Isaiah Thomas - Slow-Grinding All My Life

Isaiah Thomas - Slow-Grinding All My Life

Shortly after putting pen to paper on his latest NBA deal with the Washington Wizards last week, undeserved journeyman Isaiah Thomas took the opportunity to tie in his apparent excitement with several tributes to late rapper, activist, businessman and his friend, Nipsey Hussle.

Thomas possesses an innate capacity for hard work and has made a habit of earning the attention that his ability warrants. Those are just two of the reasons why the Tacoma native shares such a profound bond with the recently-deceased star and his widely revered discography.

All my life, been grinding all my life,

Sacrificed, hustled, paid the price.

Donning ‘Washington’ across his chest is a return to familiar territory for Thomas, who was named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year during his three-year tenure with the Huskies, closer to home in Seattle. It was during this period that he formed a friendship with Hussle, who would perform locally on a semi-regular basis and connect with the point guard after the shows.

When Hussle –born Ermias Joseph Asghedom – was shot dead outside his clothing store back in March, the communities he worked tirelessly to serve, the wider hip-hop community and the sports world were shaken to their core.

Thomas felt that pain too; he lost not only a friend, but a beacon of hope. He saw the influence that Hussle had on those around him, as well as his self-made, DIY approach as a source of inspiration for his life, on and off the court.

Similarly to Hussle, the now 30-year-old views life as a marathon and truly believes in the power of the ‘slow-grind’. Their respective work proves the worth of long-term sacrifice, hustle and defying the obstacles that present themselves.

I say self made, meaning I designed myself.

“I’m going to continue to try to inspire the world just like Nipsey did and I’m going to live by his motto ‘The Marathon Continues’ because that’s what I know he would want me to do,” Thomas told Chris Miller of NBC.

“Every-time I step on the floor I want to remind people of that and for me getting another opportunity and a legit one to show people that I’m still special and I can still play at a high level and I can still lead a team, I can’t thank God enough.”

In Washington, Isaiah has been afforded another chance to go out there and prove people wrong, once again. If given the requisite amount of playing time to recapture his spark offensively, the Wizards may unearth a forgotten gem.

Whenever IT has been denied anything over the years, he has consistently found a way to go out there and get it himself. Professional basketball contracts aren’t handed out to 5’9, late second round picks without a tremendous amount of dedication and endless hours in the gym. Disregarding his limitations, Thomas established himself in the NBA early on despite a revolving door of teammates in Sacramento and a frustrating positional log jam in Phoenix, before arriving in Boston in 2015.

He worked to carve his niche as a zippy, score-first point guard for the Celtics, under head coach Brad Stevens. His brazen self-belief and ability to carry an offense earned the impassioned affection of the Boston locals, and secured a spot at two consecutive All-Star games.

His rare ability to find space and shoot over much bigger defenders, combined with the unwavering aggression with which he drove to the rim every night, led to Isaiah Thomas becoming the very essence of Boston, and Boston was Isaiah Thomas. That was, until the unthinkable happened.

Money, loyalty and love, in the dream we trust,
You be switchin’ up the players on your team too much.

When he was included in a trade package that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston, it put an exclamation point on the argument that loyalty no longer exists in sports. Franchises are all too often used as stepping stones for brand-building stars, while the athletes themselves are used as bargaining chips, even when they make a sizeable impact on their team, as Thomas did for the Celtics.

Danny Ainge’s willingness to trade Thomas – after the guard had helped to recruit Al Horford and Gordon Hayward to Boston – was a new level of ruthlessness. Revisionist history aside however, it made basketball sense at the time. Thomas had played through a hip injury in the postseason months before leaving, in what he recently described as ‘taking a bullet’ for the team. That injury however, is what cost Isaiah a max contract and made him more disposable in the eyes of the Celtics front office.

The circumstances were brutal, but his ailing health and the trade, meant that Thomas was forced to begin the next chapter of his career. Cleveland.

To say it didn’t work out for Thomas in Cleveland would be an understatement. The fit wasn’t there, his role was reduced and some internal conflict reportedly caused a chasm between two separate groups within the camp. He was then packaged in another trade deal, this time to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played a supporting role before accepting that it was time for hip surgery.

For the 2018-2019 season, he spent a reasonable amount of time working his way back to full-health, after signing for the Denver Nuggets on a one-year deal. In a guard-heavy roster, he couldn’t find an in-road toward noteworthy playing time upon his return and when the postseason rolled around, he had no part to play. Just like that, his time in Denver was over and Isaiah could now be justifiably labelled an NBA journeyman – through no fault of his own.

The ‘slow grind’ that Thomas speaks of so commonly applies directly to his all-too-familiar rehabilitation, but more broadly to his immovable determination to return to an All-Star level that had once thrilled the league. That undying thirst for excellence is what has led Thomas to Washington, during this marathon he calls a career.

Look, I’m married to this game, that’s who I made my wife.

Just 37 hours after his 22-year-old sister was killed in a car crash, Thomas played in a playoff victory over the Chicago Bulls in Boston. His tears on the TD Garden’s sidelines conveyed to the world just what he was going through. The reason he was even at the arena – he sees the court as his sanctuary, as do many dedicated players.

For those who haven’t lived a life without the release of athletic activity, the game just means more than any outsider could comprehend. A player’s ability to block out any exterior noise, as they push themselves physically inside their own safe haven cannot be overstated. Thomas doesn’t merely want to extend the timeframe of his career; he wishes to maximise the time he spends with the game that he loves, the pastime that has done so much for him.

Nipsey’s lyric is a purposeful exaggeration and of course, Thomas’ real-life family come before everything, but the game of basketball certainly finishes second.

Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts.

Back in 2016, whilst with the Celtics, IT became the shortest player ever to record a triple-double. During his peak in the green and gold he put in performances that transcended his physical frame, dropping 55 points on both the Grizzlies and Raptors, torching the Heat with 52 and handing an incredible 53 to his new team in Washington D.C.

He became an inspiration to undersized guards all over the globe, who began to believe that the league was now a reachable goal. As with Nipsey’s prose, Thomas’ play garnered hope.

So much has been said about his size and it has certainly presented him with challenges, but his unquestionable aplomb stands him much higher than your average athlete and equips him to regain at least some of his previous form. With his chest puffed out and eyes laser-focused, Thomas can be expected to approach his latest opportunity with a similar sense of conviction to his dear departed friend and favourite rapper.

Feature photo – Scott Dudelson / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington