The slow grind, as Isaiah Thomas calls it, is about to speed up.
If the Cleveland Cavaliers star has his way, he’ll be on the court with LeBron James & Co. late next month and their play will answer all those questions that surround them. The hip that knocked him out of the conference finals in May, and that caused so much consternation when it delayed the stunning trade with the Boston Celtics in late August, is feeling better every day. All those months of rehabbing – the baby steps, the pushing of his patience and all that thankless work that went on outside of the spotlight – should lead him back to his favorite place soon.
No matter what jersey he’s wearing, the 28-year-old who might have the NBA’s best underdog story is what they call a hooper. But he’s much more than that, too – a father, a husband, a son, and a grieving brother whose 22-year-old sister, Chyna, died in a tragic one-car accident in late April just as his Celtics were bounding into the playoffs.
Thomas, the 5-foot-9 two-time All-Star, decided to chronicle his challenging summer and his comeback in a docu-series that is featured on The Players’ Tribune. He discussed that project at length with USA TODAY Sports for this story, but Thomas’ insights hardly ended there.
“It's just set up so perfect,” he said of this next chapter. “All the other stuff that people talk about, the free agency (this summer); am I going to be able to come back and be the same player? Like, I'm not worried about that.
“Every time something happens in my career, I always bounce back and it's bigger than anything anybody ever thought. And this is just going to be the same thing.”
The following is an edited version of the interview.
Q: So your son asked you in that (Book of Isaiah II preview video), ‘Why did they want to trade you Daddy?’ You’ve had a lot of time to chew on where you got where you are, and this challenge that’s in front of you. But do you have any more clarity on the answer to that question?
A: “No, I don't. When it happened, I cut off all communication with the people who made that happen, so I don't have any clarity on why and why it came up and why it went down like it did. But it happened, and my job was to move on from it. And my job was to understand who, in that situation, really genuinely cared about me - not just as a player, but as a person, and who made a business move. I mean I'm not upset about it. The biggest thing for me was how it went down. Out of respect (for) both parties, I thought that I would be, I guess, aware of it more than I was and not just hit like a side of bricks. That was probably the biggest thing.”
Q: You’ve always been pretty good at finding fuel for motivation, and you hear guys who have been hurt talk all the time about finding motivation during rehab. Kobe (Bryant) has talked about this, and – ironically – (injured Celtics small forward) Gordon (Hayward) is going through his own version of this right now. With that in mind, is the trade itself motivation for you at this point, or is it a case of you trying to put it behind you in your mind?
A: “It’s a little bit of both. I've put it behind me, and I've continued to try to do that… But other than that, every day that I'm in the gym or that I'm on the court or in the weight room or doing whatever I have to do to get back to who I was, and get back to being 100 percent healthy, yes I do use it as motivation. Like Kobe and the other guys who have been injured before, you have your good days and you have your bad days when it comes to rehabbing. Like, it's hard, especially for a guy like myself who has never been injured and who has never had to sit out for this long or even had to be out for a month or something without being able to play the game of basketball, something that I've done my whole life. That's tough, so I use every ounce, every bit of negativity, every bit of, 'Ah, he's not going to be this when he comes back.' Every bit of, 'He's not going to be the same player.' I use that as motivation to say, 'Ok, we've still got a lot of work to do and we're going to come back and we're going to do what we always do, and that's always been the plan.’ And that's the only plan."
Q: Is that outside noise making its way into your head, or do you just lock in on the day-to-day grind of the rehab?
A: "Man, I'm focused on the day-in, day (out) grind of the rehab, but at the same time, like, (expletive), I watch basketball, I watch stuff that's on ESPN, so I see what people say. Even if I don't want to see it, I see it. And it just makes me smile, because I know at the end of the day my story is my story and this has always been my story. And it's always been, whatever bump in the road, it's always been, 'Oh, he's too small. He's an All-Star, but he's not this good. He's an All-Star, but he's not a franchise player. He's an MVP candidate, but he can't lead a team to a championship.’ It's always been something. It's always been something every step of the way.
“And like I said, I've accepted that story. I accepted the grind, and having to prove every single year, every single season, that I'm one of the best players in the world and you're not going to take that from me no matter what. It's just different now. Like what I've done and what I do on the court, it's solidified now. There's no more (idea that) I have to prove to the world that I'm one of the best scorers and one of the best guards in the world."
Q: What’s the real when it comes to your hip? And what’s your level of confidence in how that’s feeling right now?
A: “I mean the real is that everybody who has something to say about my hip hasn't seen my MRI, hasn't been in those doctor meetings, haven’t been in those specialist meetings talking about my hip and how I'm going to be the same player that I was before my injury. Like, nobody really knows. They're just all speculating, or reading, or seeing whatever they see on these sports shows and this and that. So like at first, when it first happened, the trade and everybody was talking about, 'Oh, is the trade going to go through,' yeah (I was frustrated) because that was the first time I ever dealt with something like that, so I was like, 'What is going on? I'm sitting here in these meetings, and the doctor's not even saying the stuff that I'm reading and seeing on TV.'
So I can't control what people think or say about what's going on in my hip. I know, and I know that I'm going to be OK. I just know that it's going to take time. I can't control the amount of time it's going to take, because I decided not to have surgery. And that was the best decision for me, because of what numerous doctors say. And I don't want to go too deep into that, but I know what I'm going to be and I know I'm going to be fine at the end of the day. And I know I'm going to be able to play the game of basketball again at a high level for however long that I would like to play the game.”
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