Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas struggled with his emotions Sunday, tearing up before the team’s playoff game as he stared down at sneakers on which he had written “RIP Lil Sis,” “Chyna” and “I love you.”
He was playing about 37 hours after his 22-year-old sister had been killed in a car crash in Washington and, while most people were moved by his emotions, Charles Barkley was not. The TNT commentator and former NBA player felt “that’s just not a good look for him.”
“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.”
Barkley did admit that playing through grief can be therapeutic, as it was for Brett Favre, who famously played in a Monday night game a day after the death of his father. He passed for 399 yards in that 2003 game. Tiger Woods won the British Open two months after the death of his father and collapsed into the arms of his caddie. For Barkley, it was the lead-up to Game 1 that was tough to take.
“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 led the Celtics onto the floor for Game 1 of their playoff series with the Chicago Bulls and stood for a moment of silence in honor of Chyna. His coach, Brad Stevens, had admitted before the game that Thomas was “struggling” and said he’d left the decision whether to play up to Thomas.
“We talked a little bit [Saturday] night and then again today about as he goes through it and if he feels like he needs to not, then whatever he wants,” Stevens said. “I think that one of the things that I’ve learned, having been through situations in the past is that there’s really no right or wrong answer. It’s whatever’s right for him, and that’s what we’ve encouraged him. He’s really hurt. It’s a tough situation.”
For Thomas, it was best to play. He led the Celtics with 33 points in 38 minutes, but the Bulls pulled out a 106-102 victory.