When Isaiah Thomas took off his warm-ups and checked in for his first NBA game in two years, the crowd at Minnesota’s Target Center cheered.
“They really cheered for me, and this is an away game,” the 32-year-old said after dropping 19 points in 22 minutes in his season debut for the Lakers last Friday. “Those moments mean more to me than anything, because people respect what I do, people respect the grind I’m on. Me being 5-foot-9 helps. I’m a normal person’s height. People cheer for me because of that.”
They also know his story. Millions watched Thomas score 33 points in the 2017 playoffs on the day after his sister’s death. Weeks later, he dropped 53 points on an ailing hip, which only got worse as he kept playing. The run connected us with Thomas: the contradiction between his tiny frame and the courage beaming from it, a childlike love for the game that would sustain despite what came next.
The Celtics front office left their hearts at the door that summer, when they traded Thomas to the Cavs for Kyrie Irving. A hobbled Thomas stumbled through the NBA’s gates, from the Lakers to Denver to Washington, grabbing any opportunity he could on the way: a 10-day deal in New Orleans, two Team USA qualifying tournaments, the Drew League, the G League. “It’s been tough at times just because I don’t see why I’m not in the league. I showed that I’m healthy, I showed that I’m the same player as I was before, but at the same time, I continue to have faith,” he told Jalen & Jacoby after dropping 42 points for the Grand Rapids Gold, the Nuggets’ G League affiliate. “I’m staying positive. I’m doing everything I can control to showcase myself, to show I got no ego, I got no pride. I’ll play anywhere, as people know—I play at local YMCAs.”
A day later, Thomas got a call from Rob Pelinka. The Lakers had eight of the 100 NBA players to enter healthy and safety protocols this month. They signed Thomas to a 10-day contract, the first of over 40 G League players to jump to the NBA.
According to Lakers coach Frank Vogel, Los Angeles worked Thomas out this summer and had “a lot of conversations about his medical,” calling a second hip surgery performed last year “a difference-maker.” Thomas does indeed look different, a Christmas miracle tinged with irony: While omicron threatens to steal Christmas, it’s given fans a chance to watch Thomas, one of the NBA’s most beloved players, face off against the Nets in one of the final games of his 10-day contract.
Thomas’s return in the midst of chaos feels like the NBA equivalent of Ted Lasso being released six months into the first COVID-19 lockdown: a burst of joy made more appealing by its contrast to the despair surrounding it.
One of my favorite moments of Ted Lasso comes in “Rainbow,” the fifth episode of Season 2. Roy Kent, a retired player turned TV pundit, beloved for his biting, curse-riddled critiques of sports media rhetoric, realizes what Ted already knew: He belongs in the foxhole. He rips the microphone out of his ears on live TV and runs to accept Ted’s offer to rejoin the team as an assistant coach. On the way, he bribes a cabbie with money and a biker with a wristwatch, injures his knee, and limps to the gates as the game is about to start, triumphant.
I root for Thomas for the same reason I like watching Ted Lasso: the cheesy but honest imagery about the power of love, the way we can burst through obstacles when we listen to it.
Thomas turns his weakness into a strength, sneaking under defenders to get into the paint, arcing rainbow jumpers high enough to rise above their arms. His sheer presence among the giants still surprises me sometimes, the same way watching looming conflict morph into a fulcrum for growth on Ted Lasso is shockingly corny at first, before it becomes therapeutic. I’ve learned to register my surprise as a measure of my own thirst for optimism, and in time, watched my perspective shift. That’s the core of Thomas’s appeal: He gets you to believe in him as much as he believes in himself, to no longer be surprised.
Carmelo Anthony, who also had to fight his way back into an NBA rotation, rejoiced after Thomas’s debut. “It’s something that I can relate to,” said Anthony. “I know the feeling of believing in yourself when everybody counts you out.”
Maybe Thomas will play his way into another opportunity. Maybe omicron will continue to spread, and Thomas will hop around from 10-day to 10-day in his final act. Maybe Christmas is the last time we’ll see him in the NBA. Don’t worry about that too much. Get lost in the rainbow jumpers. Even if they don’t go in, you’ll love watching their trajectory.