INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — About 30 minutes after his introductory news conference ended in an adjacent room Thursday, Isaiah Thomas stood alone on a practice court in a near-empty gym. About 15 feet away, his wife Kayla sat next to Jae Crowder’s longtime girlfriend, Dana Lambert, as the two talked about this new life of theirs, this new life as Cavaliers.
The NBA world was rattled when Thomas and Crowder were part of the package the Celtics sent to Cleveland in exchange for point guard Kyrie Irving. And it is unlikely anyone was more stunned than Thomas.
In just 2½ years in Boston, the two-time All-Star revived a franchise, endeared himself to a fan base, and energized a city. Thomas was in line to become the next Boston sports legend, and he admits now that he let his mind stray that way, too. And then, in an instant, all of that was gone.
But as Thomas stood on the quiet court Thursday, having removed the burgundy-colored suit jacket that he’d worn while the cameras rolled a bit earlier, he insisted that the sudden ending to his Celtics tenure would not taint what preceded it.
“I can’t control what they did,” he said, referring to the Celtics’ decision-makers. “What I can control is how I made those [fans] feel, and how I made the city of Boston feel, and that feeling is mutual. So all the love I’ve been getting the last two or three weeks from that community and that city has been amazing. And that’s what makes me continue to go. Because I inspired that whole state, that Boston Celtics community, the fans. I inspired everybody, and they inspired me. So that relationship is always going to be there. I’m always going to have love for the city of Boston.”
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind for Thomas. A few days after the trade was announced, Thomas underwent a physical exam in Cleveland that raised new concerns about the injured hip that sidelined him in last season’s conference finals. This led to an uncomfortable impasse between the Celtics and Cavs, and questions about whether the deal would be rescinded.
For Thomas, who will be a free agent next summer, it brought an avalanche of new speculation about the severity of his injury. But he said Thursday that the talk did not bother him. He just waited patiently and leaned on encouragement from friends such as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, and former 76ers star Allen Iverson.
Still, the reality is that Thomas will be sidelined at the start of this regular season, and no one seems to know when he will return. And for a Cavaliers team that is chasing a championship with LeBron James’s looming free agency, that is notable.
The first question at Thursday’s press conference regarded Thomas’s recovery. Before the point guard could answer, first-year general manager Koby Altman, who was sitting to Thomas’s right, stepped in.
“So, I’ll address that,” he said. “Obviously, it’s sort of been well documented, the hip injury, over the past week and a half. And to be fair to Isaiah, we’re not going to address any specifics of the hip injury. We’re also not going to put a timetable on his return. We’re not going to rush it at all.”
Altman later said that the plan is still for Thomas to avoid surgery, and that the goal is for him to return “at some point this year and be healthy and compete and get back to I.T. status.”
When Thomas was asked if he knew when he had actually torn the labrum in his hip, Altman interrupted again and appeared a bit frustrated.
“I don’t want this to be the Isaiah Thomas hip press conference,” he said. “And so I’m just going to, with all due respect, shut down all of the hip questions. If you want to talk about Isaiah, let’s talk about Isaiah as an All-Star.”
While the departure of Thomas and the lingering story line about his hip have generated most of the attention following this trade, Crowder is also a significant piece. The forward arrived in Boston in December 2014 as part of the deal that sent Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks. He emerged as a versatile, tough, and consistent player who helped define these Celtics.
On Thursday, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue gushed about the prospect of deploying Crowder and James together to harass opposing wings.
For Crowder, the trade was of minimal concern during a tumultuous summer. His mother, Helen Thompson, was battling cancer, and Crowder was by her side when he received the news that he had been dealt to Cleveland.
“I was able to whisper to my mom before she passed,” Crowder said. “I just told her, ‘I’m going to Cleveland,’ and five minutes later she passed. That day was tough.”
But Crowder said he was grateful for this new opportunity. During the offseason he watched as the Celtics signed Gordon Hayward, drafted Jayson Tatum, and traded for Marcus Morris. He realized his wing position was being pinched, so he said he contacted the Celtics’ brass.
“You have a little concern, because you’ve got a lot of wing players stacked up,” Crowder said. “But yeah, it was a little concerning, and I made it clear to the organization that I was concerned about it, and I just wanted to know the direction. I think they gave it to me with this trade. They showed me what they wanted to do, and I respected it.”
Crowder and Thomas said the transition has been made easier because they are going through it together. When the two found out about the trade, Thomas called Crowder and said, ‘Good thing I’m going with you.’ When Crowder’s 3-year-old daughter, Jada, found out they were moving to a new city, she was unfazed once she learned that Thomas’s 5-year-old son, Jaiden, would be there, too.
Thomas and Crowder both said they are eager to team up with James and they are excited to join a legitimate title contender. Now, they will just step into this new beginning the best way they know.
“How we play is what attracts everybody to us,” Thomas said. “When we played in Boston, we just gave it our all each and every night, and that’s what they wanted. They fell in love with us and I think by coming here, it doesn’t change. We’re just going to fight each and every night, and they’re going to see that no matter what, we’re going to give it our all.”