BOSTON — Ten basketball seasons ago, Isaiah Thomas’ hoop dream was in serious danger.
He was in his first year at the South Kent prep school in Connecticut — and hating it.
He was an 11th grader — for the second year in a row.
He was nearly 3,000 miles from home — and so homesick, he concocted a phony story about a family wedding just so he could get back to Tacoma, Washington, for a few days. His coach, Raphael Chillious, learned of the ruse and suspended his short, but talented and big-hearted, point guard.
Yet Thomas saved his dream at South Kent, with a mighty assist from Chillious, who later followed him to the University of Washington as an assistant coach.
Chillious, now an assistant at UConn, told me the story Sunday morning. He’d been crying, but who in Thomas’ circle hadn’t been? The loss of a sibling, especially a younger one, is devastating. Thomas’ 22-year-old sister, Chyna, lost her life in a car accident Saturday morning near Tacoma.
Ten years ago, on Chillious’ watch, Thomas got his act together in the classroom and flourished on the basketball court. What grew from there was a lifelong bond between the two men. Thomas told Chillious via text Saturday that he was “being strong for the whole family” and wanted to play the following evening in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Bulls.
“I’m hurting for his family,” Chillious said, “but I’ve been there.”
In the spring of 1986, when Chillious was 14, his mother was killed in a car wreck. Hours after hearing the life-altering news, he was on the basketball court — the only way he could try to deal.
“It’s not easy,” he said, “but like I told Isaiah, he’s going to carry Chyna with him wherever he goes. He’s going to carry her with him every time he steps onto the court, in every city, in every arena, in every playoff game — forever.”
Eventually, the games will get easier than Sunday’s 106-102 defeat against the Bulls. How Thomas rose to such a moment and scored 33 points — 13 in the first quarter, when everyone watching had to be wondering if he had anything to give — is impossible to understand, yet enormously impressive.
The fans at the TD Garden did what they could to keep Thomas going. After the final note of the national anthem trailed off, shouts of “We love you, I.T.!” filled the arena. They gave him a standing ovation as he walked to the bench for his first rest late in the opening quarter. After Thomas’ back-to-back three-point plays in the third quarter, they chanted, “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
There was even more heartfelt sentiment behind the scenes for one of the most well-liked players in the league.
“He just seems like such a great kid,” is how Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg put it.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens tried to find the words to convey what Thomas means around here.
“Isaiah’s a great teammate,” he said. “Isaiah’s a great husband. He’s a great father. He is a great guy, a great son and a great brother.”
It kind of says it all.
At one point during the Celtics’ pregame shootaround, Thomas lowered himself into a courtside seat, put his head in the crook of one arm and cried. Teammate Avery Bradley, a Tacoma native, offered quiet comfort. A day earlier, Bradley had pulled Thomas out of a post-practice interview to help break the awful news from home.
Thomas wasn’t in the Celtics’ team chapel session before Game 1, but Bradley and several teammates were. Some were searching for what to do for Thomas — what to say to him — a very normal reaction for any person, especially a young one, at such an unthinkable time.
“Even when you don’t know what to say,” said Rev. Robert Gray, the team chaplain, “you can still pray for him.”
Gray told them about visiting soldiers with no legs at the Walter Reed National Military Center. He told them no matter how bad it gets, it can always be worse. And a most important message: On Easter, he told them their teammate and friend was going to be OK.
“That’s what Resurrection Sunday is all about,” he said.
I felt fortunate to -witness this chapel -session. The whole day, full of signs about how much people care.
“He’s an amazing player, an amazing person,” Stevens said of Thomas. “The days won’t get easier for him, but he somehow plays like that.”
It must be that thing Chillious talked about, that need to play when nothing else makes sense.
“Whenever something is going wrong in our life, the best place to be is on the basketball court for these two, two-and-a-half hours,” the Bulls’ Dwyane Wade said. “That’s where his mind is going to be the clearest.”
We should all hope that’s true, for Thomas’ sake. Let him have at least that much.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.