ATLANTA — He didn’t want to see the blood. The playoff game was just minutes away, his teammates were all around him in the locker room, and he felt the burning sensation like a match inside his belly. It was the worst time it could happen. But it was happening. So Isiah Thomas did what Isiah Thomas will always do; he hid the pain, from others and from himself. He sneaked off to a bathroom stall and kept his eyes closed when he used it, because there was blood in his urine, there had been for days, and he just couldn’t look at it. Not now. Not minutes before the game. When he was finished, he walked out, eyes forward. “I didn’t care if it was red or blue or green or pink,” he said. “I didn’t want to know.”
Block it out. Think basketball.
This had been happening on and off for nearly two weeks, the result of an ulcer on Thomas’ bladder revealed by an April 7 biopsy. He had played four games since first noticing the problem after an April 4 contest against Milwaukee. And when he wasn’t forced to confront his own blood, he walked around burning like a man who had just drunk nine beers and then found all the bathrooms locked. “All the time,” he said glumly. “Can you imagine feeling that way all the time?” It was so bad Wednesday night that he called the Pistons’ team doctor after midnight and there was talk of sending Thomas back to Detroit. The doctor advised him to go. “He advised me,” Thomas emphasized. Meaning, Isiah makes the decisions. And the decision was to stay and play against the Atlanta Hawks.
Block it out. Think basketball.
It would be easy to call this a story of bravery, but if Isiah Thomas is brave, he is also frightened. It would be easy to call this “playing with pain,” but that would leave out the mental anguish that led Thomas to the most unnatural game of his professional life Thursday night, a game he says he
“lost to himself.” It would be easy to call this nobody’s business — the Pistons might prefer it that way — but that’s as wrong as hiding Thomas’ stats after a great performance.
Call it no fun. Suddenly, he is playing while trying to keep his mind from thinking “something’s just gonna bust out there.” Suddenly all the lights are not turning green for him. Suddenly, there is worry.
Suddenly, Isiah Thomas, baby-faced Isiah Thomas, always- smiling Isiah Thomas, maybe the most popular athlete in Detroit, suddenly that Isiah Thomas has been forced to confront his mortality in a bowl full of blood. During the playoffs.
No fun. No fun at all.
On Friday afternoon Thomas, 24, sat on the bed in his hotel room at Atlanta’s Ritz Carlton, his sneakers untied, his sweats dangling loosely over his body. He would prefer that he didn’t have to talk about this, that this kind of story never be written. “It’s so . . . personal,” he pleaded. Moments earlier, there had been joking about the soap operas on his TV and Thomas had been laughing hard, with that well-known infectious laugh, so loud and hearty
it ought to have a beard and a lumberjack hat on it. And then, an awkward pause. The question came up about the bladder, the ulcer. The laughing stopped. He lowered his head and ran his hands through his hair, back and forth. He said nothing for a minute. And then he said, “Who told you?”
Illness fits Isiah Thomas badly, like a raincoat six sizes too big. He feels funny inside it. And fortunately, until now, he has pretty much avoided it. So at first he said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And then he talked about it anyhow, because he is honest, even when he is hurting. He always has been.
“The tests came back Wednesday afternoon,” he said, sighing. “Right after we got here. They showed me the medical report and the first question I asked was, ‘How did I get it?’ They said they didn’t know, only that I had it. The next question I asked was, ‘When’s it gonna go away?’ They said it takes time.
“That afternoon it happened (blood in his urine) and then again that night. I didn’t sleep much at all. They said, ‘You want a sleeping pill?’ but I said no. I remember seeing 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m.
“I tried to block it out. Substitute the worrying about it with basketball.”
He smiled, but it was a sad smile.
“That ain’t working,” he said.
Thomas played well statistically Thursday, scoring 20 points with 16 assists and six rebounds, but the Hawks beat the Pistons badly, 140-122, in the opening game of the first-round playoff series. “It was the first time in a long time when I really didn’t get into that comfort zone, that feeling of just peace. I looked at my numbers afterward and I said, that was hard. Instead of just playing for fun and letting the energy flow it was like, ‘Make it! Make it!’ “
He leaned back against a pillow and stared at his fingers as he spoke. “I knew it was wrong from the beginning. Billy (Laimbeer) asked me before we started, ‘You OK?’ And I was just thinking, ‘Wilkins! Willis! Spud!’ I was concentrating so hard. Our trainer said, ‘You OK?’ And I was thinking,
‘Wilkins! Willis! Spud!’ Just blocking everything out.”
The mind game cost Thomas his spontaneity, his joy. And anyone who has ever watched this young guard play knows that joy is as much an ingredient in his success as is accuracy. His energy is contagious. His mere presence is worth points and rebounds to his teammates. It just works that way.
“I have to just relax and not think about it. Not worry about anything. That’s my game.
“I remember my brother once said something about the game on the street, the hustling, the cons. He said the best way to beat the game is not to play. If you don’t play, you can’t lose. I played the game mentally Thursday and I lost. I can’t do that again.”
It wasn’t easy Saturday. Game 2 was ugly, a mean season, with words and elbows flying as often as foul shots. Thomas was plagued by foul trouble in the first half, was forced to sit for the last six minutes, and for a while it seemed that, despite decent numbers, the magic was still just out of reach.
And then came the third quarter. A shot in the body from Tree Rollins left Thomas scowling, mad, pumped. He charged downcourt, and the shots started falling. Lay-ups. Jumpers. He put the ball between his legs twice, three times, four times, then threw in a long jumper to tie the score at 84. When the buzzer sounded he’d poured in 18 points in that quarter alone. It wasn’t a smiling performance. But it was effective, and under the circumstances, even a bit remarkable.
And it wasn’t enough.
Despite Thomas’ heroics (36 points, nine assists), the Pistons lost again to the Hawks in a roaring, unfriendly Omni arena, 137-125, and they are one game away from elimination in the playoffs.
And afterward, Thomas was sad, as you might expect. But it mattered not a bit that an ulcer had settled inside him. Basketball is a roommate of his heart. That was the part that hurt the most.
For the record let it be said that: 1) Thomas is no martyr. If the press hadn’t discovered this he would tell almost no one, including most of his teammates; 2) There is no indication that he is risking serious injury by playing, even though he was advised against playing after the initial biopsy.
That’s the outer crust of this story. The malady, the wait, the recovery. But beneath the surface lies another element, a part that breathes. Because Isiah Thomas still has a corner of his heart that believes he will live forever. Which is what makes looking at something like this so hard.
“I tell Lynn (his wife) if we’re ever in a plane crash and they don’t find my body? I ain’t dead!” He laughed. “Or if the thing lands under water and they can’t go down there and look? I ain’t dead!”
He laughed again, loud and hard. Never go away, Isiah. But there is a moment in everyone’s life when he gets a peek at mortality hiding behind the curtains. And the image sits on the brain. “This is the scariest physical thing I’ve ever had happen,” Thomas admitted. “It’s inside your stomach. I mean, how many people really know where your kidneys, liver, bladder are all located at? I don’t know bleep about what’s in there. There was just . . . blood. It’s like, you don’t know. It doesn’t matter what doctors say or anybody else says. . . . I just don’t feel right.”
Yet, Thomas never considered not taking part in these playoffs. He kept repeating how his problem “is nothing” next to the need to win Saturday’s game, and if you can’t understand that, you’ve never met Isiah Thomas.
Most everyone knows the arc of his love affair with basketball; from the poorest end of Chicago’s west side, to Indiana University, to Detroit and all-star status. All by age 24. And if nets and rims could grin they would surely do so when Isiah Thomas takes the court.
His enjoyment of the game is transparent. But until Wednesday he didn’t know how binding. “It’s like being in love with a girl who treats you badly. Your head tells you one thing, your heart tells you another.”
His heart said play. No hospitals. No more tests. Not until the playoffs were over.
That’s the way it’s going to be.
“There is nothing I can think of that would keep me from shooting jump shots. Nothing. For me it’s the only thing in the world. There’s nothing less.”
“Living,” someone grimly suggested.
“For me, that is living,” he said.
All right. No need to make this more serious than it is. Thomas is concerned, understandably so, that the whole thing will get blown out of proportion. He’s concerned for his wife and his mother, that they not fear for
his health. He’s concerned that the Pistons’ first two playoff losses will be attributed to his medical problem.
“I’d just rather not deal with it all,” he said Friday. “I don’t want some guy coming up to me, asking me about it, or somebody holding up a sign. I don’t want to be constantly reminded of it, even when this is over.”
He sighed. His voice grew uncharacteristically cross. “If I don’t play good basketball then, damn it, I don’t play good basketball. I don’t need an excuse why I didn’t play well.”
No one will ever know what Isiah Thomas went through Thursday night or Saturday afternoon, or what he will endure for the rest of these playoffs and beyond. But imagine if that which you held most precious, which provided you with your livelihood, which made you feel magical, special, gifted, imagine if that were suddenly under attack, as Isiah Thomas’ body is under attack, and maybe you could understand. He’s not trying to be heroic by playing. But it’s coming out that way.
“This will have to live with me,” he said, his voice lowering. “I’m not gonna have to live with it. This just isn’t the time. That’s all.”
He shook his head. “It just isn’t the time.”
And on he goes, trying to play one kind of game and trying to avoid another. You wish it wasn’t so. And yet there is a belief in watching him that everything will turn out all right, that there’s really no choice but happy endings for Isiah Thomas. There is something inspiring in the way he is handling all this, and maybe when it’s all over, he’ll retell it with the howling laughter that is as much a part of him as his fingerprint.
The playoffs continue. The world goes around. Lousy things happen to good people. But somewhere between the blood and the basketball is a blessed man with a won’t-quit smile who wants to live forever, and he simply isn’t ready to be told he can’t. CUTLINE: The Pistons’ Isiah Thomas tips the ball away from Atlanta Hawks center Tree Rollins and into the hands of teammate Bill Laimbeer on Saturday.