By Matt Straub
You hear it all the time. The standard answer given by cynics who don’t like the way the games we love have gone goes like this: sports are a business. To an extent, they’re right. One of the reasons we don’t see pitchers go deep into games anymore or NBA players go all out for 82 games is because owners consider their stars to be investments now and don’t want to risk losing the return on their money. On the players’ side, loyalty too often goes out the window in order to chase the all mighty dollar.
There are still nights, however, which will cause even the greatest cynic to remember why they loved sports in the first place. At their core, sports are about bringing out emotion. From competitive spirit to joy to despair, the emotional roller coaster our teams take us on over the course of nearly a full year keeps us coming back. There are nights we remember for how they made us feel more than the plays which led to the final result.
Sunday was such a night. If you’re a fan of the Boston Celtics, the passion with which Isaiah Thomas plays basketball won you over a year ago. If you’re a casual observer, he earned your respect Sunday with an effort which will take its place in the rich history of the NBA’s most storied franchise. Less than 24 hours after learning of the death of his younger sister, Thomas tried to warm up for Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. It didn’t look good. He had tears in his eyes for much of the session, even taking a seat on the bench at one point to let out a full cry, with teammate and fellow Washington native Avery Bradley sitting next to him, his arm around his teammate.
When the lineups were introduced, the fans at the TD Garden, as they have so many times over the years, especially in the old building which used to sit next door, tried to lift their teammate. They gave Thomas a stirring ovation, but he still had a far away look in his eyes.
Then the lights came on, literally and figuratively. The game began, and suddenly Thomas was the spark plug the Celtics needed. Most of us, thankfully, will never understand what Thomas was feeling, but you could tell this was not a typical performance. Thomas dominated early as the Celtics got off to a lead, then reinvigorated a struggling offense each time he returned from much-needed breaks.
He finished with 33 points and six assists. Yes there were too many turnovers, most of which came when he tried to do too much as his emotion got the best of him, but Thomas once again gave the Celtics everything he had.
Boston lost the game, in large part because it couldn’t give Thomas enough help, nor get him open to take the decisive shots, but the final score will be a footnote in history. What will endure from Sunday night is what makes sports too great for cynicism to ever fully take them over.
Isaiah Thomas reminded us what it’s like when sports bring out the emotion in us and made it tough to understand how we ever allow ourselves to forget.