WALTHAM — It was Avery Bradley who pulled Isaiah Thomas away from an interview Saturday to inform him of his sister’s tragic passing and it was Bradley who consoled a tearful Thomas as they sat together on the Celtics bench during Sunday’s pregame walkthrough.
There is a bond between the two that has existed more than 15 years, and don’t take the easy guess and name Seattle as the place where it all began. It’s Tacoma, the overlooked suburb 34 miles south of Seattle that is still clamoring for respect.
Thomas and Bradley are not from Seattle, they are from Tacoma, and there’s a distinct difference. It’s a city that is working-class and pales in comparison to its more heralded big brother, tabbed the Emerald City.
Tough people come from Tacoma and both Thomas and Bradley knew they would likely have to leave the city to find success in the NBA. Thomas left Curtis High School in nearby University Place to attend South Kent School in Connecticut. Bradley left Bellarmine Prep for Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., for his senior year and then signed with the University of Texas.
They became teammates two years ago, carrying deep pride in Tacoma. The NBA players from the Seattle area — led by the Los Angeles Clippers’ Jamal Crawford — are like a fraternity and the outpouring of support for Thomas following his sister’s death has been overwhelming. But the bond between Thomas and Bradley, their upbringings, their path through the AAU circuit, and their arrivals in the NBA as underdogs have made them close.
That Tacoma pride is evident in Thomas. After a win over the Charlotte Hornets on April 8, Thomas sported a Tacoma Stars cap. The Stars are the city’s indoor soccer team. When the picture of Thomas wearing that cap circulated on Twitter, the team along with two players retweeted it.
Thomas doesn’t just throw on caps. His postgame caps are carefully chosen and it was no accident that Thomas found a cap that read “Tacoma” on the front.
“Me and Isaiah have known each other since we were kids,” said Bradley, 26. “Since we were 12, 11 years old. We’re just family, no matter what goes on we’re always going to have each other’s back. We’re always going to be there for one another and I think he knows that and I know the same about him. I know we’re going to support each other. Not to say our teammates aren’t going to support us as well, but we’re family. It’s different.”
Bradley has experienced major grief in the rigors of a basketball season. Just before training camp in 2013, he lost his mother Alicia suddenly at age 46. Shortly after his mother’s death, Bradley became a father for the first time and dealt with the conflicting emotions.
Bradley is a quiet guy; he leads by example. He plays with a passion and fire that is more simmering than blazing. He is the senior member of the Celtics, although there are seven older players on the roster. As Thomas has experienced the loss of his sister, Bradley has taken it upon himself to help him though the pain and misery.
“I think the biggest thing is they really care about each other,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s really tough when he’s sitting there and some of his family is back in Seattle. The next extension of your family is who you’re around every day. I think that’s really important [for Avery to be present]. Because Avery obviously being from Tacoma and knowing Isaiah and his family for a long time, I think that’s been a big deal for Isaiah.”
Those Tacoma ties have never been stronger than they are right now. Thomas is expected to play in Game 2 against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday and then head home to be with his family during this difficult period. The Celtics are trying to win what will be a difficult series, but Thomas’s recovery is more important, and Bradley has literally been a shoulder to cry on for his grieving friend.
It’s a bond that has been cemented for years.
“We’re like a family. We’re together every single day, so you almost become a family,” Bradley said. “You got to battle with each other every day on the court. It brings us close. Playoff time is all about fighting and leaving everything on the floor and I think that’s our mentality going into every single game and you just have to play better for one another.
“We were just playing for Isaiah, playing for each other. It’s tough times right now, I feel like it’s better to show with your actions than with your words, especially after a loss. I think our actions really let him know that we care for him. It’s just a sanctuary being on the basketball court, so for us to be able to make him feel happy and make him feel like we have his back, as brothers that’s what you’re supposed to do.”