Tacoma native Russell McHenry knows about Isaiah Thomas’ demeanor on the court. It’s the referees who often get the butt end of his competitive edge.
“He’s always been a tough kid to ref,” McHenry said. “He always wanted calls, he always played hard, he had the athletic abilities, so we always tried to take care of him.”
But when Thomas’ Memorial Day Zeke-End Basketball Tournament rolls around, McHenry, a local youth referee, looks forward to officiating the games, in part, because he sees the former Curtis High School standout’s impact on the community.
The Boston Celtics All-Star’s 5-v-5 tournament, a weekend-long event that concluded Monday at Foss, played host to about 1,000 spectators. This year, Thomas’ Team IT defeated New York Knicks guard Tony Wroten’s Loyalty Over Everything. It was the first time Thomas has won his own tournament.
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Wroten, a Garfield and University of Washington graduate, led a team that defeated Thomas’s squad last year.
Once the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Thomas has been an underdog his whole life. He jumped from Sacramento, briefly to Phoenix, then to Boston, where he had a breakout season averaging 22.2 points, 6.2 assists and 3.0 rebounds per games and earned his first all-star bid.
The weekend that formerly belonged to Rip the Cut Memorial Basketball Tournament at Cleveland, has been taken over by Thomas and transplanted in Tacoma.
He gladly takes the torch as the area’s ambassador for the NBA. Thomas claims that he represents Washington the way those who passed it down to him did, namely NBA veterans Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry.
“When I first met (Crawford) and (Terry) and those guys, they always said ‘what I’m going to do for you, we’re going to need you to do for the next guy.’ So that’s what this is about,” Thomas said. “It’s a brotherhood, always looking out for the next young guy coming up.
“I want to be the next one to carry the torch.”
Wroten, who gathers a team of Seattle natives every year, said it’s Thomas’ laid-back personality that sets him apart.
“If you didn’t watch him on TV, you wouldn’t know he’s in the NBA because he’s such a down to earth guy,” Wroten said.
The importance of an NBA and basketball presence in Tacoma showcased this weekend goes beyond filling a gym. Without an NBA team to root for, Thomas feels a responsibility for the area.
“This is the closest thing for them seeing professional athletes, along with Jamal Crawford’s summer league he has up north,” Thomas said. “I try to get as many NBA players as I can to come out and support it. The guys who I ask, don’t even think twice about it.”
It’s crazy, he said, that kids don’t know the feeling of rooting for a local team.
Joel Garcia, an eight-year Tacoma resident and avid NBA fan who brought his daughter to the event, supports Thomas as an NBA and UW fan, because “the kid has earned everything he’s gotten.
“You’ve got all different walks of life in here whether it’s generation, culture or whatnot and they’re brought here by one guy who’s in the community,” Garcia said. “And to see what he does here is awesome.”
All these years later, on and off the court, Thomas is the same player and person. Take it from McHenry, who experienced Thomas’ (at times) unrelenting search for a favorable call.
“He gives us a mouth-full,” McHenry said. “We have to take a little attitude, and we have to have a high level of tolerance not to ‘T-up’ everyone in the gym. That’s part of the fun, though. We enjoy it.”