April 23 at 3:26 PM
He hadn’t yet buried his sister. She’d died, suddenly and unexpectedly, just a few days earlier.
But there he was a couple months ago, in the first, raw stage of grief, back in the office — a colleague of mine, just the same as we witnessed of Boston Celtics superstar guard Isaiah Thomas over the past week. It was the most emotional of moments any of us experience, and most all us do so out of the view of others — all but athletes, who bare their heartache in the most public of squares.
For Thomas, it came a week ago Sunday, as he sat on the Celtics’ bench in Boston before their opening playoff game against the Chicago Bulls. A television camera invaded his moment. It captured his blank stare through reddened eyes, his hand wiping away tears as fast as they streamed down his cheeks, an arm from one member of his basketball family wrapped around his shoulder in a gesture of consolation. Just a day before, Thomas learned that his younger sister, Chyna, died in a car accident in their home state of Washington.
Thomas was about to do what we marvel at athletes doing all the time. We call it playing through pain. A broken bone. A badly pulled muscle. A twisted ankle.
But playing through the pain of mental anguish, having just lost a loved one, is the most acute of all.
“The general public is expected to take time off to grieve,” Stephany Coakley, a Washington-based sports psychologist who coaches athletes in mental toughness, reminded me last week. “Almost all employers provide bereavement leave. The expectation is that athletes can play and perform through the pain. The expectation probably exists because so many athletes have done so in the past.”
In the middle of the 2104 Stanley Cup playoffs, Martin St. Louis, then starring for the New York Rangers, learned that his mother, France, suffered a fatal heart attack. Three days later, on Mother’s Day, he suited up in Madison Square Garden and scored the first goal of the game.
On the eve of a Monday Night Football game just before Christmas in 2003, quarterback Brett Favre found out that his father, Irv, suddenly died. Favre turned out on national TV, nonetheless. He threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns to lead his Packers over Oakland.
I remember most vividly Joannie Rochette, a Canadian figure skater, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in her home country. Two days before her short program, Rochette’s mother, Therese, who introduced her to skating and shepherded at every point through her career, suffered a massive heart attack and died just hours after landing in Vancouver, the site of the Games. Rochette decided to skate.
As Rochette skated onto the ice, alone, for her program, such a hush enveloped the arena that it seemed you could hear the breathing of others if you held your own breath. A few minutes later, as Rochette finished skating to the Uruguayan tango, La Cumparsita, whose lyrics begin, “The little parade of endless miseries,” she dropped her head and melted into tears as a standing ovation drowned out thousands of witnesses sniffling with tears. Rochette was awarded bronze.
It was the sort of moment — as are these all — that elicited the cliche about sports and life that always disturbs me. It’s the one that says that such horrible news puts sports and what is really important in life into perspective, as if the two are mutually exclusive or sport doesn’t measure up to importance at all.
It brings to mind a passage in an award-winning 2009 autobiography, “Come What May,” by an Irish hurling star named Dónal Óg Cusack about what sport means. “When we die someone will say piously that death or illness puts all the hurling into perspective,” Cusack wrote, “as if our departed comrade had put his life into something trivial and wasteful.”
There really isn’t much trivial about sport, given that we see so much in it about how we behave, how we relate and who we are. We’re often drawn to it because we live vicariously through it.
And when Joannie Rochette, or Isaiah Thomas, wept before us, uncontrollably and unapologetically, it was a reminder of how normal and devoid of shame it is to do this most human thing: grieve.
“I couldn’t have imagined a day where my little sister, Chyna, wouldn’t be here,” Thomas said in a statement released in the middle of last week. “She and my family are everything to me, so the pain I am feeling right now is impossible to put into words. This has been without question the hardest week in my life. At the same time, I have been overwhelmed by the love and support that I have received and couldn’t be more thankful for my friends, family, fans, the City of Boston, Celtics organization and NBA community. I truly appreciate all of the support you’ve shown me the past several days and thank you for respecting my privacy as I continue to grieve and heal with my loved ones at this time.”
Thomas was having a season that was etching him into the wall of the greatest Celtics players. Despite standing just 5 feet 9, he averaged 28.9 points during the regular season, or nearly as many as Celtics Hall of Fame legend Larry Bird’s career high. He became the most lethal scorer in the NBA’s fourth quarter, when so many games are won or lost.
But he most likely will be remembered in Boston after this season for the sadness through which he played in its playoffs. It is the kind of thing that in the past created an aura around the athletes who endure it and turned them into folk heroes. Suddenly, they are no longer playing for themselves, or even the team, but for some greater purpose, for a lost loved one.
“I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play,” Favre said after the game.
“When athletes perform at a high level while in the initial stages of grief, it reinforces society’s belief that athletes have something special,” Coakley said. “But what many elite athletes have is mental toughness, resilience, discipline and support not only from family, but their teammates, the organization and, yes, us in the adoring general public.”
But don’t conflate an athlete’s ability to compartmentalize grief and performance, often extraordinarily, with invincibility. They are no different from us. We just witness their pain.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.