Nov. 10, 2010
By Gregg Bell UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - You already know how good Isaiah Thomas is for the Huskies.
But did you realize how valuable he is?
Last March, San Jose, Calif. First round of the NCAA tournament. Washington is down by 15 to rugged Marquette with 13:51 remaining in its season. The Huskies can't stop Darius Johnson-Odom, a left-hander who is going off for the Golden Eagles with 17 points.
Coach Lorenzo Romar calls time out. An angry Thomas stomps off the floor pounding the front of his jersey with his fist.
To fans, it looks like the high-scoring, 5-foot-9 sophomore wants the ball and is mad he isn't getting it.
They don't know the real Isaiah Thomas.
"Isaiah, without looking at me, is pounding his chest. And he says, `LET ME HAVE HIM!'" Romar recalled this week.
"I don't remember the guy getting more than one basket the rest of the game. That's a winner.
"He says, `I got him!' He was seven inches shorter. The guy was good. ... And Isaiah shut him down. He didn't even let him catch the basketball. Guys that aren't winners don't do those kinds of things. I've heard guys say, `Give me the ball! That's how we're going to win.' He said, `Let me have him!'"
With Thomas locking down Johnson-Odom like he was suddenly in jail, the Huskies went on a 20-6 run immediately after the time out. UW advanced to the second round on Quincy Pondexter's shot in the final seconds, and eventually on to the Sweet 16.
"Just my will to win," Thomas, the former scoring legend from Tacoma and Curtis High School recalled about his mauling of Marquette. "I felt like, `Well, putting my scoring aside my whatever aside, I am going to do whatever I can to win this game.'"
Minutes after he spoke Tuesday afternoon, Thomas was barking at teammates to shoot more, rebound better or pick up more quickly on defense during a grueling, three-hour practice.
That is what makes I.T. so valuable to these Dawgs.
When you tick off the many reasons why Washington is expected to win the Pac-10 this season, which begins on Saturday afternoon at Hec Edmundson Pavilion against McNeese State, put these at the top of your list: Thomas is back. He has a better jump shot. And he has more confidence and additional swagger on top of his already prodigious personality.
"I feel I am a more complete player," he says.
This week, he created a mini stir in the first of monthly question-and-answer sessions he will have with ESPN The Magazine this season. He was asked to say the first thing that came to his head about conference rivals.
USC? "Reggie Bush. I think of Reggie Bush and football when I think of that school, not basketball. I don't even know who their coach is."
Arizona State? "I don't even know who's on that team anymore. They're slow. They play so slow it's draining to play against them."
Thomas was unprepared for the rapid-fire questions, and did what the reporter asked: He spouted off the first thing that came to mind. With more time to think, he had deeper answers. Those didn't make the issue, of course.
So what. That's part of Thomas' winning persona, too, the part of an intimidator with bravado that wants to get inside opponents' heads. People in the Pac-10 are talking about what he said, which is exactly what Thomas wants.
And what he says is often funny, irreverent even. He actually told his teammates before the exhibition win over Division II Saint Martin's on Saturday to shoot every time he gave them the ball, because he was going to pass a lot. He finished with a game-high 11 assists while taking just two shots.
"Getting some dudes who haven't played some confidence in their game," Thomas called it.
These Huskies are as experienced as they've ever been, with four starters returning from last season's Pac-10 tournament champions. Three seniors return: Defensive stopper Justin Holiday, inside force Matthew Bryan-Amaning and fiery defensive pest Venoy Overton.
Thomas? He is Washington's irrepressible force. He was voted as captain as a junior this season, not that it's a big deal to him.
"Captain? That's just a label. I feel I've been a leader on every team I've been on," Thomas says, almost scoffing. "I'll lead the same way I always have."
Isaiah, don't you think defenses will focus on stopping you this season with Pondexter gone to the NBA?
"My first two years, defenses have been trying to stop me anyway," Thomas says. "It's been like that my whole life." Thomas was so bored with the questions he got following last weekend's exhibition game he challenged reporters via his non-stop Twitter account - 7,647 tweets and 9,322 followers as of Wednesday morning -- to "step up y'all media game up please!!!!" "He's a comedian and he's very witty," Romar said. "He has that personality that always makes you want to watch him - what's he doing over there now?"
That persona also includes compassion, not that Thomas will ever show that side on the court.
I am still impressed with how real he was one night in September at Seattle Children's Hospital during the team's annual visit there, which I detailed then in this space (see the archives at http://gohuskies.com/unleashed.)
With the rest of the hanging out with kids in the hospital play room, Thomas put away his ever-present cell phone, grabbed Bryan-Amaning, walk-on guard Antione Hosley and a hospital volunteer and marched on his own up to the intensive care unit. Unscheduled and unsolicited, he chatted with the father and girlfriend at the bedside of a teenager who was unconscious and had tubes in his throat from a drug overdose.
At one point, the usually brash point guard shook his head and turned away from the bed, emotional over the scene before him.
"Humbles you," Thomas said quietly a few minutes later, as the players walked down the ICU hall. "Makes you appreciate your own life."
He visited the cancer ward and was careful not to wake a patient there who was sleeping. Thomas had the trio sign a cap and then placed it carefully at the foot of the boy's bed.
This went on for over an hour. Visiting, caring, just being ... real.
No wonder Romar is tired of people criticizing Thomas. Nit-pickers don't like his decision-making on the floor. Or his jump shot. Or that he shoots too much. Or that he doesn't pass enough. Or ...
"There is a lot of talk about what he doesn't do well. And people totally forget that he's the leading scorer in two years (1,134 points) of anyone in the program's history," Romar said, his voice rising incredulously.
"He's not been on a last-place team for two years. He was the starting point guard on a Pac-10-championship team, (and the) Pac-10 tournament championship team that goes to the Sweet 16. He's one of the top two scorers on both of those teams."
There is one issue surrounding Thomas that Husky fans would rather not have to debate: Is this his final season before he leaves for the NBA, to join good friends and mentors such as Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy and Jason Terry?
"Might be," he says. "I don't know talking to you right now how things are going to pan out."
He had distant thoughts of the NBA last year, but then had minor surgery on his right big toe following last season to fix a bone spur that had been bothering him for 2½ years. His eight-week recovery time into the summer shelved those pro thoughts - for now.
"It's in the back of my head," he says. "It's a goal of mine."
For now, Thomas' more immediate goals serve the Huskies just fine.
"He is," Romar said, "a very under-appreciated winner."
About Gregg Bell
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
Contact Gregg Bell: firstname.lastname@example.org