"They loved what I brought to the table," Isaiah Thomas said of the Celtics. "I had an opportunity and ran with it, and I haven't looked back since."
This came on Friday afternoon of All-Star Weekend, in a French Quarter building called The Chicory that had been commandeered by various brands for the weekend. Thomas was speaking in front of a small crowd, on a makeshift stage with Sage Steele, in front of a handful of fans who'd won the chance to be there. He was appearing on behalf of Tissot watches—official sponsor of the NBA, and more recently official sponsor of Isaiah Thomas. Out on the floor, there was a roped off section of the room displaying various watches in giant glass cases. Further back, a DJ was spinning various hip-hop tracks. In a room to right, there was a pop-up shop from Stance, the NBA's official sock sponsor. The walls were dotted with various NBA art. In the room to the left, Michael Rapaport was co-hosting a live podcast with Kenyon Martin. Altogether, it was All-Star's branded chaos at its peak.
I mention all this because these events are always headlined by at least one superstar, and in New Orleans on that Friday afternoon, Isaiah Thomas was the superstar. That's amazing, right?
It's one thing to be the undersized overachiever who's impossible to root against. This is different. Now there are MVP chants, and scoring records, and branded events for his new luxury watch endorsement. He's arrived. It happened slowly—finding a place with the Kings, that trade from the Suns, surprising people in Boston, gradually building momentum. Then it happened all at once—did you see him drop 52 on the Heat?
The story of his rise from Tacoma has been told elsewhere. Whatever comes next in Boston is still unfolding. But in New Orleans, I appreciated just how real all of this has become. A friend with the Celtics once described Thomas as "the most confident man on the planet," and for the first four months of the season, all that confidence was validated.
Maybe it won't last, maybe it'll get complicated. Maybe this is only the beginning. Whatever happens, I liked listening to him in the middle of the story. What follows is Isaiah Thomas in his own words from New Orleans. It's a combination of his on-stage interview with Sage Steele, and a conversation with SI afterward. Halfway through the best year of his life, this is how he explains where we are.
On motivation after all his success: "I want to be great. You can't just be good for a couple years. I want it to be a normal thing, each and every year. I want to be one of the best players in the entire NBA. I just gotta keep working. I'm having a pretty good year, but I'm not satisfied. For whatever reason, I feel like I've got a little more to show."
On criticism after all his success: "I don't look for it, but I hear about it. I see it. Not everybody's a fan of my game. Everybody doesn't love what I do. There's some people that continue to doubt, and that's what fuels me."
On MVP chants: "With me, I'm just staying in the moment. It's always been a dream of mine, since I was a little boy. To be in an arena, fans chanting MVP. For it to happen in the Garden, every night, having a Celtics jersey on... It's something that doesn't feel real, but it's love."
On the Seattle point guard tradition with Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, Nate Robinson, and himself: "It rains a lot! It rains, and it forces you to be in the gym. Everybody's always in the gym, everybody's playing basketball. It's something in that water up there. We're all alike somehow. And we all love the game of basketball. There's a lot of talent coming out of the Pacific Northwest."
On the future at University of Washington: "[Me and Markelle Fultz] talk every now and then. I got to play with him this summer, up at (University of Washington). He's special. He's going to be a really good NBA player. He's got the full package. And Michael Porter, Jr.? Who hasn't [heard]? He's the real deal, for sure."
On the endless parade of Celtics trade rumors: "We do hear a lot of that. It's part of the business, though. I don't really get tired of it. Some of it's true, some of it's not. You just gotta go about your business. Do your job. And... [laughs] if you get traded, you get traded."
On playing in Boston: "I got to sit down with Paul Pierce, I talked with KG. That's one of the things they always say, like, 'That Boston thing is not... it's not normal.' The support you get from the fans, from the whole city. It's unbelievable."
On Tommy Heinsohn: "Them fans are so loud, I can't hear him. But if I watch a game? He is loud, and he is passionate. That's what you need. That's Celtic pride right there."
On the fourth quarters this year: "It feels normal. It's not normal, but it feels normal. When I go into fourth quarters I'm not looking to score 20 points, I'm just looking to do what my team needs me to do, each and every night. I try to be that. One thing about me, my whole career I've been consistent. That's through hard work and dedication. I always want to be known as a consistent player, and this year, that fourth quarter is just... When that time comes, I just try to be myself."
On pressure: "I don't see pressure, honestly. I'm 28 years old, and I've been playing since I was four or five. So, basketball is easy to me. I've been playing my whole life. I can see if it was a math test or something, something where I don't spend every day of my whole life working to achieve these goals, but... I've been shooting the ball long enough to figure things out."
On a Celtics-Wizards playoff series: "If they're in our way? Then so be it. I'm a competitor, I don't really care who's on the other side."
On what it takes to beat the Cavs: "Everything we got. We know it. It goes through them."
On Brad Stevens: "He's a hell of a coach, but an even better person. He's real genuine. He has a great relationship with all of his players, shows no favoritism. He's young and he's smart, and I think that's the thing about him—he's probably the hardest working coach I've been around in my career. He lives in the gym. He knows what he's talking about, and he instilled that in everybody in the organization."
On how Stevens changes the game: "He trusts you. Like if you have a coach that has confidence in you, lets you be yourself on the floor, lets you figure it out. That can go a long way. I think this is his fourth year, this is my third year being with the team, and nobody expected us to turn it around this fast, and we have. And we want more."
On the playoffs: "I don't know how to win the playoffs yet. I'm trying to figure it out. I've been in the playoffs twice, this is my sixth year. Two first–round exits. But I'm figuring it out slowly. Like I said, I don't know what it takes, but experience is the best teacher."
On his kids watching his rise: "I got two little boys, six years old and five years old. They're catching on. The other day, my older son said he was famous. Someone asked to take a picture with him. So like I said, they're catching on. When they're at home, they know what they're doing. They do everything that we do in warmups. They watch; that's the good thing about having kids. They watch everything. Even if you don't know it, they watch everything and they want to be just like me. They're always going to be there to keep me grounded, and keep me happy. So I'm doing it for those two."
On his kids and Steph Curry: "They think Steph Curry is still better than me. My oldest son always says, 'You don't make enough shots. He makes everything.' ... You know, every kid likes Steph Curry. They know a few players and that's one they always talk about. They see the shots he takes, they see them going in, so I can't fault them. But look, when the lights is on... [laughs] they know who their favorite player is."
On lobbying Adam Silver for a new team in Seattle: "I haven't, but I think he knows. [laughs] He knows where I stand. He understands we want a team, we want a team bad. It would be good for the NBA. Everybody I talk to around the league, they'll talk about the Sonics. They all say, 'Man... we miss that Seattle trip.'"
On the true owner of the watch celebration:"I mean Damian Lillard did it a few years ago. So I didn't make it up, but he didn't make it up, either. John Wall didn't make it up, either. So it is what it is. People can do the same celebrations. But nobody's been doing what I'm doing in the fourth quarters..."
On John Wall calling himself the league's best point guard: "That's how he feels? That's how he should feel. Every good player, everyone who wants to be great, should feel that way. I've worked my whole life on the sport of basketball. I'm not gonna say anyone's better than me. I've worked my whole life for this. So, he should say that. And I feel like I'm the best point guard in the league."
On the best player in the NBA: "I can't tell you my real answer. I'm gonna go with LeBron. LeBron is definitely the most complete player in the world. [smiles] And then there's me."