or sites mock Boston for, but this city and region appreciate someone who embraces the “challenge” of playing in Boston, whatever that actually means.
Thomas revealed last year in a piece for The Players’ Tribune that he spoke with Isiah Thomas — the other one — shortly after the trade to Boston. The elder IT told him he’d love playing in Boston and it would be the best thing to happen to his career.
“Honestly, I still didn’t know what he meant,” Thomas wrote. “Playing in Boston is just one of those things you can’t prepare yourself for. You can’t understand it until you experience it.
“Now I get it.
“Playing in Boston has changed my career. I’ve never been able to play with this kind of freedom, and because of that I’ve never played with more confidence.
“And the fans have welcomed me with open arms, too.”
He embraced the challenge, and he made the Celtics his team. He became a leader. He was the heart and soul, the biggest reason Boston came back from the basketball dead to get within one series of the NBA Finals.
Perhaps Thomas most endeared himself to the Green Teamers in the way he handled adversity. Whether it was how all 5-foot-8 of him fearlessly slashed to the rim among a forest of 7-footers (usually scoring) or playing through injury, it never went unappreciated it. No one will forget.
But no challenge was more daunting than the sudden, tragic death of his sister Chyna this spring — right before Game 1 of the first round. Thomas didn’t miss a damn game, though, flying across the country to say his final goodbye to the sister he loved and adored.
Celtics fans made it clear how much they appreciated the effort.
He reciprocated by playing some of the best basketball of his life, even if he was emotionally drained.
But he kept playing, and he kept playing well. The highlight was an unbelievable 53-point showing in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Washington Wizards, one of the best performances in Celtics history — on his late sister’s birthday.
Oh, and all of that came the game after he lost a tooth in Game 1 against Washington.
So here you had this guy, living through a personal hell, dealing with pain and up and down his body, and he’s still leaving it all out on the court? How do you not love that? How do you not embrace that? And how are you not kind of bummed out when he’s traded away, even if it’s to better the club?
Thomas wanted to be part of a long-term success story in Boston. He was instrumental in the offseason recruiting process, and he’s a big reason why Al Horford and Gordon Hayward are Celtics. Remember this tweet?
Or this one?
Isaiah Thomas made it cool to play for the Celtics. He made it a desirable destination for other players.
All we can ask for in athletes is loyalty and hard work. Thomas brought an abundance of both to Boston. He’ll be fondly remembered in New England for years to come, and if the Celtics get back to the promised land, he’ll be a big reason why, even if he’s no longer wearing Celtic green.
“Older Isiah was right, Thomas wrote in that Players’ Tribune story. “Being in Boston has been the best thing that could have ever happened to my career. I can honestly say I feel blessed to be a part of this city and this organization.”
And then this:
“They say if you win a championship in Boston, you’ll be loved forever.”
Judging by the reaction to Thomas’ departure, he doesn’t need the first part to worry about the second part.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images