Isaiah Thomas’s eyes lit up when he and Kalis Gregory, a beautiful and bright seventh-grader from Hyde Park, entered the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robot Group
Ever since Thomas was a kid he’s loved robots.
“Robots don’t hurt anybody,” he said.
Thomas and family gave up a recent Saturday afternoon because he wants to help young people.
Gregory is the first I.T.HELPDESK Boston recipient, which provides one-on-one experiences to middle school-age children with the help of Mass Mentoring Partnership, and MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.
Kalis, a 5-foot-7-inch basketball player who attends Mother Caroline Academy in Dorchester, is struggling in math and science. Her family — her mother, biological father, her stepfather — live out of state, so she lives with her grandmother, who is battling an illness while working full time.
One of Gregory’s mentors, Alyse Bigger, asked Thomas “to remind her she is not defeated.” The 13-year-old admitted she was initially nervous to meet the Celtics point guard.
But how can you stay nervous when Thomas’s 5-year-old son Jaiden figured out how to get a robot to continually emit farting noises? Or when Isaiah freaked out and wouldn’t touch one hairy robot with webbed paws.
“I’m into robots,” Thomas said. “Like in 20 or 30 years, they’ll replace humans, so it was nice to see how advanced it is and what direction it is moving in.”
Together, Isaiah and Kalis toured the future. They saw prosthetic limbs that are computerized to transmit information to the brain. They heard about digestible electronics that can harvest energy from moving body parts and they tested computer games with codes written by kids.
At MIT among the robots, the highest-scoring Celtic was relaxed, his Air Jordan’s untied and his tone mellow.
“The most important thing is helping people who can’t do nothing for you,’’ he said. “To respect everybody, to give back to the community and put smiles on people’s faces.”
He credited his parents for teaching him to do the right thing.
“I was raised to always give back,’’ he said. “When I was a little boy, my dad would a take me to the shelter on Saturday mornings and we would feed the homeless people. And it wasn’t something we had to do, it was just something I guess he was putting in my mind to give back when possible.”
Thomas has volunteered in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., and in NBA stops in Sacramento and Phoenix.
“I always wanted to be part of the community not because I lived there, but because I wanted to do what was best for the kids,’’ said Thomas. “Where I grew up we didn’t have any professional athlete or anybody to touch or interact with and be around.”
Last December he was awarded the NBA’s Community Assist Award. He credits his wife Kayla for coming up with the idea to get himself and the Celtics to throw a party for the victims of a Cambridge fire. In February, he dedicated and helped fund a court in his name at a Boys & Girls Club in Tacoma.
The court is unique. There’s a purple stripe painted on the wall just 5 feet 9 inches off the ground, serving as a reminder of Thomas’s height. “Pick me last again” is stenciled on the walls, a reminder that Thomas was the very last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft.
In a heart-to-heart chat at MIT, he told Gregory that you have to sacrifice to succeed.
“Like there’s going to be times when you can’t go chilling and kicking with your friends because you’ve got homework or got to study for a test,’’ he said. “Or you got to do something to sacrifice for whatever goal your trying to reach.”
He says that attaining a goal is sweet.
“Every day I wake up I’m living the dream that I had ever since I was a little boy of playing in the NBA,” he said.
Surprisingly, there was zero basketball talk between the Celtics star and the young center that wants to play professional basketball. Gregory wondered what hardships Thomas had to overcome. He left family in Tacoma to attend prep school in Connecticut, repeating the 11th grade.
“That was the bump in the road,” said Thomas. “Like I hated it, that was the worst time in my life. I felt like I was depressed, but back in my head I had to do that to get where I wanted to go, which was to college [University of Washington], then I was able to go to the NBA. So if I didn’t do the prep school thing and if I didn’t get my grades right, there would be no college and no NBA.”
Thomas also told Gregory that relationships matter.
“If you surround yourself with negative people that are doing negative things, even if you’re not doing that, you can be associated with that group of people,” said Thomas.
At one point he told Gregory that she is smarter than he is.
“Oh, please!” she said with an exasperated laugh.
“What I tell you is to attack it early, take care of business in the classroom,’’ he said. “It is not going to be easy, there’s going to be times . . . where you feel like you’re going to quit. You’ve got to be stronger mentally and physically and just keep pushing through.”
Gregory couldn’t have been happier with the heart-to-heart talk.
“I felt comfortable with him, he’s a good guy,” she said. “He told me to shut out the distractions.”
“She has a great future,” said Thomas.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.