The death of a sibling sends most people into a valley of grief. The pall is darkest when it falls suddenly on the young, such as when a 28-year-old man loses his 22-year-old kid sister in a car wreck.
Most of us would check out from the daily grind and take as much time off work as the boss would allow.
But most of us aren’t elite National Basketball Association athletes carrying the expectation of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the weight of a city’s championship dreams and the responsibility of leading teammates to perform at the highest level.
Tacoma’s Isaiah Thomas, an All-Star point guard for the Boston Celtics, had every right to sit out Sunday’s playoff opener, every right to return to his hometown to be with family. His sister, Chyna Thomas, was killed early Saturday after driving into a barrier and pole on the southbound shoulder of Interstate 5 in Federal Way.
But Thomas carried on with fortitude, Chyna’s name written on his sneakers and sorrow etched on his face as he led his team with 33 points. Playing under the 17 imposing Celtics’ championship banners hanging from the rafters, Thomas put on a gutsy performance against the Chicago Bulls that repeatedly brought the green-clad fans to their feet.
Thomas’ many supporters back in the 253 area code are pulling for him even harder — on and off the court. A product of Curtis High School and the University of Washington, the former last pick of the NBA draft wears his Grit City pedigree like an overachiever’s badge of honor. He recently contributed $80,000 to renovate a gym at the Al Davies Boys & Girls, and showed up in February for the dedication.
“I am who I am because of this city,” Thomas said.
What made the weekend tragedy even more poignant was the way another Tacoma native also rose to the occasion. Avery Bradley, who grew up in Thomas’s basketball shadow, now plays on the Celtics with him. Hours before Sunday’s game, Bradley consoled his emotional teammate with an arm draped around his shoulder.
They sat on the sideline, empty arena seats behind them — just a pair of boyhood friends sharing a tender moment away from the pressure cooker of superstardom, resting in a relationship that supersedes time, status and income.
The two Tacomans followed parallel paths to get here. The sweet-shooting Thomas was a nationally lauded guard who averaged 31.6 points his junior year at Curtis, then transferred to a New England prep school to work on his grades. Two years later, Bradley left the comfort of Bellarmine Preparatory School, where he averaged 25.6 points as a junior, to raise his GPA at a Nevada prep school.
Both overcame teenage setbacks far from home. A decade later, they’re doing it again, only this time they are grown men coping with a finality more ruthless than any shot clock. In such times, is there a greater gift than a shoulder to lean on?
Sports fans love storybook endings, but Sunday’s game did not provide one. The Celtics lost 106-102.
They could lose the rest of the series in blowout fashion, and it wouldn’t diminish our regard for Thomas and Bradley.
Game two is Tuesday night, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens said Thomas plans to play again. “I think the biggest thing is they really care about each other,” Stevens said of his team Monday.
A day earlier, that brotherhood took the form of two sad young men sitting together on the sideline surrounded by empty seats. Tacoma should be proud of more than their basketball skills.