But at the beginning of the year it seemed the bad things were happening to the Huskies. On Jan. 4 Romar's other starting guard, Abdul Gaddy, who was averaging 8.5 points and 3.8 assists, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in practice. Within a week the team learned that a player who has not been publicly identified had been accused of sexual assault. (No charges had been filed through Sunday.) In the midst of this turmoil it became clear that Washington needed Thomas—who is not the accused, sources tell SI—more than ever.
It was in 2009, after a February loss at UCLA, that Isaiah Thomas finally met Isiah Thomas. Big Zeke, in L.A. scouting the Pac-10 as a Knicks consultant, had long known about little Zeke thanks to Jamal Crawford and Washington alum Nate Robinson, both former Knicks and Seattle-bred pals of the then freshman. So when a friend of Tina's spotted Isiah up in the Pauley Pavilion stands, an impromptu postgame summit was arranged. "I didn't believe my mom when she first told me," Isaiah recalls. But there was the man himself: praising Isaiah's style, handing him his number, building his confidence. (Isiah was flouting an NBA policy that forbids teams to have any communication with players who have remaining college eligibility, but no matter.) "The first thing I told him," says Isiah, who became the coach at Florida International that April, "was that what separates a good player from a bad player is how much that player believes in himself." The two have stayed in touch ever since, exchanging advice and aphorisms roughly once a week.
After Isaiah's last-minute shot was blocked in a loss to Purdue in the second round of the '09 NCAA tournament, Isiah rang, telling him to take a defender and a broomstick to the gym that summer to hone his floater. Isaiah did. Then, after last season, when Isaiah's field goal percentage was a mediocre 41.5%, Isiah told him to develop his midrange game. Isaiah did, working out with still another NBA ally, Mavericks guard Jason Terry. (Thomas is now shooting 45.1%.) "Isaiah has matured into a complete player," says Washington assistant Raphael Chillious, who also coached Isaiah at South Kent. "I know with Twitter and all that, it looks like he's me, me, me. But when it matters, we know that he's all about winning."
For all of Isaiah's solipsism—"I bet yall I'm the STRONGEST guard in the country hands down" is one typical Twitter dispatch—his most infamous online offenses resemble those of an amateur Bob Arum, a promoter unabashedly ginning up games into grudge matches. Before November's Maui Classic, at which Washington lost by seven to Kentucky, Thomas antagonized UK fans by proclaiming, "I hope we play KENTUCKY... . All I gotta say is ITS BOUT TO GO DOWN." And on Dec. 11, after falling to Texas A&M by one when his desperation jumper was blocked, Thomas got on the bus and retweeted 12 insults he'd been sent (e.g., "the self-proclaimed country's 'toughest' guard got punked").
Why not just switch off his own spotlight? Well, Isaiah had learned one lesson from big Zeke before they ever spoke. While he was enrolled at South Kent, Isaiah would often sleep over at Crawford's house in Westchester County, N.Y., on weekends, going to Knicks games and hearing his namesake derided at Madison Square Garden. "Everyone was yelling, 'Fire Isiah!' " Isaiah recalls. "I was like, Damn, he has thick skin... . People can say what they want, but I always want to prove them wrong."
When Isaiah was in grade school, his dad would have him tag along to play pickup games against adults. "He's too small," some grown-up would object, and James would declare that if little Isaiah couldn't play, then his father wouldn't either. To the consternation of more than a few middle-aged Tacoma men, the approach often succeeded. But the Thomas family knows that the same old criticism remains. Crowds like to sing It's a Small World when Isaiah shoots free throws, and NBA talent evaluators do not covet prospects less than 6 feet tall. Even Tina, concerned about her son's postgraduate options, recently asked him, "Did you get your Plan B together?" Isaiah, who is more subdued than his Internet persona suggests, had not.
But the belief in Isaiah's camp is that much like the 5'9" Nate Robinson and the 5'5" Earl Boykins, he will secure a place in the pros. The speedy Thomas, who weighs 185 pounds but benches 275, is pound for pound the strongest member of the Huskies, Romar notes. Isaiah also possesses a first-rate handle and has spent the last seven games—all without Gaddy—confirming his worth as a true point guard, collecting 60 assists against 25 turnovers. His back-to-back 20-point and 10-assist outings (before the Arizona game, Thomas had 27 and 13 against Cal) are the first in Division I in five years.
James Thomas is thus asked to indulge in a thought experiment: What if he and Tina had agreed to name their only boy something else, say, Matthew, eluding any trace of vocational hype or built-in confusion? Family, friends and coaches all reach a clear, rather matter-of-fact consensus. As James says, echoing Romar and Crawford exactly, "I think he would turn out to be the same person." He would, in other words, find himself.
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