Isaiah Thomas, star player and emotional leader of the Boston Celtics, found out this past weekend that his baby sister Chyna had died in a car accident. In less than 48 hours his team was scheduled to open the NBA playoffs as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. These were going to be the biggest games of his life, and the biggest games in recent Celtic history, but in that moment they must have seemed inconsequential.
Say what you want to about death, it has a way of putting things in perspective.
Even after the Celtics lost Game 1, despite an inspiring performance from Thomas, people found it hard to criticize the team’s performance. Imagine what they must be going through.
But then two days later they lost Game 2. The team looked sluggish, not at all like the team fans and the media had grown accustomed to watching. For this game, and these people, there would be no good excuses. The fans booed. The media, in their own way, also booed.
As if the grieving process for Isaiah Thomas’ 22-year-old baby sister should only last a couple of days. Thomas was due to fly out the morning after Game 2 to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral—a hell that I for one can’t possibly imagine.
Not that anyone criticized Thomas, mind you. It was the rest of the team that came under fire, as if nobody around him would be affected, as if we don’t think about the people we’ve lost when somebody next to us is grieving.
As if Marcus Smart hadn’t been thinking about his older brother Todd, who died of leukemia when Marcus was 9. Marcus lost his temper towards the end of Game 2 and flipped off a Boston fan—I have yet to see any moralizing commentators talk about what Marcus Smart might be dealing with
As if everything around the team hasn’t been affected by what’s happened. Does this team still listen to music in the locker room? If so, how loud? Is there any laughter in the clubhouse?, it’s immediately followed by self-consciousness, by worry that we might be hurting the grieving person’s feelings.
Can you imagine what day-to-day life must be like for this Celtics team right now? Coach Brad Stevens must feel ridiculous talking to this team about basketball— about boxing out, making the extra pass, the importance of focusing on the game. He’s standing in a room full of people thinking about death, and Brad Stevens is most likely thinking about death as well.
When someone close to us dies, it feels like nothing will ever be normal again. For Isaiah Thomas, every single Celtics-related thing has changed, which means that every Celtics-related thing going on around him reminds him that his sister is dead, even the extra hugs, even the extra cheers.
On some level, we all know this. That’s why his Game 1 performance gave us goose bumps. To be able to play so well in the face of what was going on, it was inspiring.
Isaiah Thomas connects from deep on @NBAonTNT!#NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/XJpK0YkDsd
— NBA (@NBA) April 16, 2017
But the way they lost Game 2 wasn’t inspiring at all. It wasn’t uplifting. This Celtics team, including Thomas, looked listless; they looked distracted; they looked short-tempered; they looked like they wanted to be somewhere else.
That is to say, they looked like people who were actually grieving.
Of course to basketball observers, both fan & media, trained to view everything through a basketball lens, it just looked like bad basketball. Maybe it was too painful for these people to admit what they were actually watching, a group of men who couldn’t pull themselves together. Or maybe people were angry at being reminded about the inescapability of death.
Because we watch sports for many reasons, but most of all we watch them to escape. I’ve bought the NBA League Pass to watch the Celtics for the past three seasons—first and foremost to break the monotony of the winter months, to alleviate some of the boredom and angst that builds up inside of me each winter, to distract myself. We watch sports in order to lose perspective (and remember what I said earlier about death—there is nothing that puts things in perspective like death). There’s no rational reason why anyone should be so affected by a team’s win or loss. But not only have these Celtics failed to win, they’ve failed to put aside whatever trauma and grief surrounds them. In doing so, they’re reminding us about the trauma and grief we’ve experienced in our lives, the fallout of which affects us every day. That’s the opposite of escapism.
Professional sports is one of the few jobs where everyone gets to watch you fail, and where you get to hear everyone afterwards talk about why you’re a failure. 28 months ago this franchise was in freefall, to the point where most fans were pissed when the team started to actually win games, blowing their chance at a good pick in the draft. Opinion was still divided when the team made the playoffs. The next year saw even more improvement, and this year saw them win 53 games and secure the #1 seed. With a handful of good draft picks coming the next several years, it was only last month most observers said the Celtics had the most enviable future of any team in the league. But now they’re choke artists. They can’t win in the playoffs. They’re too short. They can’t rebound. Brad Stevens is a good, but not great coach. People have turned this series into a referendum, not only on the franchise’s present, but its entire future. All of this based on the past two games, played under extraordinary circumstances, something for which there is hardly any precedent.
Whether any of us like it or not, this Celtics team is dealing with things a lot bigger than basketball right now. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, but then death has never had a reputation for being convenient. And since this is no longer a typical basketball team, maybe they shouldn’t be judged on the typical standards of winning and losing.
Because regardless of whether they win this series, or even win another game, the Celtics players and coaches are being forced to deal with death in all its messiness and complexity. This may not be a good thing for them as basketball players, but it will probably be good for them as human beings. We like to see winning as winning, and losing as losing, especially in sports, but I’m not sure any of that applies here. In real life—and for the Boston Celtics this series has more to do with real life now than it does basketball—we almost always learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. And in that sense, even if this team doesn’t win another game in this series, even if the franchise never reaches its championship potential, the players and coaches may gain more than they ever could have gained from simply winning a bunch of basketball games.
It may not be fun to watch, it may not be what we’re tuning in to see, but it’s still something we should be able to appreciate and admire, people just like us, struggling to get through the next day at work.