The Wizards were coming to terms with the loss of one of the game’s greatest players. Every now and then, though, a sniffle could be heard from the corner of the room. There sat Isaiah Thomas, head bowed with his hand cradling it, grieving for his friend and mentor.
“He’s meant everything to me,” Thomas said. “I started basketball because of Kobe Bryant. So it’s like — I just had talked to him last week.”
Following 18 minutes 49 seconds of unfocused basketball in which he wished he didn’t have to play, Thomas shared his raw emotions about Bryant.
“I mean, he’s the greatest of all time in life and in basketball. That’s how much I looked up to him,” Thomas said. “His legacy is going to live forever, but this [death] was a dent in everybody’s life that he’s touched, for sure.”
Their connection started as it did for millions of basketball fans. Kobe was a distant idol, the hero inside the family’s living-room television. But while Thomas, a kid from Washington state and later the 2011 NBA draft’s 60th and final pick, began his winding path as a professional, the five-time NBA champion noticed. The man known as “Black Mamba” then became his confidant.
“I think he respects people’s work ethic. I just slowly built a relationship with him on the court and then, when I got to Boston, it got a little closer to where it was off the court,” Thomas said, retracing their relationship. “And then my sister passed away, and that’s when it got real closer.”
In 2017, Thomas’s younger sister, Chyna, died in a car crash. The next day the playoffs started, and Thomas played for the Celtics. Through the outpouring of support, Thomas singled out Bryant as someone “that was here for me in my corner.”
That postseason run was challenging emotionally as well as physically; it marked the beginning of Thomas’s hip pain that changed the trajectory of his all-star career. He underwent surgery and endured a long rehabilitation, causing him to bounce to three teams over the next two seasons. Again, his mentor was only a phone call away.
“And [when] I got injured, he was one of those guys that was there for me the whole time, helping me through mentally,” Thomas said. “So like I said, it’s bigger than basketball. It’s hard to even talk about it.”
Last summer, Bryant hosted a secretive training session that came to be known as “The Mamba Camp.” The session brought in some of the brightest stars in the league, as well as rising phenoms. Wizards all-star Bradley Beal received an invite but couldn’t make it because of the birth of his second son.
“It’s kind of crazy just thinking about it, like if I had that opportunity to just learn a little bit,” Beal said. “It’s crazy to know that he wanted [me] to work with him, that he wanted to instill the game in me.”
Thomas attended the minicamp and, months later at the Wizards’ media day, he sounded like a giddy fan when calling the experience “one of the best two days in my life, basketball-wise.”
On Sunday night, the tone drastically shifted: Thomas sounded like a friend in mourning. His voice was low and unsteady, and at times the words came out slowly. Reporters did not ask questions about the game — Thomas seemed absent on the court while scoring 10 points.
“Me personally, I’m just numb to it, like it doesn’t seem real. My focus wasn’t even on the game really,” Thomas said. “It’s like, my kids called me [before the game and] told me he passed away. Like, let that sink in.”
Inside the quiet room Sunday night, as teammates dressed and ate pizza, basketball was the farthest thing from Thomas’s mind. Instead, the day triggered some of his worst memories.
“[In] 2017, I lose my sister. 2019, I lose one of my best friends in [rapper] Nipsey Hussle and then to lose a mentor of mine like — that’s bigger than basketball,” Thomas said. “That [expletive] hurts.”