Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sat down with ESPN’S Hannah Storm for a SportsCenter conversation about star guard Isaiah Thomas and the way he’s persevered after the death of his sister before the start of the playoffs. Here’s a transcript of the conversation (edited for length and clarity):
What have you come to appreciate these past few week about Isaiah Thomas?
Ainge: Well, Isaiah has handled his adversity and his trials with a great deal of inspiration to all those who have been close to him. I’m not surprised by it, but if he didn’t handle it with this kind of inspiration, I would still love him the same. He has been a good example to any of the younger players or any of us older people [who] will inevitably go through these kinds of trials in our lives. He’s been an inspiration. He’s handled it … right in the middle of the public eye, with cameras on him as he’s crying, in the heat of a playoff battle. And all anybody wants to talk about is how this challenge is going in his life and how he’s dealing with it. Being forced to handle it in the public eye just magnifies how inspirational he’s been in dealing with it.
What were the discussions about whether or not Thomas would play after his sister’s death?
Ainge: The discussions were that he had his choice to do what he felt he needed to do for him and his family, that that was by far more important than any playoff game. He wanted to play and he felt like his teammates were his family. And at the same time, I think he wanted to quit. Not even sure he wanted to see a person, especially cameras and fans. I think, in hindsight, he would probably look and see that that support was great for him, and playing basketball with his brothers was good for him. But at the time, I know that he contemplated not playing and not wanting to deal with anything and just go and be in the arms of his family and try to deal with the loss of his sister, who he was very close with.
You were with Thomas in Tacoma [Washington] for his sister’s funeral; what can you share about that time?
Ainge: I had a chance to spend some time with Isaiah and his wife, Kayla, and their son, Jaiden, but mostly my job was to make sure that Isaiah got some sleep and some rest. And just away from the rat race. So we got him a private plane to fly to Tacoma and take care of that situation. We made sure that he returned home as rested as he could possibly be. I’m not sure how much rest he got on Saturday; it was a busy day with all the family. Like I said, Isaiah spoke at the funeral and did a magnificent job. I know that that was a heavy burden that was weighing on him, and what to say. He spoke from the heart and did an unbelievable job.
Flying back from the funeral, on short rest, how was he able to play in Game 1 versus the Wizards?
Ainge: Wasn’t that unbelievable? I couldn’t believe that. Like, right after he gets his tooth knocked off. First of all, the whole 4 o’clock in the morning — I mean, Isaiah, he’s been superhuman this whole year, he’s had an amazing season. But right after he gets his tooth knocked out, he picks it up off the floor and then hits two back-to-back 3s that weren’t open 3s, they were tough 3s, and it was in a time where we could not make a basket. He got us out of a hole that was not looking pretty at that moment. Maybe at the time that we’ve had the most adversity through the course of the year, he came and carried us again and got us out of the hole.
Thinking back to trading for Thomas, what was it that you saw in him?
Ainge: I love his passion for the game. It’s so contagious. The game is changing a little bit. Littler guards can have more success in the way the game is played now. I think Isaiah can play in any era, in any time, with any rules, and any game. He’s a very special player. He always has been. This has taken the world to figure out. Now, I never thought that he would be a 29-point-per-game scorer for the Boston Celtics and a No. 1 seed in the East being our best player; I never really thought that. But I did think that he could bring an element, a dynamic scorer to a championship-caliber team. I felt like he could be a very important piece to the puzzle of building a team. Again, his passion, I love guys that love to play, and Isaiah, you have to tell him to go home; he wants to be in the gym all the time. You say, “No, that’s enough, you gotta go home.” I love having players like that.