The crowds here act differently. It is because they are the originals.
At the annual Zeke-End basketball tournament, local NBA star Isaiah Thomas, the host, is met by the masses. Only they are not seeking autographs, or begging for snapshots with their phones. They are mostly welcoming the former Curtis High School standout home after a long season with the Boston Celtics.
And you can see it in Thomas’ face. He isn’t on guard. He is laughing with old friends. He is hugging former teammates. And in between games, he can also be seen playing a round of NBA 2K17 on the Xbox in the Tacoma Community College gymnasium hallway with his sons, Jaiden and James.
This is his true playground.
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“It’s home. He is good here. He doesn’t have to worry about anything,” said Will Conroy, who knows Thomas within the University of Washington basketball circles, even though they were never teammates. “In Boston, he can barely walk around because he is a star. Here, people just let him move and don’t bother him much.”
By his own admission, it was a long seventh NBA season for the 5-foot-9 point guard.
“It was a long one, but a fun one,” Thomas said, “Even with all the ups and downs.”
Thomas started by scoring 20 or more points in 20 of his first 21 games. Then on Dec. 30 against Miami, he tallied a Celtics-record 29 of his career-best 52 points in the fourth quarter of a 117-114 victory. It was also the storied franchise’s fourth-highest single-game score ever.
By late January, after receiving his second consecutive Eastern Conference All-Star nod, Thomas, 28, was establishing a reputation as a fourth-quarter buzzsaw scorer. His 32.9 points per game for that month was the third-highest in Boston history, behind Paul Pierce (33.5 in February 2006) and Larry Bird (33.1 in February 1988).
By February, he was well on his way to setting a Celtics record for most consecutive 20-point scoring games: 43.
And in March, he led the Celtics on their big move past Cleveland for the best record in the Eastern Conference, which they clinched April 12.
“We got to a stage where we wanted to be,” Thomas said.
And it all changed overnight.
A day before the Celtics were set to meet Chicago in the opening round of the conference playoffs, Thomas’ younger sister, Chyna, died in an early-morning car accident on Interstate 5 just outside Federal Way. She was just 23.
While grieving, Thomas played in the game, scoring 33 points in a 106-102 loss to the Bulls in Boston.
“For sure, I was going through more than a lot of people ever can imagine,” Thomas said. “It was a lot. I had a great support system with my family, my friends, my teammates and the organization. It helped me out a lot.”
After the Celtics rallied to trip up the Bulls in that first playoff series, Thomas flew home for two days for his sister’s funeral.
“It was tough, but at the end of the day, everything happens for a reason,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to keep going.”
At the outset of the Celtics-Cavaliers’ conference finals, Cleveland star LeBron James was asked about Thomas’ personal situation in a news conference.
“At the end of the day, basketball is the easiest way to get away from anything that you may be going through,” James said. “I can’t put myself in his shoes. He’s been unbelievable to be able to do that.”
It was in that series that Thomas was dealt another blow — injury. In the second game, Thomas aggravated a hip injury, tearing his labrum.
That was the end of his postseason.
“That is how my life has been. There have been ups, and there have been downs — and it goes back up,” Thomas said. “The season was going so good.”
Because of that injury, Thomas isn’t playing in his own celebrity tournament this weekend. He is on the sidelines, coaching up “Team Zeke.”
Over the next few weeks, Thomas said he will have to decide whether to have hip surgery.
“My (Celtics) coaching staff and the organization have said, ‘Look at it as a blessing in disguise so you can rest finally, and really heal up,’” Thomas said. “I don’t see it. I want to play basketball all the time.”
Even in his down time, Thomas has been a gracious host for a fourth-year event he hopes to hold annually.
“All he ever talks about is wanting to do stuff for Tacoma,” said Erik Evans, a close friend and former Curtis teammate. “He grew up here. He knows everybody in this town. It’s like his family.”
More than two months later, Thomas admits “some days are tougher than others” when it comes to dealing with his sister’s death. All he can do, he says, is wake up and be an honorable family man, and the best basketball player he can be.
“She is still here with me, so I will be fine,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, I have faith in God, and I know that everything will be all right.”