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Isaiah Thomas' grief for his sister shouldn't have been turned into a sports story

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The world of sports isn’t built to confront Isaiah Thomas’ grief.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Charles Barkley was right. Watching Isaiah Thomas cry during pregame warmups one day after his youngest sister tragically died in a car accident was uncomfortable.

It was uncomfortable because grief is uncomfortable. A few people came over to hug Thomas, but there’s nothing anyone can really do to make him feel better. Hugs and consolations help. Being available for the individual helps, but the person ultimately just needs the space to be sad on their own terms.

Barkley came off as callous, and was admonished for being uneasy around grief. But watching Thomas cry in public was uncomfortable because his grief had become part of the spectacle of sport.

Lemony Snicket once wrote: “When someone is crying, of course, the noble thing to do is to comfort them. But if someone is trying to hide their tears, it may also be noble to pretend you do not notice them.”

The relief of that purposeful ignorance is damn near impossible for athletes. As celebrities, their public and private lives belong to the people. The second the news arrived that Chyna Thomas died, the story became a sports narrative. The outpouring of support toward the Celtics guard was mixed in with speculation about his mental shape to play Game 1 against the Bulls. It continued through his arrival at the arena and his crying on the bench. The tragic event became the backdrop for everything that he did on the court.

It would have been easy and kind to turn the cameras off for a second and not broadcast Thomas’ tears to the watching world. But instead, it became a topic to be dissected and analyzed from the prism of how it would impact the basketball game.

That reduction is one of the only ways we can deal with such tragedies to professional athletes. We can’t engage with the news as is because it makes both the audience and the affected powerless, but we can at least consider it through the proxy of sports. We can turn tragedies into obstacles the athlete must conquer. If they rise above their own pain, it shows their greatness. It’s as if they’re playing through a horrible injury.

Had Thomas managed to hit a game-winner against the Bulls, his performance would have been marked as heroic and a testament to his character. We’d revere it the same manner as Brett Favre’s four-touchdown game after his father’s death. We still might view it that way if the Celtics rally and win the series.

But that repackaging is terribly unfair to the player.

There’s courage in going to work and playing through such a terrible event, but there’s no less courage in taking the day, week, or entire month off. If Thomas wanted to disappear for months and cry, he’s well within his right to do so. And though coach Brad Stevens gave Thomas the option to sit the game out if he didn’t feel up for it, there’d be some segment of the population that would criticize Thomas down the road if he chose to do that.

The unspoken reality to many is that sports come first. It’s why Stephon Marbury wasn’t informed of his dad’s death while he played against the Phoenix Suns. Even a relative of Marbury’s considered the death a distraction the player didn’t need before a game.

Sports can help an athlete cope. As was the case for Favre, playing in the game could have been a way for Thomas to confront his emotions, or at least to provide momentary reprieve from them. Being around a group of teammates and fans who genuinely care for him like a family member is much better than facing these terrible moments alone. It was Thomas’ choice to play, and that makes it the right decision. Only he knows what will be best for him.

But his pain should not be recalibrated into a basic sports story.

What Barkley tried to say — and was immediately reprimanded for expressing, because he chose his words poorly — is that loss is bigger than sports. Barkley felt uncomfortable because the sight of a grown man crying made it hard to talk about a mere basketball game. He was uncomfortable on Thomas’ behalf, because it looked like playing in a game a day after the death of his little sister looked too overwhelming.

Everything about the moment felt wrong. It felt distressing to have the camera linger on Thomas as he cried and tried to hide his tears. The senseless death itself, the fact that the game had to be played, the burden that was on him as his team’s leader and best player, that it was the Celtics’ playoff opener, that his decision might impact how some view his mental strength, that there was nothing anybody could do to make him feel better — it all felt wrong. It was too hard to avoid reducing his personal disaster into a bland sports discussion.

So why was Barkley uncomfortable? Because the image of Isaiah Thomas crying before a big game made the theater of sports feel like the smallest thing in the world. Grief had reduced the hero of a proud fan base, a tough and relentless competitor, to his most human. It was jarring to see.

This can’t be dealt with in sports terms, and it shouldn’t need to be.