Just a few days before the Boston Celtics were to take on the Chicago Bulls, star guard Isaiah Thomas’ 22-year-old sister, Chyna Thomas, was killed in a car crash. The news was shocking. Isaiah Thomas was considered a game-time decision, and in a sports trope that has become as sadistic as it is celebrated, Thomas suited up to play.
On his shoes he’d written “RIP Lil Sis,” “Chyna” and “I love you.” Hours before the game began, Thomas was caught bawling on the sideline. He was comforted by a teammate. When the Boston Garden had a moment of silence for his sister before the game began, Thomas was caught crying again.
“I’m not sure what to say—I’m not feeling comfortable with him sitting on the sideline crying like that,” Barkley said on the pregame show, the Washington Post reports. “That makes me uncomfortable. So that tells me he’s not in shape to play. I mean, I don’t know how this night is going to turn out, but to be sitting on the sideline a few minutes before the game, crying, that just makes me uncomfortable for him.
“That’s just not a good look for him, in my personal opinion. I mean, he is clearly devastated, like we all would be if we lost a sibling, but sitting on the sideline right before the game, that makes me uncomfortable.”
And Barkley was right. Thomas doesn’t owe the city or the fans anything. He’s carried his mediocre team to the No. 1 seed in the East. He’s an All-Star. He didn’t need to play; he needed to grieve, and no one would have held it against him. Not the Celtic fans, not the city of Boston, not the owner, the coach or his teammates.
As a newsman, I understand that if Thomas agrees to play, cameramen have to capture him crying. They cannot look away, since it is their job to capture the pain, and as sadistic as it sounds, the cameras can’t stop rolling when the pain comes, because they are there to capture it. Thomas’ decision to play was the story, and the sight of him grieving publicly was voyeuristic porn. We didn’t need to see that, but not because the cameramen captured it, but because he didn’t need to be out there.
What Thomas needed was a coach to shield him from the gratuitous display of pain the cameras are paid to catch. It could’ve been motivation to the team to have the coach come in and say, “Thomas, you’ve carried us up to this point; let us not only lift you and your family in prayer, but let us lift you with our play. Sit this one out, buddy; we got you.”
It’s not as if I don’t understand that playing can be cathartic, and Barkley acknowledged that, too.
“I think he’ll be glad—like, this is just me thinking—I think he’ll be glad when the game starts,” Barkley said. “Because as a player, we have so much going on in our mind. We’ve got the game plan, we’ve got wondering what plays to run and things like that. You’ve got so much going through your mind once the game starts.
“In his free time, I know it’s going to be painful, but I know if he’s going to play today, it’s going to be a relief for him. At least, it was for me, because I had to think about so much going on in the game, and it gave me two hours of pain relief, as I called it. And then you go back after the game.”
But watching Thomas falling apart before the game showed that he was still in the deep, dark place of grief. I don’t know how he could stand, much less play, and he still scored 33 points in 38 minutes because he’s that damn good. I don’t think Thomas was in his right mind, and how could he be? Just days before, he lost his little sister.
His coach, Brad Stevens, had admitted before the game that Thomas was “struggling” but still left the decision as to whether he would play up to the star point guard.
“We talked a little bit [Saturday] night and then again today about as he goes through it and if he feels like he needs to not, then, whatever he wants,” Stevens said. “I think that one of the things that I’ve learned, having been through situations in the past, is that there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s whatever’s right for him, and that’s what we’ve encouraged him. He’s really hurt. It’s a tough situation.”
He needed to be protected and cared for, and I don’t know what role the pressure of being the best player on a team with a real chance played in this, but he needed an owner or a coach to step in and take that decision away from him so he didn’t have the pressure of feeling that he needed to play. He should have been held out of the game, if only to keep the cameras from catching him grieving, which he’s entitled to do without the eyes of millions of people watching his pain.
Read more at the Washington Post.