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One day after losing his sister in a tragic car crash, All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas chose to suit up for the Boston Celtics’ first game of the 2017 NBA playoffs against the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden. The Celtics’ leader clearly and very understandably remained devastated so soon after learning of the loss of his sister, openly weeping during pre-game warmups in a display that TNT commentator Charles Barkley called “uncomfortable.”
Chyna J. Thomas, 22, died in a one-car crash on Interstate 5 in Tacoma, Wash., at around 5 a.m. on Saturday morning. According to the Washington State Patrol, she was not wearing a seatbelt, and she died at the scene of the crash.
Thomas was informed of her death after the Celtics’ Saturday afternoon practice and, after some deliberation, elected to play on Sunday evening.
“He’s struggling,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said before the game, according to Kyle Hightower of The Associated Press. “Obviously, it’s tragic circumstances that he and his family are going through right now. Our thoughts, first and foremost are with them … We’ve talked a little bit last night and then again today [that] as he goes through it and if he feels like he needs to not [play] — then whatever he wants.”
While he decided to play, Thomas remained shaken throughout the run-up to Sunday’s Game 1. TNT’s cameras captured Thomas crying on the bench during the Celtics’ pre-game warmups, with teammate Avery Bradley later coming over to wrap his arm around Thomas to console him:
That scene jarred the famously outspoken Barkley, who offered some curious comments in the moment after its airing:
“I’m not sure what to say — I’m not feeling comfortable with him sitting on the sideline crying like that,” Barkley said on the pregame show. “That makes me uncomfortable. So that tells me he’s not in shape to play. I mean, I don’t know how this night is going to turn out, but to be sitting on the sideline a few minutes before the game, crying, that just makes me uncomfortable for him.
“That’s just not a good look for him, in my personal opinion. I mean, he is clearly devastated, like we all would be if we lost a sibling, but sitting on the sideline right before the game, that makes me uncomfortable.”
During a follow-up discussion, Barkley did note that Thomas might benefit from being able to lose himself in the rhythm of the game for a couple of hours:
“I think he’ll be glad — like, this is just me thinking — I think he’ll be glad when the game starts,” Barkley said. “Because as a player, we have so much going on in our mind. We’ve got the game plan, we’ve got wondering what plays to run and things like that. You’ve got so much going through your mind once the game starts.
“In his free time, I know it’s going to be painful, but I know if he’s going to play today, it’s going to be a relief for him. At least, it was for me, because I had to think about so much going on in the game, and it gave me two hours of pain relief, as I called it. And then you go back after the game.”
Thomas remained determined to work through his grief, leading the Celtics onto the floor …
… and paying a small gesture of tribute to his late sister, writing “R.I.P. Lil Sis,” “Chyna” and “I Love You” on the shoes he wore onto the court for Game 1:
The Celtics held a moment of silence for Chyna Thomas before the game, during which her brother once again appeared to be overcome with emotion:
The TD Garden faithful did what they could to show their support, raining down cheers on Thomas during the introduction of Boston’s starting lineup:
… and, as he stepped to the line for his first free throws of the contest, showering with “M-V-P!” chants:
Despite Barkley’s concerns about how Thomas’ emotional state might affect his play, the point guard looked for the most part like his All-Star self, scoring a game-high 33 points on 10-for-18 shooting with six assists, five rebounds and one steal in 38 minutes. But Thomas’ remarkable game wasn’t enough to put Boston over the top, as the Bulls pulled a 106-102 upset to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series and wrest home-court advantage away from the top-seeded Celtics. Game 2 tips at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
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