Martino Smith handles the ball so smoothly it behaves like a yo-yo on a string. He spins, he drives, he extends his fingers as if he’s reaching into the basket on the delicate follow-through of his little jump shot.
The basketball looks at home in his hands, and his play is natural, like the comfortable speech of someone fluent in a special language.
He’s a ninth-grader at Mt. Tahoma, and he exaggerates like a media guide when he says he’s “5-3, 115 pounds.”
He was flexing his basketball chops at the
Henry T. Schatz Boys & Girls Club on Tuesday morning for one reason: to take part in the Isaiah Thomas Basketball Camp.
“He’s my role model,” Smith says. “He’s small ... I’m small.”
So, the message, when you look at him, is: If he can make it to the NBA, I can make it to the NBA?
Smith nods once as if it’s the most logical of conclusions.
But Isaiah Thomas – the little guy who starred for Curtis High and the University of Washington, and now plays for the Sacramento Kings – wasn’t at his camp Tuesday until the afternoon session.
And the reason might provide the most meaningful message that any of the almost 150 campers could receive: Thomas was taking an exam at the UW as he continues the final weeks of his class work toward his degree in American ethnic studies.
Thomas asked the young people to understand his absence and told them why it was important.
“I told them I’m trying to graduate,” he said. “I promised my mom and dad I was going to graduate and I’m keeping my word; I’m going to get it done. I want them to see that I’m in the NBA, but I’m still going to finish school … that’s the most important thing.”
When Isaiah Thomas says such a thing, kids listen. It’s not coming from a 7-foot giant; it’s coming from somebody from their town, who quite literally looks at them eye-to-eye.
“He’s totally relatable,” said Gary Klein director of the Schatz branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs. “The kids just want to be near him, to touch him, to look in his eyes. It means so much … he talks to them like he’s one of them.”
Former UW player David Hudson runs the Elite Sports camps and is the main drill sergeant as kids ages 6-16 are surprisingly orderly in action at a dozen stations across two gyms. Hudson said Thomas granted 40 “scholarships” to worthy kids from Tacoma clubs who couldn’t afford the $150 fee for the four-day camp.
But Hudson said Thomas gives more: “When he walks into the gym, it’s like he brings hope.”
Thomas knows that feeling. He remembered his first camp, in fifth or sixth grade, conducted by the Sonics’ Detlef Schrempf. He admits it was difficult for him to relate to a 6-foot-10 German.
“That makes it really fun when I do camps,” Thomas said. “Some kids look at me and just come out and ask, ‘Are you really in the NBA?’ It’s great that I can show them that you don’t always have to be the tallest guy.”
The 5-foot-9 Thomas was the last player drafted in last summer’s NBA draft, but he came on so well with the Kings that he earned a part-time starting role and averaged 11.5 points a game. His energetic and joyful play made him a fan favorite.
And so he finds it unsettling that the Kings are the latest of the league’s franchises to face possible relocation pending an arena-funding crisis.
“I tell everybody down there that I’ve been in the situation, having a team I love – the Sonics – leave,” he said. “It’s sad. When I go around the NBA, personnel are always telling me how much they miss the Seattle trip, that it was such a great NBA town.”
The ripple effect of the Sonics legacy reached the gym in South Tacoma on Tuesday, as Thomas recalled learning the game at a camp held by Schrempf. And he passed on a story how Nate Robinson, another former Husky in the NBA, once was a needy camper granted a camp scholarship by Sonics guard Gary Payton.
It’s an example of the proud regional hoops tradition that Thomas is trying to extend in Tacoma.
“Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry were like big brothers to me,” Thomas said of Seattle natives in the NBA. “I always say that I want to be to Tacoma what they are to Seattle, always in the community, working camps, talking to kids at boys and girls clubs.”
So, on Tuesday, the story was about Isaiah Thomas. But some years from now, it might be about Martino Smith teaching the game to generations down the line.
I pointed to Smith, a grinning kid in a red shirt, driving to the basket and scooping in a bank shot.
“You never know,” Thomas said. “That’s why you try to give kids this kid of opportunity, to get them in this situation. Maybe that kid in the red shirt will be the next guy from the state of Washington. But you might never know it if he doesn’t get this opportunity.”