Quick, what does Tacoma native Isaiah Thomas have in common with the following people: Dwayne Collins, Will Blalock, Alex Acker, Andreas Glyniadakis and Janis Timma?
The answer: Over the last decade or so, each of these men was the final pick in the draft for the National Basketball Association. The distinction is accompanied by the title “Mr. Irrelevant” because rarely does a player chosen so low reach the rarefied heights of an NBA roster, let alone win any meaningful playing time or — perish the thought — get selected for an all-star team.
Thomas is the exception to the rule, harnessing his underdoggedness to become a star point guard with the Boston Celtics, where he averaged 22.2 points and 6.2 assists per game last season. He is Beantown’s answer to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors — small and quick as a hummingbird, and just as beautiful to watch.
Tacoma children and other local basketball fans had a chance to see Thomas play in an exhibition tournament at Foss High School over Memorial Day weekend. Thomas, the son of working-class parents, brought some of his NBA friends along to help give back to a community he still considers home.
“It’s a brotherhood, always looking out for the next young guy coming up,” he said in a News Tribune article over the weekend. “I want to be the next one to carry the torch.”
A former hoops sensation at Curtis High School and the University of Washington, Thomas certainly never expected to be the last pick of the 2011 draft. But the irrepressible point guard had already overcome other obstacles, including a two-year detour to a prep school in Connecticut to get his grades up before signing with the UW.
So leave it to Thomas to shed the Mr. Irrelevant stigma faster than a pair of warmup pants on the sideline of a practice gym. If he found it useful, it was only to enlarge the chip on the shoulder of his 5-foot-9-inch frame, decidedly undersized by NBA standards.
Tacomans should feel a hearty kinship for Thomas, even those who eschew the pro-sports world and wouldn’t know he’s arguably the best homegrown basketball talent ever to come out of Pierce County. The young man commands attention, what with the various words (irrepressible, underdog, working-class, irrelevant) that have followed him during his life. Do those adjectives sound like a city you know?
That Thomas often plays in the Eastern time zone makes it challenging for his hometown to keep an eye on him (as well as another Celtic from Tacoma: Avery Bradley, the former Bellarmine Preparatory School standout).
That Thomas doesn’t even get to play once a year a mere 30 minutes from his hometown, against a once-successful pro basketball franchise that departed eight years ago, is a travesty all its own.
Regardless, it’s fun to watch Thomas mature in various facets as an athlete, as well as an ambassador for competition and fair play. He tried a guest-analyst stint for ESPN during the Eastern Conference finals. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Mariners game Friday. He’s reportedly headed to China in June to make appearances, including hosting 20 underprivileged students from a Shanghai migrant school. He’ll surely be seen around Tacoma’s youth basketball camp scene this summer.
Thomas has accepted the mission to use his gift of basketball as a platform for generosity, just as locally produced young men such as the Trufant brothers and Jermaine Kearse have done with the game of football.
And that is sweeter than a game-winning three-point shot, nothing but net.