After a tumultuous year of highest highs and lowest lows, Isaiah Thomas seemed genuinely gratified Saturday to be the Big Man on Campus, again, for a night. From toasted in Boston to roasted in Cleveland, after the death of his sister and his season-ending hip injury in the playoffs, plus two trades, Thomas’s return to the University of Washington seemed an oasis.
“It’s been a lot of haymakers, as they say in boxing,” he said in the Hec Ed interview room before the Huskies beat Colorado 82-59 to end a three-game losing streak. “But no matter what the circumstance is, I’m going to take those haymakers to the chin and keep pushing through.”
The NBA’s third-leading scorer last season is now coming off the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging 10 points in 20 minutes in his first three games back on the West Coast after a trade from the Cavaliers.
But Saturday, he was in the rafters. At least, his jersey was.
Thomas became the third player in UW men’s hoops history to have the honor of his number retired. The near-sellout of 9,258 — including a surprise visit from the coach who recruited him to UW, Lorenzo Romar — rose together in a roaring ovation to celebrate one of the more improbable careers in Montlake annals.
Romar, in his first season as an assistant at Arizona after being fired following 15 seasons at Montlake, managed the in-season visit because the event was moved to Saturday from Thursday, after Thomas’s Feb. 8 trade to the Lakers created a schedule conflict. The Wildcats had Saturday off after their rivalry-week win Thursday over Arizona State.
Resplendent in a purple sports jacket, Thomas took the floor and watched as his No. 2 was revealed in the north rafters next to Brandon Roy and Bob Houbregs, the other basketball players to share the honor.
“I’ve always dreamed of having my jersey retired — high school, college, pros,” he said before the game. “For this day to be here, it says a lot.
“I’m all smiles, happy to be back at the University of Washington — to be somewhere where you’re loved.”
No doubt about the affection here for Thomas, 29, who grew up in Tacoma, played for Curtis High and was brought 30 miles north by Romar in 2008, undisturbed by the 5-foot-9 Thomas’s proximity to the ground.
“We’re always gonna have the same relationship regardless of the circumstances,” said Thomas of his old coach. “He’s been a big supporter of mine. He was one of the first to reach out to me, and a big reason why I was successful.”
In three years, Thomas became the school’s No. 8 scorer, No. 4 assist man and fifth all-time in three-pointers made, and a three-time All-Pac-12 selection. As he described it: “The most fun time of my life.”
A close second was last season with the Celtics in Boston, where the little guy became something of a folk hero in his finest pro season, when he was in the conversation for Most Valuable Player while averaging 28.9 ppg.
His world was rocked April 15 when his younger sister, Chyna, was killed in an one-car accident in Federal Way. But after attending her funeral in Tacoma, Thomas played in all six games of a first-round series against Chicago, averaging 23 points and 4.3 boards and 5.7 assists.
Chyna wasn’t far from his thoughts at halftime.
“This one is for my little sister,” he told the crowd. “I wish she was here to celebrate my moment.”
His parents, wife and two young boys were on hand, as were a number of former Huskies stars — Markelle Fultz, Marquese Chriss, Jon Brockman, Quincy Pondexter, among others. One guy who missed the ceremony was Mike Hopkins, busy exhorting the Huskies at halftime. But for someone who doesn’t know Thomas, the new Huskies coach understood what he means to many.
“It’s not necessarily what he did with the team, it’s the inspiration of the guy,” he said after the game. “If you have a child who isn’t 6-9 or seven feet and 290 pounds, (you tell him) if you work hard, you stick to your plan, you’re a great person who represents your family and your program to the highest . . . that’s what makes Isaiah special. He was the last pick in the draft and he became one of the leading scorers in the NBA. In the NBA.
“I don’t think there’s a greater role model or inspiration than Isaiah, and he’s one of ours.”
Speaking of haymakers, that describes well the entire career of the little guy from T-Town, who now joins the Huskies pantheon.
A new kind of film study helps Huskies to a rout
After reaching the outer edges of the NCAA Tournament conversation, a three-game losing streak left the Huskies in a dour mood, especially after Thursday’s home loss to Utah.
“We weren’t having fun,” Hopkins said. So he fixed that. Instead of practice Friday, he took the team to a theater to see the latest superhero blockbuster, Black Panther.
That must be the explainer behind the 82-59 runaway over Colorado (15-12, 7-8) Saturday.
Part of it also may have been the contribution of an inspired Matisse Thybulle. Besides his usual stellar defense (four steals and two blocks), he had a career-high 26 points, including 4-of-5 behind the arc.
Another part of it may have been the fear of embarrassing themselves and the school on the night Isaiah Thomas was honored. After the halftime ceremony, the Huskies (18-9, 8-6) outscored the Buffs 43-25, one of the most complete halves of the season.
“When you have a big night, paying homage to one of the greats to come through U-Dub, of course you want to put on a good performance,” said point guard David Crisp, who had seven assists and six rebounds. “Don’t want to spoil the night. Keep the mood up.
“After a ceremony like that, it was good for us to finish off the night.”