Wearing a purple blazer and purple tie over a white shirt, flanked by his impossibly adorable sons, Isaiah Thomas returned Saturday to the place he grew into a man, for an event that fulfilled a lifelong dream.
During halftime of the Huskies game against Colorado, Thomas’ No. 2 Huskies jersey was unveiled on the north rafters of Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It culminated a campaign largely coordinated by former teammate and current Huskies assistant coach Will Conroy, who assured Thomas he’d join Bob Houbregs and Brandon Roy as the only Washington basketball players whose numbers are retired.
It was a magical moment in what has amounted to a harrowing few months for the former Huskies guard. His sister was killed in a car crash last spring. A hip injury, suffered on March 15 but the consequence of prolonged wear-and-tear, put him on the Celtics bench for the conclusion of the Eastern Conference Championship Series.
Traded to Cleveland, then sent from the Cavaliers to the Lakers, Thomas was due a moment that celebrated his transformation from the typically clueless teenager who enrolled at Washington in 2008 to NBA All-Star with a college degree.
Thomas was born in Tacoma and went to high school at Curtis in University Place, but it was at the University of Washington where, as he put it, “I grew into a responsible young man. I was a kid coming here and I grew up those three years I was here.”
Some 90 minutes before tipoff, Thomas met with reporters and recalled the extent of the trust gained under former head coach Lorenzo Romar. Thomas’ signature achievement — the last-second three-pointer that beat Arizona in the 2011 conference tournament, the shot TV broadcaster Gus Johnson called “coldblooded!” — was not a play Romar called from the sideline.
“I waved him off for the first time in my life,” Thomas said. “He put his back on the scorer’s table and was like, ‘go to work.’ That was where our relationship was at the time. It grew that much, from freshman year to making that last shot. It was hard for him to trust me at first, and then he gave all the trust in me.”
During his acceptance speech to the crowd, Thomas specifically thanked Romar, who took time off from his job as an Arizona assistant to attend the ceremony.
“A big reason I became the man and the player I was is because of coach Romar and the whole coaching staff,” Thomas said before the game. “The program he put out here was everything, from the first day I stepped on campus. It was about teamwork, about how to take care of your responsibilities on and off the floor and becoming a responsible young man.”
Thomas, who turned 29 on Feb. 9, isn’t such a young man any more. Basketball has taken a toll on him physically, and the death of his sister, Chyna Thomas, left him devastated during what was looking like the most successful year of his pro career.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “Not just on the court but off it, too. It’s been a difficult year for me, a difficult last several months, last couple of weeks. Been a lot of haymakers, as they say in boxing.
“No matter what your situation is, you gotta take all the haymakers to your chin and keep pushing through.”
Later in the afternoon, as the Huskies were breezing to an 82-59 victory over Colorado, Thomas read remarks prepared on a recent Lakers road trip. He specifically pointed out his Tacoma roots to the crowd, adding that former Huskies Curtis Allen and C.J. Massingale were influential in his decision to play for the Huskies.
“I’m just all smiles, happy to be back at the University of Washington,” said Thomas. “A lot of memories here, the best three years of my life. Happy to get that genuine love back, to be somewhere you’re loved.”
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath