Last October, a faraway month when Isaiah Thomas was rehabbing a hip injury as the newest member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a story appeared in Sports Illustrated about the former Boston Celtics guard. In it Thomas revealed his anger with Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who traded a player he considered his friend to Cleveland as part of a deal for Kyrie Irving. While Thomas said he’d have only “love” for Boston and Celtics fans, he admitted he was still upset at Ainge over the trade.
“I might never talk to Danny again,” Thomas told Lee Jenkins in the piece. The quote quickly spread throughout the NBA, many making that the main takeaway from a feature that talked about just how much Thomas’ life was upended by the sudden transaction.
Later that day, Danny Ainge spoke to reporters and was told what Thomas had said. The interview was caught on tape and soon posted online. It was clear that he had not read the piece, and we got to see in real time how that quote impacted him. You could see the disappointment wash over his face for a moment as he prepared a response to Thomas’ words.
“Did he, really?” Ainge asked, looking away for a moment to weigh what to say in response.
“You know, that’s the hard part of the job,” he said after that pause. “I know that there’s a lot of feelings that go on when these type of things happen. He was a player that was traded twice, so I understand his sentiments but he doesn’t know how much I love Isaiah. He’s a great kid and I wish him the best.”
Ainge meant what he said, and he’s made it clear that he cares a lot about Isaiah Thomas the person despite trading him away from his basketball team. It was business, after all, and Ainge is paid to do what’s best for the Boston Celtics.
Thomas lives a very different reality now. He had a long rehab process away from the court and was traded again, away from Cleveland after just 15 games. He’s now fighting for his career after his hip injury finally required surgery while he played for the Lakers. His famous comments about the “Brink’s truck” the Celtics would have needed to pay him a max contract seem an eternity away. It’s unlikely he even has a starting job in the NBA next season.
Thomas’ fall from grace might be viewed as one of hubris based on that money truck comment, which earned himself plenty of attention in the NBA’s dead season. But his story is also one filled with pain and loss. The tragic death of his sister was a factor in him playing through his hip injury in the first place. He says he doesn’t regret it, but oftentimes it’s hard to separate emotion from what’s practical. Sometimes, basketball is more than just business. Months later, Thomas said that the two texted and are “good,” but the ordeal was a poignant look at something that occasionally happens in sports: reporters usually providing scoops to fans often break news to their subjects, too.
That happened again on Wednesday night, as the NBA world reacted to the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Most NBA fans didn’t know much about her health, but she reportedly had a lengthy illness. Days earlier, Popovich admitted he was “tired” after a loss to the Golden State Warriors. Asked about that again the next day, he spoke about how he had the “easiest job anybody could have,” comments that echo much differently in light of what he and his family were dealing with off the court.
As the news spread Wednesday night Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, coaching against but once mentored by Popovich, declined to address the death but his reaction was described as “heartbreaking.” Later, Warriors All-Star Kevin Durant was told the news by a reporter mid-interview and was stunned.
“What?” Durant asked in disbelief. He looked behind him, away from reporters with a hand to his mouth, as if seeking some kind of confirmation. Perhaps someone could explain to him the tragic news. But there was no one there, he was just a human being in front of microphones and video cameras. And it was his job to say something.
“Prayers and condolences go out to his family,” Durant said in a distant voice. Then, more presently he kept talking through it. “Damn. I don’t even know what to say, man. Damn.”
After another long moment of silence, he went back to business.
“Keep going,” he told reporters.
Watching the clip, which was initially posted online by at least one member of the media, felt oddly private. To many it felt as if we were watching something we shouldn’t have seen. Posting interview clips is standard practice in the NBA, a race for immediacy and later aggregation. But like the video of Ainge learning a friend might never speak to him again, it was emotional to witness.
Later in the evening, after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers evened their series against the Indiana Pacers, James was asked about the death of Erin Popovich by TNT reporter Allie LaForce. An initial viewing of the interview looks similar to Durant’s, complete with an emotional pause and a loss of words for one of the most outspoken and media savvy players in the league.
Almost immediately, criticism of the question choice and LaForce’s decision to ask James started online, enough so that James posted a statement on Uninterrupted insisting that it wasn’t LaForce’s fault and that he was briefed about the question beforehand. The reason you have to believe James here is the same reason his momentary silence was so jarring: he almost always handles these moments so perfectly.
In the past few months alone LeBron James has stood up to the President of the United States, explained the importance of Black Panther to people of color and called out a “corrupt” NCAA and its grip on amateur athletics. His social media activity — though famously absent in the postseason — is so scrutinized because he’s proven again and again that he knows exactly what he’s doing with his Twitter and Instagram posts. It’s carefully curated, always pointed, and an important narrative in the NBA. When James posts something it’s meaningful, and he knows it, so he acts accordingly.
But it’s easy to get caught up in that mentality and lose sight of his humanity, and also the humanity of those around him. The attention James gets inevitably spills over on everyone on the Cavaliers, as Cavs forward Jeff Green noted on a Hoops Hype podcast in March.
“When you’re playing with one of the best players to ever play this game, it comes with the territory, I’m starting to realize,” Green said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. you have to accept what’s put out there and know in house what the truth is.”
That became obvious when J.R. Smith got one of the more unique suspensions in NBA history when he threw a bowl of soup at Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Damon Jones. The initial flurry of jokes and speculation about the soup incident quickly drove it from quirky fun to overkill. It’s now simply on the ever-growing pile of weirdness that has been the Cavaliers season.
It’s easy to lose the humanity of millionaires who are very good at sports. But these are people. The Cavaliers alone have shown the real human impact of an NBA season. Kevin Love — an avatar for blame countless times for the Cavaliers, has experienced serious medical issues, both physically and emotionally. Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue left the team to deal with health issues, something former Cavalier Derrick Rose did in November.
We expect these players to answer with grace in tough moments because they seem so willing to speak in important times, but sometimes we forget the extra pause necessary to weigh what exactly we’re asking for. Not everyone is ready to be LeBron James. Sometimes even James needs a moment to gather himself. The NBA world, amidst a postseason that just may be one of the most interesting in recent memory, dealt with a huge emotional trauma on Wednesday night. In those moments, even if you are briefed, it’s hard to be prepared.
Maybe that’s why it was Smith that came to mind for some reason on Wednesday night, watching James once again become the biggest story in the NBA for reasons beyond his 46 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. I thought not of James in a passionate interview response but his inegmatic teammate, posting a random photo on Instagram from another cultural flashpoint: Cavaliers team skate night.
“Never skated alone before till the other night,” Smith wrote. “Clear mind. A lot like being in the gym by yourself. Dope feeling! Find your peace an try an live in it!”
It came days after Smith addressed the media, perhaps ironically, in an Arthur’s Fist dad hat and lamented that “everything I do is going to have a meme or whatever behind it.”
Smith, who refused to explain what happened with the soup, or even what kind of soup it was, somehow became a story for extolling the virtues of skating alone. The Instagram post got more than 74,000 likes in a few short hours. But one of the handful of comments proved Smith right once more.
“I’m making a meme out of this,” one read. “Lol that hand got me.”
The commenter was right. It was funny. Hell, it was good content. But sometimes, even in the NBA, you just need a moment alone.