Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas—with an assist from former NBA star Isiah Thomas—has become the driving force for Pac-10 power Washington
This is an article from the Feb. 7, 2011 issue
Search engines are like mirrors, ideal for superficial scrutiny, and in this way the Internet has never been kind to Isaiah Thomas. When Thomas, a 5'9" guard at Washington, Googles himself to find a game photo, for instance, the famously self-assured 21-year-old is confronted not only with another man's visage but also with existential doubt. He can even tack on a slew of personal search terms—basketball, point guard, NCAA, undersized, African-American. But the response, thanks to a certain Hall of Fame playing career and ensuing Hall of Shame executive résumé, is always the same.
Did you mean: Isiah Thomas?
For the millionth time, No. Or at least, as Isaiah's parents clarify, not exactly.
In 1988 James Thomas, a Los Angeles native who had moved to Tacoma, Wash., bet a close friend that his beloved Lakers would once again beat the Pistons in the NBA Finals. The stakes? The name of James's first son. But on Feb. 7, 1989—months before Isiah Thomas, no relation, would lead Detroit to a sweep of L.A. for the title—a boy arrived, and by then James had warmed to the idea of his very own Isiah. The baby's mother, Tina Baldtrip, agreed to the christening only under one condition: that second, all-important a. "Spelled just like in the Bible," notes Tina, who separated from James when Isaiah was very young. Of course, when her son went to South Kent (Conn.) School for his senior year to polish his grades and his game, hecklers chanted "We hate your dad!" anyway.
The confusion was forgivable. It turns out that Isaiah, like Isiah, is a hard-driving, high-scoring guard. That Isaiah, like Isiah, is small for his chosen craft. (Isiah stands 6'1".) And that Isaiah, like Isiah, is something of a hardwood Napoleon: A finalist for both the Wooden Award and the Cousy Award (given to the nation's top point guard), he may well have the biggest ego-to-height ratio in the country. (The more than 12,000 followers of his Twitter account, Isaiah_Thomas2, seem motivated equally by fandom and schadenfreude.)
So Thomas has turned mistaken identity into a point of pride. "It's an honor to be named after someone like [Isiah]," says Isaiah, who was averaging 17.1 points and a Pac-10--best 5.8 assists per game through week's end for the 20th-ranked Huskies. "It was weird at first, but I'm used to it now. I'm trying to do what he did on the court." In fact, one of the junior's "most special" memories consists of just five words from the first conversation he had with his namesake, not long before the first of Washington's two (soon to be three) straight tournament runs. "Isaiah," said Isiah, "I'm your biggest fan."
Hec Edmundson Pavilion, the purple-hued home of the Huskies (15--5, 7--2 Pac-10), is besieged in winter by frigid gales blowing in off Seattle's Union Bay. In the late 1970s, when Washington coach Lorenzo Romar first stepped onto the arena's floor as a transfer from Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, Calif., the sound of the wind was pretty much the only noise in the building. "There weren't a lot of expectations," Romar says, sitting in his third-floor office. "I remember coming out of the locker room before we'd go out for warmups, just to see if anyone was out there."
Romar, 52, now has audible signs of success. As he has led the Huskies to five NCAA berths and three Sweet 16s in eight years, the home stands have been ever fuller and ever louder. Since the beginning of the 2002--03 season, Washington has gone 126--24 at 10,000-seat Hec Ed, which has operated at almost 95% capacity the past two years. And now the team's postseason expectations are at an alltime high.
In a Pac-10 enervated by early departures, the Huskies have stockpiled players ideal for their swarming, up-tempo style. Romar has size in underrated 6'9" forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning (15.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) and 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye (4.6 and 5.9). He can stretch the floor with deep threats such as Justin Holiday, Scott Suggs and Terrence Ross, all 6'6". And looming in the backcourt is Thomas, the team's engine and co-captain, who began the year having scored more points (1,134) in his first two seasons than anyone in school history. Not only can the squad score in bunches (86.7 points per game, No. 2 in the country), but it also ranks among the best in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency (fifth and 22nd, respectively).
"I really admire Washington's system: They're athletic, they play hard, they defend, they have great speed," says one opposing Pac-10 assistant. "But Thomas is critical because he's multidimensional, with a very high skill level. They can run him off screens, he can get buckets when the defense is organized, and he's just as good in transition." Or as Arizona coach Sean Miller declared on Jan. 20, after Thomas dropped in 22 points and had 10 assists and six boards in an 85--68 rout of the Wildcats, "When he has the ball in his hands, a lot of bad things happen to you."
But at the beginning of the year it seemed the bad things were happening to the Huskies. On Jan. 4 Romar's other starting guard, Abdul Gaddy, who was averaging 8.5 points and 3.8 assists, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in practice. Within a week the team learned that a player who has not been publicly identified had been accused of sexual assault. (No charges had been filed through Sunday.) In the midst of this turmoil it became clear that Washington needed Thomas—who is not the accused, sources tell SI—more than ever.
It was in 2009, after a February loss at UCLA, that Isaiah Thomas finally met Isiah Thomas. Big Zeke, in L.A. scouting the Pac-10 as a Knicks consultant, had long known about little Zeke thanks to Jamal Crawford and Washington alum Nate Robinson, both former Knicks and Seattle-bred pals of the then freshman. So when a friend of Tina's spotted Isiah up in the Pauley Pavilion stands, an impromptu postgame summit was arranged. "I didn't believe my mom when she first told me," Isaiah recalls. But there was the man himself: praising Isaiah's style, handing him his number, building his confidence. (Isiah was flouting an NBA policy that forbids teams to have any communication with players who have remaining college eligibility, but no matter.) "The first thing I told him," says Isiah, who became the coach at Florida International that April, "was that what separates a good player from a bad player is how much that player believes in himself." The two have stayed in touch ever since, exchanging advice and aphorisms roughly once a week.
After Isaiah's last-minute shot was blocked in a loss to Purdue in the second round of the '09 NCAA tournament, Isiah rang, telling him to take a defender and a broomstick to the gym that summer to hone his floater. Isaiah did. Then, after last season, when Isaiah's field goal percentage was a mediocre 41.5%, Isiah told him to develop his midrange game. Isaiah did, working out with still another NBA ally, Mavericks guard Jason Terry. (Thomas is now shooting 45.1%.) "Isaiah has matured into a complete player," says Washington assistant Raphael Chillious, who also coached Isaiah at South Kent. "I know with Twitter and all that, it looks like he's me, me, me. But when it matters, we know that he's all about winning."
For all of Isaiah's solipsism—"I bet yall I'm the STRONGEST guard in the country hands down" is one typical Twitter dispatch—his most infamous online offenses resemble those of an amateur Bob Arum, a promoter unabashedly ginning up games into grudge matches. Before November's Maui Classic, at which Washington lost by seven to Kentucky, Thomas antagonized UK fans by proclaiming, "I hope we play KENTUCKY... . All I gotta say is ITS BOUT TO GO DOWN." And on Dec. 11, after falling to Texas A&M by one when his desperation jumper was blocked, Thomas got on the bus and retweeted 12 insults he'd been sent (e.g., "the self-proclaimed country's 'toughest' guard got punked").
Why not just switch off his own spotlight? Well, Isaiah had learned one lesson from big Zeke before they ever spoke. While he was enrolled at South Kent, Isaiah would often sleep over at Crawford's house in Westchester County, N.Y., on weekends, going to Knicks games and hearing his namesake derided at Madison Square Garden. "Everyone was yelling, 'Fire Isiah!' " Isaiah recalls. "I was like, Damn, he has thick skin... . People can say what they want, but I always want to prove them wrong."
When Isaiah was in grade school, his dad would have him tag along to play pickup games against adults. "He's too small," some grown-up would object, and James would declare that if little Isaiah couldn't play, then his father wouldn't either. To the consternation of more than a few middle-aged Tacoma men, the approach often succeeded. But the Thomas family knows that the same old criticism remains. Crowds like to sing It's a Small World when Isaiah shoots free throws, and NBA talent evaluators do not covet prospects less than 6 feet tall. Even Tina, concerned about her son's postgraduate options, recently asked him, "Did you get your Plan B together?" Isaiah, who is more subdued than his Internet persona suggests, had not.
But the belief in Isaiah's camp is that much like the 5'9" Nate Robinson and the 5'5" Earl Boykins, he will secure a place in the pros. The speedy Thomas, who weighs 185 pounds but benches 275, is pound for pound the strongest member of the Huskies, Romar notes. Isaiah also possesses a first-rate handle and has spent the last seven games—all without Gaddy—confirming his worth as a true point guard, collecting 60 assists against 25 turnovers. His back-to-back 20-point and 10-assist outings (before the Arizona game, Thomas had 27 and 13 against Cal) are the first in Division I in five years.
James Thomas is thus asked to indulge in a thought experiment: What if he and Tina had agreed to name their only boy something else, say, Matthew, eluding any trace of vocational hype or built-in confusion? Family, friends and coaches all reach a clear, rather matter-of-fact consensus. As James says, echoing Romar and Crawford exactly, "I think he would turn out to be the same person." He would, in other words, find himself.
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