Two weeks ago, Isaiah Thomas was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-team deal with the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards (that also sent Marcus Morris to Los Angeles, Moe Harkless and a first-round pick to New York, and Jerome Robinson to Washington). Shortly after, the Clippers decided to waive the two-time All-Star, making him a free agent.
Prior to the trade, Thomas played in 40 games with the Wizards, averaging 12.2 points, 3.7 assists and 2.0 threes (while shooting 41.3 percent from deep) in just 23.1 minutes per game. HoopsHype sat down with the nine-year NBA veteran to discuss his free agency, health, relationship with Kobe Bryant, the Boston Celtics’ decision to trade him in 2017 and more.
After producing with the Wizards, were you surprised that the Clippers decided to waive you after the trade? They just brought in Reggie Jackson, so they did seem to need a veteran guard. Did it shock you?
Isaiah Thomas: I was surprised, but I understood the situation on the business side of things. I was really a throw-in in the trade. It’s not like they were really trading for me; they were trading for Marcus Morris, which I understand. In my nine years in the NBA, I’ve learned that anything can happen. I thought it could work and I thought it was a good fit for me, but they thought otherwise. That’s okay. Now, I’m just trying to figure out the best situation moving forward.
How is your health at the moment?
IT: My health is good. As everybody has seen this season, I’ve been able to play every game and I’ve been able to practice every day. I wasn’t having to take days off; I was able to just focus on working and getting better. With my health, there are no questions. Now, I’m staying in shape and staying ready for the next opportunity.
Have you or your camp had any talks with teams yet?
IT: Yeah, I won’t say specific teams, but we’ve had talks with several teams. Teams are interested, but we’re just trying to figure out what’s the best situation for me. Also, we know that other things may open up very soon. But I’m just trying to stay as patient as possible when it comes to this while knowing that I’m ready for any opportunity that I’m given. Whether it’s a playoff team where I’ll be whichever piece they need to complete their puzzle or an up-and-coming team where I’m helping the young players and being a good veteran, I’m going to take advantage of whatever opportunity I’m given.
In the meantime, what have you been doing as far as training?
IT: I have a trainer who is with me at all times – he works with me throughout the season. I’ve just been staying in the gym, staying in the weight room and doing a lot of conditioning. I’ve been sticking to my routine so that I can keep my rhythm. I have trainers and people in my circle who help me out and continue to make me better, and that’s what we’ve been doing.
What are the biggest things that you can bring to a team right now – on and off the court?
IT: Everything that I’ve always brought to a team. I’m a leader, first and foremost. I won the NBA’s Community Assist award so, off the court, I help in the community. On the court, I think it’s self-explanatory what I bring to a team when given an opportunity. I also bring my wisdom. I don’t think anybody has been through the things that I’ve gone through in this league. Despite obstacle after obstacle, I’ve overcome everything that’s been thrown at me and taken advantage of any opportunity that I’ve gotten. I think that’s what is most important. I think I can help in whatever situation I end up in. Ideally, I’d love to be part of a championship-contending team – a playoff team – because I know that I can still contribute and help win playoff games, if need be. That’s in my DNA. The biggest thing is just trying to figure out the best opportunity for me and staying ready. Understand that any opportunity that’s given to me, I’ll be ready for it. And I think everybody knows that.
You made it to the NBA at 5-foot-9, succeeded after being the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft and developed into an All-NBA player after bouncing around to three different teams. When you’ve repeatedly succeeded against all odds, how does that help you in moments like this when you’re once again being doubted?
IT: I mean, it’s just another stepping stone, another chapter in my book. This has been my story and that’s probably the way it’s always going to be. Everything is going to be an uphill battle and that’s fine because I’ve been through it. I think that just builds character. Right now, being patient is tough. But I also know that I want to be wanted, I want to be valued and I want to be part of something. That’s all I want. I work hard, I never cheated the game and I’m in it for all of the right reasons. I love this game. But it’s never been easy, so why would it be easy now?
You’re no stranger to the business side of the NBA. What advice would you give to a young player who has yet to experience that?
IT: At the end of the day, I think you have to continue to be who you are. You have to continue to believe in yourself and be a professional, on and off the court. I think being professional is one of the most important attributes of a player. You have to know that it’s a business and, at the same time, just do your part each and every day – no matter what the circumstances are. You should appreciate the highs, but appreciate the lows as well. I’ve always said that my goals are bigger than the obstacles I faced. Adversity builds character. I’m not saying it’s easy (because it’s not), but I always look at my end goal, which is to try to be one of the best best basketball players to ever play the game. I mean that. I just turned 31 years old and I still have a lot of basketball left in me. It’s just a matter of being in the right situation.
Pacers GM Chad Buchanan told me an interesting story: After the Boston Celtics traded you in 2017, Indiana’s veterans asked if the front office would notify players when they were surfacing in trade talks. Darren Collison explained why players typically don’t trust executives, using your situation as a perfect example: Even if a player is loyal and gives everything to the team, they may still get traded. Now, the Pacers’ front office informs players when they’re being discussed in serious trade talks. Did you know about that?
IT: I hadn’t heard of that! I didn’t know anything about that, but it’s good to hear. That’s definitely a step in the right direction. I mean, I’m not saying that either way is right or wrong, but when you’re playing in the league, you definitely want to be notified if something may be close to happening. But it doesn’t always work like that, though. I guess some players may not want to know about trade talks because they can’t play well or get over it once that’s in the back of their head. You just have to understand that [anything can happen] and trust the process. I think that’s what it comes down to. Obviously, guys are going to be emotional or upset if they’re being traded or being put in a situation that they don’t like. But the best thing you can do is just try to figure it out and move on. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I think you should remain professional no matter what. Whether you’re in trade talks or not (and whether they tell you or not), your job is to come to work every day and bring what you’re supposed to bring. That’s the least you can do, no matter what situation you’re in.
You played through a torn hip labrum and suited up the day after your sister’s death, only to be traded by the Celtics a few months later. After that trade, what kind of response and support did you receive from fellow players around the NBA?
IT: I mean, it was just surprising. Any trade like that is surprising. Everybody in the NBA family supports each other. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I think it caught a lot of people by surprise and that’s probably the main way that I can describe that. I was surprised as well, but I know that everybody else was too because it was a really big trade for both teams! It caught everybody off guard, but that’s the life of a professional athlete. There are only a few guys who [are untouchable] and know for certain what’s going on with their future.
One of the people who supported you the most as you recovered from your hip injury was the late Kobe Bryant. You’ve said that you started playing basketball because of Kobe, and you were one of the players who participated in his Mamba Camp last August. Do you have any favorite Kobe stories?
IT: One on-court story that stands out was facing off against Kobe in my first NBA game. I was on the Sacramento Kings and during training camp, Coach Paul Westphal had a rule that nobody could back me down. Everybody always turned the ball over or was forced into a bad shot when they tried to post me up, so he’d always say that nobody could back me down. When he subbed me into my first NBA game for the first time, he was telling everybody who they were guarding and he didn’t say who had Kobe. I looked at him like, “Uh, who has Kobe?!” Paul Westphal goes, “IT, you’ve got Kobe. Remember, nobody can back you down!” (laughs) He was hyping me up and I don’t know if he even realized that Kobe was my favorite player. For three-straight possessions, Kobe backed me down and he scored two out of three times (laughs). I was just smiling on the way back down the court. It was just hilarious. That was an on-court memory that stands out, even though at that point I didn’t have a close relationship with him yet.
But the biggest memory for me was when Kobe and I sat down after every game of my series against the Chicago Bulls in 2017 and watched film together. I had my people send the film to him and he’d look it over. Then, we’d be on speaker phone and he’d be telling me everything that he saw, breaking the game down the way he would if he was in the series. I think that’s why he started doing that Detail show with ESPN because it was basically just like that, but it was just me and him. I was going through one of the toughest times in my life with the passing of my sister and he took the time out of his day to help me. We were on the phone for about an hour-and-a-half to two hours the day after every game, looking over the film and seeing how I’d adjust for the next playoff game. It was so surreal. It didn’t seem real that Kobe Bryant was really on the phone with me, helping through playoff situations. That was probably my biggest memory of Kobe, taking the time to really be there and help me. He saw what kind of path I was going on and he saw something special in me. For him to nickname me “Mighty IT” and help me so much and to have Player-Edition Kobe shoes, it was a dream come true. I’ve always dreamed of that and it actually came true.
You were one of the players that he issued a Mamba Challenge on Twitter. What did it mean for you to build that kind of relationship with an all-time great who also happened to be your favorite player?
IT: That’s what I’m saying! He challenged me to make 1st Team All-NBA. It was amazing. It didn’t make sense; I really dreamed of that and it happened. For me to have Kobe Bryant basically on speed dial, where I could call him or text him anytime I needed him and he was there for me? That meant so much to me. For someone of that stature to always be there for me and always lend a helping hand, whether it was with basketball or when I was dealing with my sister passing, it meant so much. When my sister passed away, he was one of the first people to reach out and he sent a long text message on that game-day. I remember he said, “If you’re going to play, you play. You play like Isaiah Thomas plays and nobody knows how to make that happen but you.” That goes a long way. He’s someone who is close to my heart and this is a tragedy that’s going to change the world. It really sucks because it’s just such an unfortunate situation with all involved. He’s such an iconic athlete, so it was just amazing to have that relationship with him.
He definitely saw something special in you. He saw some Mamba Mentality in you.
IT: With what I’m going through now, I know that he would never want me to quit. No matter how hard it gets, he’d want me to find a way. That’s what he would’ve done. He would’ve found a way and figured it out. That’s what Mamba Mentality is all about. No matter what, he was going to figure out. That’s what I’m trying to do. I will never fold; I will always keep going, no matter what.
You mentioned the death of your sister, Chyna. What was it like to grieve on a national stage and go through something like that so publicly?
IT: I mean, that was the toughest time of my life. Basketball was the only thing that got me through for those two-and-a-half hours. Other than that, once I was off the court, it was real life again. I’ve said this before: I think I had the best year of my career and the worst year of my life at the same time. Let that sink in. It was tough, and it’s still tough to this day. But I know that people like my sister and Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle are… (goes silent)
Do you ever wonder what would’ve happened if Boston hadn’t traded you or if you hadn’t played through your torn hip labrum during the 2017 playoffs? Obviously, basketball was an escape for you during those playoffs, but do you ever think about those what-ifs?
IT: I don’t think about it because there are so many what-ifs in life. I try to always be present in the moment and think about the future and figure things out. If I did what-ifs, my mind would just be racing, so I try not to think about things like that. You can think positively or negatively. I just try to stay in the moment as best as I can and try to figure out what’s next at all times.
I love that mentality. You were a fan favorite in Boston, so I’ve seen some Celtics fans on Twitter hoping the team signs you. After everything that went down, would you be open to playing for the Celtics again?
IT: For sure, if the opportunity presented itself. I hold no grudges, and they know that. I have genuine love for the city of Boston. If that were to happen, I’d love to be part of what they have going on. You never know. I’m always open for any opportunity to be in the NBA and play the game that I love at the highest level. If that opportunity presents itself, for sure. Time has passed.