I had just gotten ejected. We’re on the road playing the Lakers at Staples Center — my first game in a Celtics uniform — and I had picked up two technicals. Automatic ejection. I walked down the tunnel and into the locker room, still in uniform, still sweating, still hot about that last call I got T’d up over, and I saw one of the strength coaches sitting in the locker room watching the game. He looked up at me and smiled.
“Man … the Celtics fans are gonna love you.”
I was thinking people were gonna be mad about this. My team debut and I get ejected? That’s not a great first impression.
“What are you talking about? They’re gonna love me?”
“Oh, yeah. Your first game, you score 21 points and you get ejected? Boston loves that type of stuff.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was the new guy. I didn’t know anything about Boston or its fans.
I thought this dude was crazy.
Three days later — six days after the trade that sent me from the Suns to the Celtics — I played my first game at TD Garden. It was surreal. I mean, walking through the halls at the Garden in that Celtics jersey, seeing all the pictures of the Bill Russells and the Larry Birds, getting into the warmup line and looking up into the rafters at all the banners — there’s just so much history. And the arena fills up so fast before a game, faster than I had seen anywhere else. Like these fans can’t wait to watch their Celtics play.
It was only my third game with the team, so I was coming off the bench. And when I subbed in for the first time and stepped onto the parquet, I felt this burst of electricity fill the building. When I stood up to walk onto the court the whole crowd stood up with me — and they went crazy. It was my first time on the floor at the Garden, and they gave me a standing ovation like I had been a Celtic my whole life.
That was my introduction to Boston fans.
I thought, Man, these fans do love me …
The craziest part was that less than a week before I first took the floor at the Garden, I was in Phoenix sitting at the back of the Suns’ team bus waiting for the 2015 trade deadline to pass. We were about to head to the airport to take off for a road game, but the bus was waiting for the trade deadline to pass so that we didn’t take anybody with us who had to stay back and get ready to ship off to their new team.
Everybody knew that Goran Dragic was going to get traded — his name had been thrown around in rumors for weeks. And sure enough, a few minutes before the deadline, one of the assistant coaches came walking up the aisle to break the news.
Goran had been traded to the Heat.
So Goran grabbed his stuff, dapped everybody up and hugged a few guys. We all wished him luck, and he got off the bus.
The rest of us looked around the bus at each other, thinking, O.K. That’s done. This is the team it’s gonna be now. Let’s rock with this group.
I started thinking about the expanded role I would have as we went down the stretch and tried to make the playoffs. With Goran gone, I was the second point guard. More minutes meant more opportunities for me to show what I was about.
But five minutes after the deadline passed, the bus still hadn’t moved. We thought the bus was waiting for the deadline, so we were wondering what the holdup was. Brandan Wright was sitting a couple of seats in front of me, looking at his phone, and he turned back and looked at me.
“I.T. … you just got traded.”
“Nuh-uh. The deadline passed, bro. What are you talking about?”
He showed me the notification on his phone.
ISAIAH THOMAS TRADED TO CELTICS FOR MARCUS THORNTON AND A 2016 FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK
I couldn’t believe it.
I looked up and saw the assistant coach walking back up the aisle.
“I.T. … they just traded you.”
I held up Brandan’s phone.
“Yeah, that’s what they just said.”
I guess the trade was in the works right up until the deadline, so the news didn’t get out until a few minutes after. But it was a done deal.
I was shocked.
I grabbed my stuff, dapped everybody up and hugged a few guys. They all wished me luck, and I got off the bus.
Everything was happening so fast. I hadn’t even expected to get traded, and now I had to go meet with the Suns’ front office. I had to pack up my locker and get my family set up.
And I also had to stop at a store on the way to the airport and get some clothes. It was February, and the weather in Boston was crazy — like, worst-winter-in-Massachusetts-history crazy — and I was coming from the desert. I didn’t even have a winter coat. So I picked up a big North Face jacket and a couple of beanies before I jumped on a plane to Boston to take my physical.
When I got off the plane, it was snowing. It was so cold. That jacket-beanie combo saved me.
I passed my physical that night, and while the Celtics were in Sacramento playing the Kings, I watched the game with Danny Ainge in his office — just me and the GM. We talked about the team, about the trade, about me. And he said something to me I couldn’t believe.
“Isaiah … the way you play the game of basketball, you could be a Celtics legend.”
A Celtics legend? I thought he was crazy — like he was just caught up in the excitement and hype of making a big trade.
But then I Skyped with coach Brad Stevens later that night, and not only was he hyped about the trade, he was hyped about me. He said he didn’t want me to adapt to the rest of the team. He wanted the rest of the team to adapt to me. He said he wanted me to play my game and be the best Isaiah Thomas I could be.
I had never heard anything like that from a coach in my professional career. These guys weren’t just hyped about a big trade. They genuinely believed in me. And I could tell that they believed in every guy in that locker room. That’s why they brought us here.
That’s when it hit me: This was the opportunity I had always wanted. The one I had worked my whole life for. And I was going to do everything I could to take advantage of it.
The transition was kind of difficult because for the rest of that season we basically played every other day. We only had back-to-back days off one time, so we never really had time to practice, which meant I didn’t have time to learn Brad Stevens’s system. So when I came into the game off the bench, we basically just played off the pick-and-roll. It was almost like streetball. I was just out there playing, trying to make plays and get comfortable with my new teammates.
I was learning a lot, but I think I learned the most about my teammates — and the city of Boston — in the playoff series against the Cavaliers.
I know, I know. We got swept. Our season didn’t end the way we wanted it to, believe me. But a lot of good came from that series. It was an experience that our team needed, because in three of the four games, we had a chance to win in the final minutes. But we didn’t know how to win. Not in the playoffs, at least. They’re just different than the regular season. When people say that in the playoffs every play counts and every possession is crucial, they’re not kidding. It sounds cliché, and it is, but you can’t really understand what it means until you’re in position to close out a playoff game — and you get out-executed in the final minutes. You start thinking back to all the little things you could have done differently to change the outcome of the game. An extra pass here, better shot selection there — it all adds up. And against a great team like the Cavs, those little things will kill you.
I was proud of the mindset we had coming out of that series. We lost, but we gained confidence. We came out of it thinking, O.K. That’s what it takes to win a playoff series. Now we know.
I also came out of that series knowing exactly what it means to play in Boston.
I’ll admit, it took us a while to find the silver linings in getting swept. We still lost four straight, and that’s tough to stomach. But when we were walking off the court at the Garden after Game 4, something happened that I had never seen before, anywhere.
The Boston fans got on their feet and started chanting, “Let’s go, Celtics!
They gave their team, who had just been swept, a standing ovation.
At that moment, I knew that this city was like no other. Even though the season was over, it felt like we were starting something.
And it’s carried over into this season, too. We don’t have the best record, but we’re always moving forward and getting better. There have been times this season when we’ve shown that we can compete with the best teams in the league — and win.
I look back at our game against the Warriors a couple of weeks ago. That was like a playoff game, both in the way it felt and in the way we approached it. It was a nationally televised game, so we knew everybody was watching. We were coming off back-to-back losses and fighting for playoff position so we badly needed a win, and the Warriors were riding a 54-game home winning streak.
We wanted to be the team to knock them off.
And we knew we could. Remember, we took them to double-overtime back in December when they were still undefeated. We knew we could beat them.
So when we won, a lot of people were surprised. But for us, we felt validated.
Now, as we go into the playoffs, we know that we’re capable of beating the defending champs in their house, which is one of the toughest arenas in the NBA in which to play.
The next step is taking what we’ve learned and putting it all together for a seven-game series.
Right after I got traded to Boston, I got a text from Isiah Thomas — the older one. It said, “This is the best thing that will ever happen to your career.”
I didn’t really know what he meant by that. So I called him up, and he broke it down for me.
“Now you’re gonna experience what real basketball is like, what real fans are like, what a real organization is like,” he said. “And they’re gonna fall in love with you more than any place you’ve ever been.”
Honestly, I still didn’t know what he meant. Playing in Boston is just one of those things you can’t prepare yourself for. You can’t understand it until you experience it.
Now I get it.
Playing in Boston has changed my career. I’ve never been able to play with this kind of freedom, and because of that I’ve never played with more confidence.
And the fans have welcomed me with open arms, too.
I’m a little guy — I’m only five-foot-eight — so unless you’re a huge basketball fan, you’re probably not going to recognize me around town. I’m not like Jared Sullinger ducking into the doorway of a restaurant. I blend in.
At least that’s what it was like everywhere else I played. Here in Boston, though, people recognize me everywhere I go. They ask me for my picture or my autograph. They know my kids. It’s different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and I love every minute of it.
My parents come to games at the Garden sometimes, and every time they do, they say, “Do you see how many number 4 jerseys there are in the crowd?”
And I appreciate the love, Boston.
I appreciate that fact that above all else, you have embraced me for me. The same way Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens embraced me. For being Isaiah Thomas.
Older Isiah was right. Being in Boston has been the best thing that could have ever happened to my career. I can honestly say I feel blessed to be a part of this city and this organization.
They say if you win a championship in Boston, you’ll be loved forever.
And I want every guy on this team to experience that.