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1.75m Thomas stands tall with the league's best

The 2.13m Minnesota centre Karl-Anthony Towns (right) was an unlikely winner over Boston guard Isaiah Thomas in Saturday's Skills Challenge.
The 2.13m Minnesota centre Karl-Anthony Towns (right) was an unlikely winner over Boston guard Isaiah Thomas in Saturday's Skills Challenge. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • There are things that bother Isaiah Thomas, things that most National Basketball Association players, most NBA All-Stars, do not ever have to worry about.

"I'll give you an example," he said at a recent practice session. "A guy scores on me, and it's like, 'Oh, he's too small, a liability.' A guy scores on a (1.88m) guy, and it's like, 'That was a good shot'."

It seems as if it has always been that way for the Boston Celtics 1.75m point guard, forever the smallest player on the court, perpetually seeking respect.

Last month, he was named a reserve for the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The selection was a moment of validation, another example of how he has embraced the doubters to use as motivation.

"You do the same thing that a guy who's (taller) does, but there's still always a question," he said. "No matter what level you're at, it's always, 'Well, he probably can't do that at the next level.' Why is it always a question?"

SMALL IN SIZE BUT THINKS BIG

He tries to help me when it comes to my mentality, thinking like I'm the best, preparing like I'm the best.

ISAIAH THOMAS, on his confidant Floyd Mayweather, the 1.72m boxing champion who retired undefeated.

Being a small player can be a burden in the NBA, but it also enters you into a small fraternity. Out of the thousands of players to have appeared in an NBA game, only 23 were 1.75m or shorter, and only 11 appeared in more than 100 games.

Thomas, 26, said one motivating factor was dispelling for younger players the notion that short guards cannot contribute. And in the same way, he acknowledged a debt to the undersized men who played before him.

Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in the league's history at 1.6m, has become a mentor and sounding board of sorts for Thomas since the two met years ago.

The 51-year-old said they spoke on the phone often when Thomas, who was drafted by the Sacramento Kings and had a brief stint with the Phoenix Suns, was traded to the Celtics last year and was unsure how the move would work out.

"He was coming off the bench, and he was feeling some kind of way about that," Bogues said. "I said, 'Keep making the guys better, keep being a pest on defence, and most importantly, keep doing what you do: You're a scorer'."

Thomas has become the main engine of the ascendant Celtics (32-23). This season, he has distinguished himself as one of basketball's elite scorers, averaging 21.5 points per game while averaging three rebounds and 6.6 assists.

He uses quickness and deception to elude defenders. He has an acrobat's body control at the hoop.

Thomas said he borrowed his signature move - a half-turn, fake-360 hesitation dribble - from watching Dennis Chism, a player on the AND1 Mixtape Tour who was better known as Spyda, while growing up.

New York's 2.13m centre Robin Lopez said of Thomas: "He finds gaps that other players can't, manipulating his body around the rim, absorbing contact and managing to finish."

Thomas, the 60th and final selection in the 2011 NBA draft, is, according to ESPN, the lowest-picked player to make an All-Star team since 1989, when the draft expanded to two rounds.

Along with Calvin Murphy, a 1.75m guard who played from 1970 to 1983, Thomas is the shortest player to be picked for an All-Star team.

The 67-year-old has met Thomas on a couple of occasions and has otherwise admired his game from afar. Murphy said it was necessary for him, as an undersized player, to have a bullish mentality, a surplus of confidence. He said he saw that in Thomas.

"I had a chip on my shoulder, a Napoleon complex, and I was coming at you," Murphy said. "I could do anything the big boys did. I could dunk the way they dunked. I could shoot as well as anyone. My ball-handling was superb. It sounds like I'm egotistical, and I am."

Murphy, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, said he thought Thomas would become a superstar.

"I love his game face," he said. "I see he's got the Calvin Murphy syndrome."

Thomas has tried to hone that mental approach and has recently become obsessed with kungfu star Bruce Lee, who was 1.7m. He watched Lee's movies and clips on YouTube and contemplates his inspirational quotes.

Thomas has accepted guidance and inspiration from all over. Growing up, he was a fan of Damon Stoudamire, a 1.78m point guard from Portland. He watched tapes of Stoudamire's highlights and marvelled at how much of his game he had absorbed into his own.

Gary Payton, a Hall of Fame point guard, encouraged Thomas to work on his defensive game, telling him his low centre of gravity was an advantage.

One of Thomas' closest confidants in recent years has been Floyd Mayweather Jr, the 38-year-old boxer who stands at 1.72m.

"He tries to help me when it comes to my mentality, thinking like I'm the best, preparing like I'm the best," Thomas said.

Thomas will be among the best players when he arrives at the All-Star Game this morning (Singapore time). He exhibited a measure of the boxer's bombast when he described the feeling of validation.

"Now I'm starting to get the respect that I feel like I deserve," he said. "And it's about time."

NEW YORK TIMES


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline '1.75m Thomas stands tall with the league's best'. Print Edition | Subscribe