Commentary

Thomas proves doubters wrong

Originally Published: February 19, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The other parents and well-meaning friends all asked James Thomas the same thing: Why are you wasting your time and money to send your son all over the country to play basketball?

Isaiah Thomas might have had the name for the game, but with a body destined to crest at 5-foot-8, he certainly didn't have the build.

"'What are you doing this for?' That's what they all said. 'He's not going to amount to anything in basketball,'" James recalled.

There is foolish, and there is stubborn.

The Thomases were smartly hard-headed, putting more credence in the heart of a kid who dribbled in the Pacific Northwest raindrops than in the height of the kid, who used a trampoline's boost to teach himself to dunk.

Not amount to anything in basketball? Tell that to a starved and NBA-less basketball state that is rallying around the surprising University of Washington. Tell that to the Pac-10, where the freshman has led the Huskies to the top of the conference standings.

Tell that to supposed conference favorite UCLA, which watched Isaiah drop 24 in a U-Dub win in January. Or Arizona State, the other hot Pac-10 team, which got whipped by Isaiah for 25 in its loss to the Huskies last month.

Go ahead. We'll wait.

"People said a lot of things. We didn't listen to any of it," James said. "I've always told him, 'You'll always have a brick wall in front of you. People will always tell you you're too small. So what are you going to do about it?' He climbed over it."

Washington hasn't won an outright Pac-10 championship since 1953, predating the league's current status as a 10-member conference as well as its previous Pac-8 existence. The Huskies haven't shared a regular-season crown since 1985.

But as they head to Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night, the team that finished eighth last season and was picked fifth to start this season stands atop the Pac-10 leaderboard. If Washington can do what it has done only six times in its history -- win at UCLA -- the Huskies will put a two-game cushion between themselves and the favored Bruins.

Washington's surprise run has been fueled by a bevy of players -- Jon Brockman is averaging a double-double, and Justin Dentmon and Quincy Pondexter both are having career years -- but few will argue against the difference this season being the little man with the big name.

Thomas leads the Huskies in scoring, averaging 16.5 points per game, and has failed to reach double figures just three times in 25 games. His 413 points already are the second-most ever for a UW freshman.

"I've always had a chip on my shoulder," Isaiah said. "Being small, I always had to deal with people doubting me."

James didn't have any grand designs when he named his son Isaiah. In fact, his son's name is more of a stinging reminder than anything else. A die-hard Lakers fan, James lost a friendly wager in 1989 when Detroit beat Los Angeles in the NBA Finals. Later that year, the wager was settled when James named his son Isaiah.

Isaiah's mother, Bettina Baldtrip, wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea, agreeing to honor the lost bet only because the name had Biblical roots. She also insisted on tweaking the spelling, going with the Bible's version instead of the basketball one (Isiah).

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Thomas (Washington)
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireIsaiah Thomas is averaging 16.5 points per game and has led the Huskies to the top spot in the Pac-10.

Isaiah never thought much about his unusual handle. He knew the origin of it and his namesake, but growing up in Tacoma, Wash., it didn't weigh on him like some roundball albatross.

Living with his frame, frankly, was harder than living with his name.

Isaiah always knew he could play, and rare was the doubter who wasn't swayed after seeing him. He was the state high school player of the year as a junior and set eight state tournament records that season, including dropping 51 in a semifinal loss, breaking a 51-year-old record in the process.

"He's always been extremely skilled and has great ability to penetrate and get to the rim," said Washington assistant Cameron Dollar, who has known the point guard since Isaiah was a sixth-grader. "He's always been a high-level performer."

The performer had no shortage of early college offers. Originally, he planned to stick with the first school that recruited him.

No surprise that the school was Indiana. How could the Hoosiers not recruit a kid named Isaiah Thomas? The first only took them to a national title.

"Now that would have been some pressure," Isaiah said, laughing. "Playing there with this name? That would have been tough, but I looked it as a challenge. There would have been a buzz."

But Mike Davis was forced out as coach, and Isaiah, needing to get his academics in order, instead traveled clear across the country to Connecticut, enrolling in South Kent for his senior year plus a prep season.

It was a long way from home and a big change for a kid who'd only visited the East Coast on the AAU circuit, but Isaiah merely introduced the other side of the country to his game.

"He had that basketball," said James, who remembers tearfully telling his son goodbye. "The basketball was his friend, and that's what got him through. I didn't worry because I knew he loved that ball, and it was his desire to play that got him through."

Isaiah averaged 28.2 points and 6.4 assists per game in his final season at South Kent, silencing any critics by climbing into the top 100 rankings of all the major recruiting services.

After two years away, he decided to go home to Washington.

If there is a place where size on a basketball court doesn't matter, it is Seattle. The Huskies provided the NBA with its most recently crowned slam dunk champion -- and Isaiah with the ideal source of inspiration-- in Nate Robinson. A two-time All-Pac-10 selection, Robinson led the Huskies in scoring in 2005, helping Washington to the Sweet 16.

The two talk frequently, speaking earlier this week after the 5-foot-9 Robinson skied to the slam dunk title.

"I get asked about him about a million times a day," Isaiah said, laughing again. "I mean, here? It's crazy. People ask me all the time, 'Are you Nate?'"

No, he's not Nate. And he's not Isiah.

He's Isaiah, the little man who's making big noise at Washington.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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