For love of the game: The Isaiah Thomas Q&A

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Sacramento Kings' point guard talks to SBNation.com about his path to the league, how he scores despite being so small and where his intense desire to compete came from.

TORONTO -- Isaiah Thomas sat on the scorer's table at the Air Canada Centre after shootaround last Friday. "Peter!" he yelled out in the middle of an interview, and Sacramento Kings director of sports medicine Pete Youngman ran over. As he got his left wrist wrapped up, the same one that was revealed to have strained ligaments in February, the point guard continued answering questions at length.

It was the morning of the Kings' 62nd game of the season, and Thomas had not missed a single contest all year. Down the stretch of his third season, where each time he's known Sacramento would miss the playoffs by this point, Thomas has kept playing. Do people on the outside understand how much of a grind these 82 games are?

"No," Thomas said. "Especially with playing a lot of minutes, traveling, with me getting hit to the ground. Got little injuries here and there. But everybody goes through it, so there's no excuses. You gotta just do what you can to take care of your body."

In an interview with SBNation.com, Thomas talked about rooting for the Lakers growing up, watching Allen Iverson's jersey retirement, staying positive on a losing team and much more:

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You got into basketball when you were 4 years old. Do you know what it was about the game? What started it?

My parents just said I just loved basketball. I always had a ball in my hands. But I also loved football growing up. Those were my two favorite sports. And then there came a point in time where basketball was more fun for me. It was somewhere I could be in the gym all day and have fun and never get bored with it. It's been a dream of mine since I was a little boy to play in the NBA, and I'm living the dream to this day.

Everybody knows your dad was a Laker fan, but you were in Seattle. How did that work? Were you a Laker fan?

I was a little brainwashed. My dad's from LA, so growing up in his house, I was a Laker fan. But I loved the Sonics, I loved Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. The Glove and the Reign Man, those were my two favorite players. But growing up, like I said, I was in a Laker household and got brainwashed. My favorite player is Kobe Bryant. I like the Lakers.

It sucks. I mean, it doesn't suck I got drafted by the Kings, but that's their biggest rival, so you gotta watch what you say about the Lakers around Sacramento.

So when the Sonics played the Lakers, if you'd watch with your friends, was that a bit weird?

I would always be at the game actually. My dad would somehow find some tickets and I had a Laker warmup that I'd always go in. I had the Laker actual authentic warmups, the yellow jacket, the purple breakaway pants. Like I said, I was a Laker fan but I was also a Sonics fan. Just fun seeing Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, them guys in person.

I think everybody's seen the photo of you wearing Shaq's jacket. What's it like being able to actually know him on a personal level now?

It's crazy ‘cause the first time he had texted me, I didn't even know he had my number. And he gave me some advice. I'm like, 'Who's this?' He said, 'It's Shaq.' I'm like, 'It's Shaquille?' Like, I was still tripping out about it. But he's a great guy.

And it's crazy to even be in the same league as a guy like Kobe Bryant. My first real regular season game was against the Lakers, and when I first got in the game I had to guard Kobe Bryant for a few possessions. So things like that, it's a dream come true and it's a blessing from God to be in the position.

In an interview, you were asked who your biggest role model was, and I was expecting you to say one of the basketball players you knew growing up. You said your parents. What was it that made them role models?

They just taught me everything I know. Not on the basketball court, though. It's bigger than basketball. They taught me everything off the basketball court that I know about. Taking care of your responsibilities, growing into a man.

I have two kids, a year and a half apart. One's 3, one's 2. They've helped me so much just raising those boys. And my dad, just teaching me how to be a man and taking care of my responsibilities. My mom, just the same thing but on a different level when it comes to academics, when it comes to finishing school, when it comes to taking care of your house. Whatever it may be, those two people have helped me more than anybody in my life and I can't thank them enough.

When you have kids, does that make you think back to things your parents did to raise you and sort of change your perspective a little bit?

Yeah. I hated how my parents raised me ‘cause they were so strict, but now that I look back at it, it helped me so much. I've been on my own for a while and it's helped me more than they will ever know. Just how they were always on me about chores, about homework, about the littlest things, the smallest things.

Having kids just makes you think about more than yourself. It makes you think about how you got a whole life you gotta raise. Your kids are gonna be the definition of you.

You went to prep school, and you've said it was tough. How does it work for somebody that young, where it's almost like getting sent off to college?

That's why I say I've been on my own since I was 16. I had to move across the country, away from my family, away from my friends, and be on my own. Like I said, I didn't like it. I hated it. It was an all-boys school across the United States of America.

But at the end of the day, when I was done with that, that was the best decision I ever made. It made me grow into a man -- from a boy to a man -- and really take care of my responsibilities on my own. Knowing that I can call my mom, I can call my dad, but they're not there for me right there. They're across the country, they can't help. So that made me who I am today.

Like I said, I'm happy with the decision I made, but when it happened, I hated it. That was the worst thing I could possibly go through, but it made me who I am today.

Your AAU coach, Jim Marsh, is a legend in Seattle, but he isn't as well-known outside of that area. How important was he to you and other Seattle guys?

He's a guy that's always willing to help people. A guy that everybody in that area knows who he is and what he's done for kids. He always has a helping hand. No matter what he's going through, he's always asking how can he help. He actually texted me the other day.

He's been a big part of my life, man. A big part of my career. Ever since playing with Friends of Hoop Seattle. I can't say enough about him. Everybody in that area knows how big he is to the community, to the kids, to everything. He's been a supporter for me since Day 1. I love the guy, man. We talk a couple times a month.

Even though he's going through his little illness [editor's note: Marsh has Parkinson's], at the end of the day, he's a guy who's not even worried about that. That's why he's such a nice guy. You would never think he has any problems. He wouldn't tell you about ‘em, first off, and he just goes about his business.

Right, like he told his team really quickly and then it was like, 'Hey, let's get on with it.'

And then it was over with. I mean, that's how he is with everything. He's all about helping the next guy and when he told the team that -- like, that's a big deal -- and he's just like, 'Man, it's just another day, I gotta keep fighting.' And he's a guy that just, I can't say enough about him. He's helped me so much in my career that it's crazy.

Usatsi_7776433

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Lots of guards in this league have trouble finishing at the rim. What is it that allows you to be able to finish so much better than a lot of guys who are 6 and 7 inches taller than you?

I think it's just a skill. I don't know what it is. I've always been short, so it's not like I'm making adjustments. It's just something I've learned to do since I was a little boy. I'm always going in there and finishing around the giants. It's something that I gotta do as a small guard, though. Like, I gotta be able to finish around them and make adjustments and things like that. But it's definitely a skill.

I mean, people ask me that a lot and I can't really tell ‘em how I do it. I just go in there and try to make adjustments in the air and get away from the shot blockers.

One thing I definitely do, I go in there with no fear. If I do get my shot blocked, I feel like you're supposed to do that and I'ma get back up and do it again.

Isaiah Thomas talks to Coach Nick about how he finishes over the trees

People know you grew up watching guys like Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson, smaller guys. A.I. got his jersey retired last weekend, did you watch it?

Yeah. I watched it. We had a game that day but I was in the locker room before watching it. Allen Iverson's a guy that everybody looked up to. Especially every little guy. He's a guy that changed the culture of basketball. Not just on the court, but off the court. And one of the best basketball players to ever play the game of basketball.

And for him to be a smaller player makes it that much better for myself. I mean, he paved the way for small guards just like Damon Stoudamire, who is one of my favorite players and a guy that I patterned my game after. A left-handed, small guard that can shoot it, lightning quick, from the West Coast, played in the Pac-10. I actually got a Toronto Raptors throwback jersey signed by him. I actually got a Mighty Mouse tattoo ‘cause of him. That was a guy that I really looked up to, man.

Was it kind of emotional to watch the A.I. ceremony?

It was sad. Just to see him go. I mean, now you really know it's over. Like I said, he's done so much for the game of basketball -- from the arm sleeve to the headbands to the tattoos to the braids, he's done a lot. You're only gonna see one of those guys. Those are once-in-a-lifetime guys.

Clearly you love the game. Everybody's played with guys that don't. Is it hard for you when you end up on a team with a guy like that who just sees it as a job?

It affects everybody when you have somebody like that around you. But at the end of the day, it's bigger than that. You gotta know you can only control what you can control, and that's going out there and doing your job. Every day, bringing your hard hat and trying to get better and do whatever is best for this team. I understand that, so I know that I can only control my actions and what I do and how I lead this team. From there it's out of my control. You can't worry about the things you can't control in this business because it'll eat you alive.

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I've never seen an interview with you where you haven't been smiling and friendly, but you've had a lot of losing in your career. Is it harder than we think or is it easy for you to stay positive?

It's hard. ‘Cause I'm not used to losing. And in my whole career in the NBA, I've lost. It's tough ‘cause I'm a winner, I've come from winning, I've always been a winner.

But at the same time, when you go out there and give it your all each and every night, you got to go home and you can't dwell on those moments. If you know that you gave it 110 percent, then that's all you can give. And it's a team sport, it's not an individual sport like tennis or something where you can really win on your own. You can't. Everybody has to be together.

We're trying to turn this around and if we just keep working and become a more consistent team, I think we can get more wins and turn it around.

You have DeMarcus [Cousins] on the block and Rudy [Gay] on the wing. Derrick [Williams] can score, Ben [McLemore] can score. What's it like being a scoring point guard and managing all that?

It's tough, but being a point guard in the NBA is a challenge. A big challenge I'm winning to accept. I want to be one of the best and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to be one of the best. I'm getting the opportunity right now to lead a team, an NBA team, and I'm doing the best I can possibly do and I'm learning. Each and every day, learning, learning. Getting better at picking and choosing my spots, when to be aggressive for myself and when to make plays for others.

It is difficult at times but I'm out there just trying to win. Trying to make the right play each and every possession and knowing who has the hot hand, knowing who we can go to and put those guys in the position to be successful.

Do you feel like a veteran yet?

I feel like I've been around a little bit, but not really a vet. I feel like a vet is a guy who's been in this thing seven, eight years. They try to say vets are three or four years, but I feel like you gotta be in the league longer than that. You gotta really see stuff to be a vet. Like a guy like Travis Outlaw, 10 years, 11 years in the NBA.

In January you and DeMarcus called a team meeting. If you're not a vet, do you see yourself as kind of a captain, as a leader? Is that something you wouldn't have done as a rookie, as a second-year player?

I've actually done that as a rookie. I've always been a leader, man. My dad told me when I was a little boy, 'Don't be a follower, be a leader.' Since then, every team I've been on, no matter how young I am, I've always been that leader. Vocal leader, lead by example, and I'm always gonna talk. I'm always gonna say how I feel and tell guys if they're doing wrong or not.

But at the same time, I'm holding myself accountable, too. I'm making sure these guys see that I'm working hard, that I'm the first guy in the gym. Trying to be the last guy out. Showing that you can hold me accountable for things, too.

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