The moment finally arrived. After weeks of waiting for updates on his progress, and watching grainy videos of work behind the scenes, fans looked on as Isaiah Thomas slowly walked to the scorers table on Tuesday night to check in to an NBA game for the first time in seven months. Thomas spoke to local media during his trade press conference, and again at Media Day, but it would be months between addresses with folks left to speculate on when he would return, and what kind of player he would be.
The ovation was as expected. The murmurs started as Thomas walked down the sideline, took off his warmups and waited patiently for a dead ball. When the horn blew and the Cavs’ P.A. announcer belted his name, the standing ovation lasted nearly 15 seconds before play would resume. The wait was finally over.
In a story I did for DIME Magazine which was published on Christmas Eve, Kevin Love told me what he thought fueled fan reaction when it came to one of his newest teammates.
“I think a lot of the hype is his coming back from the injury,” Love said. “People love a good comeback story. Part of that is having a big chip on his shoulder too. I think people appreciate that.”
Appreciate they do. The intriguing part is that Thomas treated it as if it were any other check in. While he would call it “special” after the game, there was nary an acknowledgement from the player. He simply slapped hands with Jose Calderon, took his defensive assignment, and then casually went on to drop 17 points in the team’s 17-point victory. There was some rust. There were some defensive issues. There was even a technical foul. But from the moment Thomas took to the floor with 4:33 left in the first quarter to his eventual exit with 8:10 left in the fourth, sent off with a hug from his head coach, all eyes were on Thomas.
How would he fit in? How will he take contact? Will he get up when he’s knocked down?
(Quick Aside: Dwyane Wade has a story of what it was like to play alongside Shaquille O’Neal who, when in Miami, made a habit out of using his gargantuan hips against smaller players who would dare enter the paint against him. More often than not, the attacking player would bounce off the 300-pound center and carom to the floor, living to fight another battle. But there was one specific time, Wade recalls, where his body ended up between O’Neal and the would-be shooter with Wade’s frame taking the brunt of two players colliding. “Man, that hurt like a mother—,” he said, shaking his head.)
The answers, if only for one night were yes, yes, and yes. Thomas, who said teammates have pressed him in practice to shoot the ball when open, took five shots in his first five minutes on the floor. On the second play, he drove to the lane and took contact, sending his 5-foot-9-inch frame sailing past the baseline. He would not only get back up, but he would finish the game at +17 for the night, lifting a weight off of both the player and the organization.
“When Dan [Gilbert] and Koby [Altman] made the trade, we all agreed on it,” Ty Lue told me. “Having him back was great. Hopefully he can continue to be healthy, but tonight was a good start.”
And then you read Jackie MacMullen’s terrifically reported story on Kyrie Irving and you juxtapose the experiences. While it’s true that Irving will always be a Cavalier, it’s clear that the the fan embrace of the man who hit the biggest shot in franchise history was not a reciprocated relationship. There were always rumblings of a player who had tremendous skill taking part in the balancing act that comes with being the No. 2 on his own team and having a father persistently reminding him that he could be No. 1 elsewhere. A player who gave the city of Cleveland a moment they will never forget while only giving his team just enough.
During a rare practice in the middle of last season, coach Tyronn Lue, who was standing next to assistant coach and Irving confidant Phil Handy, called out to his young point guard.
“Ky,” Lue said, “I want you to play a little faster.”
“Why?” Irving asked.
“Because if we play faster, we get shots off easier.”
“I don’t need to play faster to get my shot off,” Irving replied. “I can do that anytime.”
“I’m not talking about your shot. I’m talking about RJ and JR,” Lue said, citing teammates Richard Jefferson and Smith.
“Well, that’s No. 23’s job,” Irving replied, referring to James.
With Irving, you had a player who was drafted by this team and was also thought to be the future—a player who would be leading the Cavaliers beyond the days of LeBron James. With Thomas, there are no expectations. He’s in Cleveland on a one-year deal, the tangible return for the player who morphed from NBA Finals hero to one who no longer wanted to play for a team that had made it to that series on three consecutive occasions.
In a way, Love’s quotes are dead on in that Thomas is looking to prove doubters wrong once again, but it also pertains to a fan base that desperately wants to top Boston once again, now doing so with a player they held near and dear for so long. Thomas may be the one with the chip on his shoulder, but you also have the city of Cleveland, a sports town that remembers everything. Like Nom said in his story, it’s hard to not take the entire situation personally.
Thomas will take Wednesday off and join the starting lineup this weekend against the Orlando Magic. He has a wine and gold signature sneaker coming out, detailed to the point where there is a notch taken out of the tongue, referencing the playoff game this past summer where he lost a tooth and continued on completely unabated. If there is any player this city can rally around, it’s the one everyone counted out, who dominated a game toothless, only to end here on a whim to see how it all plays out.
Let the I.T. era begin.