Most summer nights, 14-year-old Robbie McNulty shoots baskets at St. Peter’s Park near his home in Cambridge. On Tuesday evening, a rainfall had left some small puddles on the court, and no one else wanted to play, so Robbie went by himself.
“The thing about Robbie is he’s on the shorter side and hasn’t hit a growth spurt yet,” said his mother, Siri McNulty. “He isn’t always picked for teams because he’s just not as tall as the others, so it’s been a little bit of a bummer for him.”
But he keeps shooting anyway. On this night, he was taking shots and texting his friends about their fantasy football draft when he saw a solitary figure walking toward the court.
He could tell the person was not especially tall. He figured he was a high school student, maybe a senior. He did not realize it was Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, an NBA All-Star.
Thomas and his wife, Kayla, were leaving back-to-school night for parents at Cambridge Montessori School, where their son Jaiden attends pre-K. Thomas saw an adult softball game taking place and told Kayla he wanted to swing a bat there. She told him that was not a good idea. Then he saw Robbie shooting baskets by himself.
“He was the only kid there,” Thomas said. “So I’m like, ‘I’m just going to go get some shots up with him.’ When I walked over, he rebounded his own shot and turned around and I’m like, ‘Can I get a couple shots?’ And he stopped. He didn’t even say a word, like his eyes were so big. He just stopped and froze and I’m like, ‘Pass me the ball.’ ”
At this point, Robbie knew exactly who was in front of him. He is a diehard Celtics fan and Thomas is his favorite player.
“I was kind of just like dribbling with my mouth open and looking at him, maybe waiting for him to say something,” Robbie said. “He was like, ‘Can I shoot with you?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Can I shoot with you? Is this actually Isaiah Thomas?’ ”
And so the NBA All-Star and the boy who had just finished his nerve-racking first day of high school at Cambridge Rindge and Latin started shooting baskets together on the court that had some puddles and traffic cones on it. Thomas asked Robbie his name, and then said that his name was Isaiah. Robbie chuckled because he knew that.
The two played “shots and layups,” where the shooter keeps shooting until he misses, and then gets one layup before passing the ball to the other player.
Robbie was glad that he’d already warmed up so he would not embarrass himself in front of Thomas. Then Thomas missed his first couple of shots. Robbie told Thomas he needed to get ready for the season before offering some encouragement.
“These rims kind of take a while to get used to,” he said.
Robbie went to three Celtics games at TD Garden last year, including a playoff game against the Hawks. He asked Thomas about the upcoming season. Thomas asked Robbie about school.
Their basketball session lasted about 10 minutes, and Robbie texted his mother once it ended.
“Mom, you’re not even going to believe this,” he wrote. “The best thing ever just happened to me.”
His friends initially did not believe him. Then he sent a picture of himself with Thomas, and his friends could not believe some stupid puddles had kept them from going to the court that night.
Robbie posted the photo on Snapchat and Instagram, because that is the best way to make a moment indelible when you’re 14. Thomas even posted a comment under the Instagram picture, telling Robbie that it had been fun rebounding for him.
The next day at school, Robbie was not the wobbly freshman looking for his locker; he was the boy who’d played basketball with Isaiah Thomas.
“It was just so nice of him to come over and play with me,” Robbie said. “I bet he didn’t even think it would be that big of a deal to me, but for me, like, it’s crazy. He’s an NBA All-Star and he’s just looking at you and talking to you.”
Robbie did not realize that the moment had an impact on Thomas, too.
“I love just little interactions like that,” the point guard said. “I know it means a lot, because I was once in his shoes. I was once that kid at games wanting a player to just wave to me and acknowledge me, so I know that feeling and I know that’s my job now.
“I knew maybe even if he didn’t know who I was it would be cool to just rebound for him and shoot with him for the 10 minutes that I did.”