On Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics, and childhood dreams

Dec 30, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) smiles during the second half against the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 30, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) smiles during the second half against the Miami Heat at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

“Yeah!” my grandpa exclaimed as his hands clapped together in the most outward display of joy I’ve ever seen from him in response to a sporting event. On the chair a few feet to his left my hands were raised, while the television in front of us panned out to show a TD Garden crowd in hysterics as Tommy Heinsohn screamed “OHHHHHHHHHH” for what seemed like a minute. Isaiah Thomas had just drilled a 30-footer to give him 50 points on the night and put the Celtics up 111-106 with 37 seconds to play. What other reaction could anyone have?

Growing up in Milwaukee, my love for the Celtics was always from afar. There were occasional highlights on SportsCenter, a national TV game if you were lucky, and then, if they made it that far, the playoffs. My memories of Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, and company are sporadic. A random trip to a family friend’s house to watch a playoff game, skipping a trip to a waterpark to watch an early 2000s playoff game against the Allen Iverson-lead Sixers, catching a few games on CSN during a rare winter trip to Boston.

Since his arrival in Boston a few years ago, Isaiah Thomas has quickly become my favorite Celtic since Pierce. His swagger, his ability to score seemingly at will despite being shorter than me, his trademark smirk–all of it is incredible, and all of it was on display last night as he put on the greatest performance of his career. I thought I had seen his best last week when he dropped 44 to lead the C’s to an overtime win in Memphis, but that’s now an afterthought.

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It all changed in 2007. With the arrival of KG and Ray Allen came dozens of primetime national TV games and increased coverage on SportsCenter. They were the top seed in the East, and you could watch every single playoff game–all 26 of them that first year–with no problem. They were champions, and as famous Canadian Aubrey Graham once said, “nothing was the same.” The coverage of the Big Three only increased, then came League Pass, and soon social media. Highlights were never a problem, and usually neither were full games. But the Celtics were still in Boston, and I was still in Milwaukee.

A career-high 52 points, the fourth most in franchise history, and more than anyone–even Pierce–has ever scored in the TD Garden; 29 in the fourth quarter, just two shy of the all-time NBA record for most points in the final frame, beaten only by Wilt Chamberlain’s 31 in his 100-point game; nine three-pointers, tying Antoine Walker for the franchise record; the 5-foot-9 guard from Washington will now forever be mentioned amongst the greatest Celtics of all-time. Pick him last again.

Of course being able to watch every game and see every highlight is awesome, but there’s still something missing when you don’t live in your favorite team’s city. You don’t see the headlines in the paper every morning, you don’t see the billboards on the freeway, nor the bumper stickers on cars, nor the shirts on people walking around town. No one’s asking if you saw the game last night, or at least not the game you want to talk about.

“There are good nights in the NBA, there are great nights, and there are epics! And we’re witnessing one tonight.” – Sean Grande. What else is there to say?

For the past few weeks I’ve been staying in Boston at my grandpa’s house, which is easily the longest stretch of time I’ve spent here. I went to the Celtics’ game against the Hornets, and I’ve watched others with my grandpa or uncles or whomever was around. I’ve read the recaps in the Boston Globe, I’ve felt the city–as it’s prone to do about its sports teams–swing wildly from contention hopes to pessimism about the team on any given day. I’ve gotten a glimpse, at least I think so anyway, of what it would have been like to grow up in the same city as my favorite team.

And I remember my dad telling me a few years ago after Pierce and Garnett left the Celtics that that was essentially the end of my childhood in a way, that I would never connect with the team in quite the same way ever again. But Friday night, as I sat with my dad and Grandpa watching Isaiah go off in the same room they used to watch Dave Cowens and John Havlicek win titles in, I felt like I got it back, at least for one night.