Isaiah Thomas Has Eyes on Ring of Honor

His Mentor, Kevin Johnson, is Who he Strives to Emulate
Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Greg Esposito Columnist and Radio Postgame Host

On a hot and humid late summer afternoon in Phoenix, it is not unusual to find members of the Suns in the gym. On this particular afternoon Isaiah Thomas, before ever having played a game in his new purple and orange uniform, can be found there too. But it’s not for the reason you might think.

While Thomas’ offseason is dedicated to basketball -- no, literally, he plays non-stop -- on this Wednesday in mid-August, he’s in a gym attending to his other passion, a passion for serving the community and underprivileged children.

Said gym, located in south Phoenix, is part of the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Phoenix. Its walls are painted in Suns colors and the team’s PHX logo is hung near center court. The muggy home to this miniature hardwood and hoops is a far cry from the accommodations of US Airways Center but it doesn’t phase the 5-9 guard. In fact, Thomas is right at home.

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That’s because he is there to donate over 300 backpacks to the kids who take advantage of the facility’s after school care. Kids that find themselves up against similar odds to the ones Thomas once did.

“I’m big on education because I wasn’t the smartest kid,” Thomas shared. “I had an obstacle I had to go through.”

That obstacle led to Thomas repeating the 11th grade after moving from his childhood home of Washington to Connecticut. It also lit a lifelong fire inside him to help others facing their own educational struggles. Eventually it would also provide him with a friend to help him with the challenges he’d face on and off the court.

Long before Phoenix would become a professional destination for Thomas, he formed a bond with one of its biggest basketball stars. His passion for education led to a chance encounter with Suns Ring-of-Honor member Kevin Johnson.

“After I got drafted, [Kevin] came to Tacoma, Washington to talk to some kids about education,” Thomas said. “I knew he was coming, so I went to hear him speak. That was the first time I met him.”

The two exchanged numbers after the event and from that moment on a relationship blossomed that would be beneficial for the young guard trying to make his way in the NBA.

“We talk all the time,” Thomas said with a smile. “Even during the season he’ll hit me up at 2 a.m. after a road trip and tell me ‘good game’ or talk about an event he wants me to come to. He’s just a great guy. He’s one of the best point guards to ever play the game but an even better person. He’s a guy I look up to and want to be like.”

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If you listen to KJ talk about Thomas, he’s well on his way.

“I can’t say enough about Isaiah,” the Suns' legend said. “I’m most proud of his commitment to the youth. Isaiah’s camp has been a great success here in Sacramento and I know that there will be a lot of kids here that will continue to root for Isaiah when he plays in Phoenix next season.”

The relationship came in handy during Thomas’ first three years in the league. While his playing time and role in Sacramento were sporadic at times, his relationship with Johnson remained a constant.

“There were times when I wasn’t playing in Sacramento and I was going through things,” Thomas recalled. “I would ask him questions and he’d say ‘Don’t worry. Be patient. Your time is going to come and when it does people are going to love you.’”

Giving that advice came natural for the former Suns guard as he saw something familiar in Thomas the player and person.

“As a player I used to play with a chip on my shoulder and I see some of myself in Isaiah,” Johnson said. “He was the last pick in the draft, but that only fueled his desire to get better and make an impact in the league. On most nights he’s the smallest person on the court, but I guarantee you he has the biggest heart.”

The bond between the present and former point guard will only grow stronger this season as Thomas takes the court with the franchise Johnson helped save in the 1980s.

“Isaiah’s going to love to play in front of the Phoenix fans,” KJ said. “Along with Kings fans, the Suns have some of the best in the world. Phoenix has a proud tradition of point guards and I’m excited about him continuing that legacy.”

Don’t think of it as KJ simply passing on the torch to another guard, though. Thomas plans to lean on his mentor for the duration of his journey in the desert.

“Throughout the season I’m going to have questions for him,” Thomas said. “ I’m going to be talking to him. We keep in touch. We talk every few weeks. He’s a guy who has been by my side since day one.”

When Thomas steps on the court at US Airways Center this season, his mentor will continue to watch over him, both literally from Sacramento and figuratively from the Ring of Honor high above the court. It’s just another reminder of who he wants to become.

“That’s somebody I want to be like,” the newest Suns guard said. “Not just on the floor but off it. He’s a guy who left his prints on this organization and I want to try and follow what he did. Hopefully one day I can be like him.”

Johnson is not a bad person for Thomas to try and emulate, especially when your new home is in Arizona. Serving the community of Phoenix on a hot August afternoon before having lived or played a game there is a good start to reaching his goal and, if his play last season in Sacramento is any indication, he’s well on his way to being like KJ on the court, too.

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