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Adam Himmelsbach

Ubers, gyms, and jumpers. A night on the road with Isaiah Thomas

DALLAS — It is nearing 8 p.m. on Sunday and the Celtics have been at the posh Hotel Crescent Court in Dallas for just a few hours. This is their fourth city in five days, and they have a rare chance to recover before they face the Mavericks the next night.

Coach Brad Stevens walks through the marble-floored lobby with a stack of papers, heading someplace quiet to scribble fresh thoughts about his surging team. A few players enter the hotel carrying food in takeout boxes and go back to their rooms. Then Isaiah Thomas steps from an elevator and walks slowly toward the entrance as the hotel’s trendy music thumps in the background. He has just woken from a nap.


The 5-foot-9-inch point guard is wearing sneakers and Celtics shorts, and a hooded sweatshirt covers his long-sleeved practice warm-up. Even though it is late, even though it has been a taxing road trip that has spanned four time zones, even though there is a game tomorrow, he is going to a gym — just like he does the night before almost every Celtics road game.

This routine and, more importantly, this drive have helped Thomas blossom from the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft into a two-time All-Star who is now chasing a league scoring title. These workouts are not the sole reason he has reached this point, but they are examples that show how it became possible.

“Some people can wake up and be really good without working,” Thomas says. “Some people are that special. And I was blessed with ability, but without the work I wouldn’t be close to where I am today.”

Thomas is always joined at the night sessions by a devoted cadre of team staffers. The group in Dallas includes assistant coaches Jerome Allen, Kenny Graves, and Brandon Bailey, and video coordinators Alex Barlow and Matt Reynolds.


The night before the Celtics played the Mavericks in Dallas, Isaiah Thomas used SMU's Moody Coliseum to sharpen his shooting.Adam Himmelsbach/Globe staff

Thomas prefers to shoot at NBA arenas, but other events at the venues can complicate those plans. In this case, the comedian Jeff Dunham is performing at the American Airlines Center. So Bailey found an open court at nearby Southern Methodist University.

When an Uber car arrives it is clear there is not enough room for everyone. Allen, the 44-year-old former University of Pennsylvania coach, offers to take a taxi by himself.

“Man, why are you always trying to do different stuff?” Thomas says, smiling, before pulling out his phone to request another Uber.

There is some confusion about the destination, because instead of entering the gym address Thomas simply typed “SMU” into the app, and the university has a sprawling, 234-acre campus. So Allen just asks the driver to follow the first car. It has all turned into a bit of a production.

“They should have had me just call Mark,” Thomas says, smiling, referring to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

“Yo, stop it, man,” Allen says, shaking his head.

“He would have just let me in their arena. Should have called Mark Cuban.”

Up to speed

When Thomas attended the University of Washington, he learned quickly that there was a required speed. If players walked during water breaks, coach Lorenzo Romar would instantly move on to the next drill.

But the grind did not bother Thomas. He had seen his father press through so many graveyard shifts as a parts inspector for Boeing. He had seen his mother work several jobs at a time, including draining days as a hospice nurse. If he was told to run to get some water, he would run to get some water.


He maintained this intensity during his rookie season with the Kings five years ago. When others went half-speed, he sprinted. When others were still at home, he arrived early.

A Sacramento coach even called the Washington staff and asked how to get Thomas to ease up, because he was making teammates look bad. The Huskies coaches called Thomas and told him to keep going.

Thomas, who is from Tacoma, Wash., had once heard stories about former Seattle SuperSonics star Ray Allen arriving for games hours early to maintain a shooting routine. Thomas’s close friend Jason Terry, who is now in his 18th NBA season, had shared similar advice.

So on game days, Thomas took taxis to arenas with assistant coach Bobby Jackson four hours before tipoff. Since he spent the first two months of his rookie year on the bench, these sessions were his games. He would shoot, then play Jackson one-on-one, and then run every stair in the arena’s lower bowl, at home and on the road.

“I was like, ‘This kid is gonna destroy everybody,’ ” Jackson says. “He didn’t believe in taking days off. He believed in working his ass off.”

Even though Thomas is now a star who averages 29.9 points per game, is threatening Larry Bird’s franchise record for scoring average in a season, and is often serenaded with “MVP” chants at TD Garden, he still arrives at arenas earlier than the rest. He is joined by the usual group of Celtics staffers, as well as ballboys.


The shooting sessions are short and purposeful and efficient, and everyone who takes part must be just as focused as Thomas. Strength coach Bryan Doo created a rule that if the ball bounces twice on a rebound, everyone has to complete a full-court sprint. The road ballboys are made aware of this policy before they begin.

“And then,” Thomas says, “they figure out if they want to stay or not.”

Sometimes, Thomas will fire the ball off the backboard as a joke, just to keep everyone on their toes.

“But the way he’s been shooting this year,” Bailey says, “there aren’t a lot of misses.”

A night at the gym

An SMU basketball staffer is waiting in the parking lot on this breezy night as the Celtics contingent arrives at Moody Coliseum, the university’s 7,000-seat arena. As they walk into the complex, they pass children practicing in an auxiliary gym.

The kids are being instructed by Mo Williams, the 34-year-old NBA free agent who won a championship with the Cavaliers last season and now runs a basketball academy here. When Williams sees Thomas, he smiles and greets him.

“Hold up,” Williams tells the children. “Everybody come here. Do y’all know who this is?”

They know. Williams tells them how many points Thomas has scored on him, and they nod.


Isaiah Thomas signed autographs for children who were practicing at SMU's gym under the guidance of former NBA player Mo Williams.Adam Himmelsbach/Globe staff

“Listen, this is what hard work did, right here,” Williams says strongly, pointing at Thomas. “He ain’t too far apart from you in height. So don’t let nobody tell you what you can’t do, or who you can’t be.”

The children are star-struck. Then Williams tells them to get back on the baseline to run a sprint, and they sigh.

Just a few hours earlier in the main arena, SMU upset nationally ranked Cincinnati, with former president George W. Bush among those in attendance. Maintenance workers are still in the aisles cleaning up snack wrappers and soda cups, but otherwise the space is quiet, just as Thomas prefers.

He starts by taking 20 midrange jump shots from five spots on the court. Most go in without touching the rim. While Graves, Bailey, Barlow, and Reynolds stand under the hoop to rebound, Allen is closer to Thomas, offering instruction.

The coach had a lengthy pro career in the NBA and in Europe, and he joined the Celtics’ staff in the summer of 2015. He likes to joke that Thomas did not even speak to him during his first month in Boston. After Thomas met Allen he Googled him, and his credentials checked out. They now have a trust rooted in loyalty and friendly jabs.

Allen looks for Thomas’s flaws, even though it can be a challenge to find them. He recently noticed that Thomas was shooting 3-pointers higher than normal because defenders were so close. If Thomas is being forced to alter his shot, it usually means he is in position to blow past his opponent, which is the preferred option.

Isaiah Thomas and Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen chat during Thomas’s “night-before” practice session.Adam Himmelsbach/Globe staff

“I’m appreciative that he trusts me to not necessarily tell him what he wants to hear, but what he needs to hear,” Allen says. “Him spending these late nights in a gym just shows a level of dedication and professionalism that most people on the periphery wouldn’t really expect.”

Of course, Allen is also here for the ribbing. He asks Thomas when he is finally going to get a haircut, and Thomas says he will wait until he is in Boston, because he doesn’t cut his own hair like Allen does.

Thomas asks how many people attend games at the cozy Moody Coliseum, and Allen says 5,000, just like when Thomas was at Washington. Thomas isn’t thrown off by the sarcasm.

“When I was at UW,” he says, “we were 10,000 strong.”

Thomas then needles Allen about Penn, the Ivy League school where he played and later coached.

“The students bring books to the games, huh?” Thomas says. “They study at games?”

Amid the banter, one shot after another is splashing through the net. A few children from the other gym have slithered into the arena now, and they’re sitting quietly in front-row seats and taking pictures with their smartphones. When one claps after a made shot, the others scold him in fear of being kicked out. But Thomas just smiles.

He once played for an AAU team with the son of former Sonics standout Nate McMillan, and he was in awe whenever McMillan visited practice. He knows these boys are probably feeling something similar.

He has broken a sweat as he moves behind the 3-point line, where he must make 10 of 13 shots from each location before advancing. Thomas, whose current field goal, 3-point, and free throw percentages are all at career highs, has to start over in just two of the five spots. Then he concludes the session with free throws before signing autographs and taking pictures with the boys in the front-row seats.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says later. “I was once in their shoes, and for them to all know who I am, even in Dallas, is still crazy to me. That’s everything.”

About an hour after arriving, it is time to go. Thomas requests another Uber, but when he goes outside it is not there. Sometimes there are small hiccups like this. One night this season when the group went to the Jordan Brand gym in New York, they wandered around an alley unable to locate an entrance. But Thomas always finds his way to the basket.

During the ride back to the hotel, Allen is in the front seat trying to convince the driver to root for Boston against the Mavericks. The woman has no idea one of the best basketball players in the world is in the back.

Thomas is on the phone with his wife, Kayla, who tells him their 5-year-old son, Jaiden, is upset. On a flight home to Boston earlier, he noticed a girl on the plane and began winking at her. After the flight he tried to find the girl, but then she was gone and now he is sad.

Kayla puts Jaiden on the phone so he can talk to his father about his bad day.

“Next time, just talk to her on the plane,” Thomas says.

Sometimes, he explains to his young son, you’ve just got to take your shot.

The car pulls up to the hotel just after 9 p.m. In the morning, the Celtics will hold a shootaround. Then that afternoon Thomas will be back on the court shooting by himself, sticking with his routine, working to become great, or perhaps just greater. He scores 29 points in the win over the Mavericks, and the fact that the performance is met with a shrug shows how far he has come.

“Look at the draft picks that went before him,” says Jackson, the former Sacramento assistant. “If you make it to the NBA and relax, nine times out of 10 you’re not going to be successful. But hard work is going to outdo talent, and that’s what Isaiah has continually shown. He’s one of those guys that deserves everything he gets.”

Watch: Isaiah Thomas’s shootaround in Dallas

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.