On Saturday, Celtics star point guard Isaiah Thomas found out that his 22-year-old sister, Chyna, had been killed in a car accident. On Sunday, Thomas was in in the Celtics’ starting lineup for Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. Before the game started, cameras caught Thomas sobbing on the bench after completing his pregame walkthrough:
Thomas went on to score 33 points in the loss to the Bulls, and I have no idea how he kept it together long enough to play, let alone play well. I can’t imagine even going to work the day after a sibling died, but Thomas managed to do it while millions of people watched him grieve.
TNT commentator Charles Barkley caught hell for his pregame comments, in which he said that seeing Thomas cry before the game made him “uncomfortable” and called the display a “bad look.”
Barkley may not have expressed himself very eloquently, but I think he was getting at something a lot of people probably felt while watching that game, that what they were seeing was all wrong.
Sports and tragedy are often thrust together in ways that make it seem like sports have a uniquely constructive role to play in unfathomably painful situations like this one. We’ve been fed this story so many times before, the story of the mourning player stepping onto the field or court, stiffening his upper lip, and throwing enough touchdowns or scoring enough points to allow people to believe that something meaningful has happened. It’s so familiar at this point, observers are like actors who know their given roles to play.
But there is always a sense that the grieving athlete isn’t allowed to be anything other than a part of the performance, a cypher onto which the fans and broadcasters and commentators can project whatever they want in order to feel their voyeurism is justified, that they’re doing some good in the face of real horror. And so Thomas leading his team out of the tunnel becomes an “opportunity to honor his sister,” his presence in the lineup becomes a “bright spot” weighing against a disappointing Game 1 loss, and all the fans in attendance get to feel satisfaction at the way they supported their grieving star. The idea that Thomas just wanted to do his job so he could think about something else for a few hours is as close to the truth as anything else, but that wouldn’t elevate sports to some inherent virtue, a notion that benefits everyone save those who actually do it for a living.
There was a lot of pathos in yesterday’s game, but for whose benefit? We don’t really know what the game meant to Thomas, because he didn’t speak to reporters afterward. What we do know is that his grief was the only thing that was real; everything else was performance and projection.