BOSTON – Isaiah Thomas pointed at the imaginary watch on his wrist as a Celtics crowd roared. It was a gesture from another time and a magical place. For a few fleeting minutes, it was IT Time at TD Garden once again.
It was a time when the little guy who had always been told what he can’t do could do no wrong. It was a time when the smallest player in the NBA carried a team on his shoulders. It was a time when a franchise was reborn as first a playoff, then an NBA Finals, contender, and Thomas was the face, the heart and the soul of that resurrection.
“I turned into a superstar here,” said Thomas about 90 minutes before an emotional video tribute and stirring ovation from the Garden crowd. “The world knew my name when I played for the Boston Celtics.”
The world may not hold the 5-foot-9 guard in the same regard as it did when he averaged 28.9 points a game and finished fifth in the NBA Most Valuable Player voting in 2017. But Celtics fans have not forgotten. Nearly two years after an injured hip forced him from the Eastern Conference finals – and may have permanently derailed a career that once had visions of Brinks trucks dancing in his head – the fans showed their affection for what Thomas did playing on that hip late that season into the playoffs as he put a smile on the face of anyone who was there to witness it.
Whether it was exploding from a seat at the Garden when Thomas performed his fourth quarter wizardry, or it was at a Boys & Girls Club around Greater Boston when Thomas would visit and assure kids that the size of their belief in themselves was more important than the length of their wingspan, he spent parts of three seasons lighting up sold-out arenas and creaky run-down gyms alike.
Those who watched that season of Isaiah Thomas in Boston will never forget the feeling in the building & buzz in the city around some of those 4th quarters & OTs. Looking forward to feeling a little taste of it again tonight. #Celtics @CelticsCLNS @CLNSMedia pic.twitter.com/LyKQkt7lKT
— Scott Souza (@Scott_Souza) March 18, 2019
On Monday night, it was Thomas who lit up as he took one more tour down memory lane.
“This city is one of a kind,” he said. “I’ve said it since I’ve been here. All I did was go out there and give 100 percent each and every time out, and they fell in love with it.
“That love is genuine. There is nothing fake about it. That’s real love and I just embrace it. These types of things can never be taken away from you.”
In the 22 months since he last played a game in Boston, much has been taken away from Thomas. His place on the Celtics was taken away when he was blindsided with a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. His contract year was taken away with the hip injury that forced an extended rest and eventual surgery. His max-level deal was taken away when he was forced to accept an NBA minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets. His playing time was taken away when he was removed from the rotation last week.
Yet, nothing will ever be taken away from Thomas the way it was on the eve of his final playoff run in Boston when his younger sister, Chyna, was killed in a car accident 3,000 miles away in Washington.
During the days that followed, the city and the fan base that cheered so enthusiastically for him when the game was on the line mourned with him, cried with him, and built a bond with him that he says can never be broken.
“I went through the worst situation you could possibly go through in life with these people,” he said after the game, “and they were right there with me. Everybody in the city, the organization, went through it with me. So that’s why Boston means so much to me.”
Thomas said the first word he thinks of when he thinks of Boston is “home.” He made it clear he’s not only open to possibly returning to play for the Celtics, but very much wants that to one day happen. He kept the green sneakers he said he’d planned to wear in the NBA Finals if the Celtics had gotten there his final year in town, and wore them for the seven minutes he was out on the court Monday night.
Thomas was not able to get back into the game in the fourth quarter this time. Though he joked that he thought he never missed shots in the building, he did not make one during his short stint in the lineup. But for those few fleeting minutes during the tribute and the standing ovation that followed, he was allowed to rewind time to when he could smile, step on the parquet, point to his wrist in the fourth quarter, and soak in the adulation that flowed on a nightly basis.
“It always felt like those things should happen because I worked for those things,” he said. “I was put in position for those things to happen. And I always envisioned those things happening when I was a little boy. There were times after I got traded that I sat back and thought about things that I had done as an individual, things we had done as a team.
“Those were amazing moments that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
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