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Playing one day after sister’s death, Isaiah Thomas shows unenviable side of professional sports

04.17.17 at 12:41 pm ET
Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points in the Celtics' 106-102 loss to the Bulls. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points in the Celtics’ 106-102 loss to the Bulls. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Isaiah Thomas played in a game one day after his 22-year-old sister died in a single-car crash, and now the think pieces must follow. It’s time to talk about how he “honored his sister” with a “heroic” performance and condemn Charles Barkley for saying it was “uncomfortable” watching him cry on the sideline. For the next day, we will debate whether Thomas should’ve suited up. If he decides to miss Game 2 of the Celtics’ first-round postseason series against the Bulls Tuesday, there will probably be a smattering of pundits who take him to task. It all seems so routine.

Professional athletes live charmed existences. They make lots of money and get to stay in the world’s finest hotels. But the downside was exhibited Sunday, when Thomas’ decision to play in the wake of a personal tragedy was on display for all to scrutinize.

Athletes and coaches typically don’t take a lot of time to grieve after their loved ones pass. Often times, their decisions to stay with their respective teams becomes a part of their legacies. Brett Favre, for example, is lionized for playing in a Monday night game the day after his father dead. It might be the most memorable moment of his Hall of Fame career.

In almost every other profession, it would be unfathomable for somebody to report to work in the immediate aftermath of a major life event, such as the birth of a child or a loved one’s passing. But in professional sports, it’s standard operating procedure. The games, especially playoff games, are vaunted into another stratosphere of importance. Earlier this season, Mike Felger ripped Al Horford for missing a regular season contest in November to see his wife give birth. Given the climate, it would’ve been far more surprising if Thomas announced he was taking the week off, rather than staying in Boston.

Since Thomas didn’t speak with reporters after the game, there’s no way to determine how he was feeling. So we’re left to interpret his behavior, which is a shoddy exercise at best. Barkley said it didn’t look like Thomas was ready to play, because he was seen sobbing on the Celtics’ bench next to Avery Bradley, who was consoling him. As it turns out, Barkley’s proclamation was incorrect. Thomas led all scorers with 33 points in the Celtics’ losing effort.

Prior to tip-off, head coach Brad Stevens said Thomas was hurting in the aftermath of the news of his sisters’ death. Chyna was pronounced dead early Saturday morning after her car veered off an Interstate in Washington and crashed into a barrier.

“We’ve talked, a little bit last night and then again today, about as he goes through it, and if he feels like he needs to not [play], then whatever he wants,” Stevens said, via ESPN. “I think that one of the things that I’ve learned, having been through situations in the past, is that there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s whatever’s right for him. That’s what we’ve encouraged him. And he’s really hurting. It’s a tough situation.”

For the rest of the series, the death of Thomas’ sister will turn into a storyline. If the Celtics lose, and especially if Thomas doesn’t play well, her passing will likely be listed as one of the reasons why they didn’t prevail. And if the Celtics win, it will probably be trumpeted as a rallying point for the team. Ironically, the latter scenario is more offensive than the first. Nothing trivializes somebody’s death like using it as a cheap marketing device.

There are lots of reasons to be envious of professional athletes. The media whirlwind that devoured Thomas Sunday, and will likely persist for the remainder of the playoffs, isn’t one of them.

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