Ex-Star Isaiah Thomas ‘Staying Ready’ & Celtics Teammates Would Welcome a Return

The most recent conversation with former Celtics star Isaiah Thomas couldn’t last too long. He had just pulled up to a gym on this Pacific Northwest morning, and the soundtrack of his life was calling.

The screeching of sneakers on hardwood, the thump-thump-thump of the dribble — pause — then rip of leather through nylon. The symphony of the made jumper.

It’s been 11 months to the day since he performed that composition in an NBA concert hall, and he’s doing all he can to get back onto that stage.

“Steady on the grind. Staying ready. Hopefully something coming on my phone soon,” Thomas tells Heavy Sports. “But you know me, I’m just taking care of the family and staying in the gym. I’m just staying ready, staying as positive as I can during this situation. Obviously I still want to play in the NBA, so I’m going to work for that until I can’t.”

He’s been a free agent since going for 14 points in 12 and a half minutes for Charlotte last April. He played against the Wizards that day; his opponent now is the waiting.

“Day by day, same things, different grind, trying to keep my mental as sharp as possible during this time,” Thomas says. There are two basic sessions day comprising two or three hours, “and then I try to find a run out here.”

On Wednesday night, it was with some Seattle Storm players, but sometimes he’ll take to Twitter to see if there are any good pickup games in the Tacoma area. He needs to stay ready.

“I’ve been talking to two teams the last couple of weeks,” Thomas reports. “Hopefully they make a decision by the end of this week or early next week. But I’ve been in contact with teams monthly.

“So that’s the thing with me, like, I know it’s close; I just have to find the team that really wants me to be on board and me to help in any situation possible. My agency and my representatives are just trying to figure it out. Obviously there’s a lot of overseas interest, but that’s just not even on my mind right now, so I don’t even want to dip into that. My ultimate goal is to have an NBA jersey. That’s all I want.”

Former Celtics Teammates Would Welcome a Return

Back in Boston, site of Thomas’ greatest success (24.7 points a game and two All-Star appearances in two-plus seasons with the Celtics), there remains great affection for the former teammate. The 5-foot-9 powder keg accelerated the club’s rise from post-Pierce/Garnett trade to the playoffs.

“That’s my brother. That’s always going to be my brother,” says Marcus Smart. “I’m sure this is hard on him. You’re a professional, you’ve been doing it, working your tail off to get here, things start to look good for you, and then it’s not. I think that’d hurt anybody. It sucks. I wish there was more I could do. When you’ve got a player like Isaiah who’s trying to get back and definitely loves the game, it makes it that much harder.”

Hip problems that would eventually require surgery cost Thomas the last three and a half games of the 2017 conference finals against Cleveland. What small chance the Celtics had was gone without him. Then he was shipped to the Cavaliers three months later in the Kyrie Irving deal. Health and roster fit conspired to put him on tour to the Lakers (twice), Denver, Washington, New Orleans, Dallas and Charlotte since.

“It just sucks,” says Smart. “We haven’t gotten to see the full, full, full IT for as many years as we should have. That’s the disappointing part about it and the sad part about it, because the dude was off the charts.

“I definitely know somebody can use him somewhere, somebody’s GOING to bring him in, and they’re going to be happy they did. He still feels like he has something in the tank, and I know he does. It’s just a matter of time before somebody gives him a chance.”

Thomas is remaining realistic with his goals, while not taking any possibility off the table.

“I think at this point in my career, that will probably be the role of being a vet presence, teaching guys how to be professional — and also knowing that if my name is ever called, I’m ready to produce,” he says. “I’m only 34 years old, but I haven’t played much the last three years really, so I haven’t had no real pounding on my body. The surgery in 2020 fixed the hip problem, and my body’s really 31, 32; I’ve got years to be able to play at a high level. But that’s not what I’m chasing; I want to be able to play in the NBA and go out on my own. That’s really what I want. I want to be able to play two or three more years, and if my name is called, I know I can produce at a high level. I know that for a fact.

“There’s so many things I can do to help a team other than getting baskets and making plays. If I’m called on? I can do that right now. I can play tonight and produce, but there’s more that I can do. I can still provide and produce for a team without playing. I did that with the Hornets last year. I was able to show my worth. I can still play. I say that in the most humble way. I can still play. It’s not like I’m begging for something that’s not there.”

‘It’s Just a Thin Line I’m On’

Isaiah Thomas has seen “Field of Dreams.” He’s familiar with the scene where Moonlight Graham looks down at the gravel line chooses to leave behind his playing dreams and help the fallen child. Fortunately, Thomas doesn’t face that decision just now. He’s comfortable enough that he can pursue his current path (if he needed the dough, he would have taken a foreign offer). But he knows he will have to make that choice someday.

“It’s a thin line,” IT says. “It’s just a thin line I’m on right now.”

When he crosses it, those who know him well believe he’d be a natural as coach.

“When I’m done playing, I definitely want to be around the game, whether that’s coaching or in the front office,” he says. “I want to help and be a part of a team. I’ve thought about that. When I’m really done playing the game, I’m definitely going to pursue that for sure.”

Al Horford nods when the prospect of Thomas coaching is mentioned.

“I mean, he loves basketball,” says Horford, who came to the Celtics as a marquee free agent in 2016 partly because Thomas had improved the club’s prospects. “He genuinely loves it. He cares for it. I feel like he can teach. When he’s ready to do that, I feel like he’d be good. I mean, there’s few guys that love — I mean really LOVE the game how he does. And that’s special.”

Says Smart, “I was able to learn a lot from him here — learn the game, the way he was able to control the game with his tempo, seeing the floor. He gave me confidence. I think he’d be a great coach. He knows the game, he loves the game, he played the game. He’s a real person. If you have a coach like that who can relate to you on the court and off, it makes it easy for that relationship to become greater.

“If he decides it’s not worth it anymore and goes on to something else from playing — whenever or if ever that day comes, I just hope he finds joy in whatever else he does.”

Maybe on the Celtics’ staff?

“We should see,” replies Smart. “I’ll do my best.”

The coaches’ pickup games would certainly be improved if Thomas were someday an assistant coach for Joe Mazzulla.

“I would definitely come early and watch if that was the case,” says Smart with a smile. “That’s a good one right there. You could sell tickets to that s***.”

There would be something poetic about Isaiah Thomas returning to the Celtics — in whatever capacity. But presently he is focused on playing … and at this moment there is the aforementioned gym awaiting him.

“The love of it is what makes me keep going,” he says. “If I didn’t love it, I probably would have quit by now, especially with all the things I’ve been through the last few years.

“Until they tell me no and no team is talking to me and everybody is like, ‘It’s a wrap for you,’ … then I MIGHT think about giving it up.”

Thomas breaks into a laugh. On this day, it’s the overture to the sneaker screech sonata.


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