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Isaiah Thomas Finds Peace, Purpose in Supporting Seattle-Tacoma Basketball with ‘Zeke-End’

TACOMA, Wash. -- There is a nervous energy inside Titan Gymnasium, on the campus of Tacoma Community College (TCC). Promotional banners are hung on the far wall, cast in faint, natural light, filtering in from the upper windows as fans filter into their seats. In this relatively small venue, you can see both basketball courts from most anywhere you sit.

The scene would seem almost quiet for those with earbuds, getting cameras ready and checking sound equipment. But the buzz of excited chatter creates palpable vibrations across the hardwood, soon amplified by the squeaking sneakers of players warming up. Before long, TCC is completely alive with anticipation.

The annual Zeke-End tournament has drawn a crowd for good reason. It marks the sixth time in as many years that Washington Wizards guard and Tacoma native Isaiah Thomas has returned home to host the event, bringing a cluster of other NBA stars with him.

With the support of Excel Sports Management and a few close friends, Isaiah created Zeke-End in 2014 to give local hoopers the opportunity to play with pros, and to give the fans a renewed NBA experience. All proceeds from the event go to the Isaiah Thomas Family Giving Fund.

Isaiah Thomas flex

Isaiah Thomas founded Zeke-End in 2014, in part, to give basketball fans in Seattle a fresh glimpse of the NBA. (David MacKay)

TCC is the perfect location this year. Two main courts and one additional court down the hall are enough to accommodate all 24 registered teams and the NBA players who dot the rosters.

“Did you see who just walked in?! That’s James Johnson!” a boy no older than 15 calls to his friends, marveling at the Miami Heat forward.

Heads turn in unison as the crowd’s collective eyes follow James to his seat on the bench. He is soon joined by several of his professional peers, including Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers rookie guard Kevin Porter Jr., international standout Tony Wroten Jr., Isaiah himself, and more. Some, like Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, have turned up simply to show their support.

This is exactly what Isaiah wanted for the people of Tacoma.

“My dad, when I was younger, he used to take me to at least one game a year,” he tells CloseUp360 with that familiar smile. “And for me to see and touch those guys and go to the tunnel and high-five Gary Payton and things like that, that made my dream that much more real. So, I think it’s just hard for kids these days to dream about being in the NBA and not seeing NBA players around.”

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Even adults in attendance have that childhood spark visibly rekindled at the sight of stars in their town. For the actual children, this is often their first time seeing their basketball idols up close.

“When I thought of this tournament, I always thought of every year trying to bring a couple NBA players that people don’t see, they only see on TV—on top of all the local NBA players we got in Seattle,” Isaiah says. “That was my goal: to just be able to bring those type of people that people can touch and feel, and it could be realistic for kids.”

It has been more than a decade since those kids have had a local NBA team. Most would not remember a time when the Seattle SuperSonics played at KeyArena. Even more have never been to an NBA game, save for the lucky few who have trekked down to Portland to watch the Trail Blazers. The smattering of Damian Lillard jerseys in the bleachers suggests that some have made the journey, which is a five-hour round-trip drive at a minimum.

But on the first weekend of August, the stars came to them. And although the stakes are lower at TCC, no one came to lose. Professionals are sprinkled onto different squads, playing alongside local high school kids in fair and competitive matchups. Isaiah’s team—aptly named Team IT, which this year features Kelly, Kevin and Tony—has been to the Zeke-End championship twice before, securing it once. Everyone has a chance to earn bragging rights.

Coming off a hip injury, Isaiah takes his time stretching on the sidelines before warming up. But he says he is “finally feeling like [himself] again and healthy again.” He looks great, starting with some elbow jumpers and corner threes. If he has any discomfort, it’s not at all apparent, and everything looks fluid.

Isaiah describes the Tacoma basketball scene as “gritty” and “competitive,” and it is. Still, the Sonics’ departure in 2008 left an unmistakable hole in the culture.

“It hurt the city in a big way, just because the Sonics were a big part of the community,” he laments. “Basketball was a big part of what was going on in the Tacoma-Seattle area. I think it hit big, and then now it’s just, like, forgotten. Not for the most part, but it’s just the norm that we don’t have a team.”

Isaiah Thomas dribble

Isaiah grew up watching the SuperSonics in Seattle. (David MacKay)

Born in 1989, Isaiah came up during the Sonics’ glory days. He knew Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp as one of the NBA’s most exciting duos. Between them, “The Glove” and “The Reign Man” had 14 All-Stars appearances in Seattle, claiming four division titles along the way.

Isaiah met Gary five years after the eventual Hall of Famer played his last game in a Sonics jersey and mere months after the team left Seattle for Oklahoma City. At the time, IT was in the midst of an outstanding three-year run at the University of Washington.

The two maintain a relationship to this day. Isaiah describes him as a “mentor” and “somebody that I really trust” for advice on and off the basketball court. They keep in touch regularly.

“I looked up to Gary Payton. I feel like I got my trash-talking from him,” Isaiah says. “I think everybody that was raised watching him kind of tried to emulate him, especially trash-talking and being the killer that he was. Gary Payton was my favorite player growing up here.”

That relationship was one of many that have shaped Isaiah’s basketball career. He counts Jason Terry, Jamal Crawford, Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson and Doug Christie—all members of Seattle’s tight-knit basketball community—among his influences as well.

“It’s like a real brotherhood,” Isaiah explains. “Everybody takes care of everybody else. Jamal, I remember him telling me when I was younger, ‘The things I do for you, I want you to do for the next guys coming up.’ I think guys take that to heart, and that’s why everybody is so close.”

That much is evident as Isaiah prepares to check in, enthusiastically chatting with teammates on the bench. Most of his cohort came up in the Tacoma basketball scene, just as he did. Now, they are seated shoulder to shoulder with Kelly and Tony. Truth be told, when the typical height disparity is less apparent on the sidelines, amateurs and professionals start to blend together, especially the younger guys. No one is reluctant to interact one way or the other. They’re all just part of the team.

One of the most prolific scorers in the NBA when healthy, Isaiah is content to defer to other shooters here while playing at a slower pace on most possessions. None of the pros are going all out on Day 1 of the weekend-long tournament. They’re careful to avoid undue strain on their bodies—except for Kelly, who seems determined to put an unsuspecting soul on his poster. Even during the intensity of a game, it is easy to spot validation as it flashes across the face of someone scoring off an Isaiah dime.

James, hoping to bring the Zeke-End championship to his own team by tournament’s end, sees it, too.

“We’re talking about retired jersey at UW to All-Star—through everything he keeps on fighting,” James says. “I think that’s what brings so many people out here. They can relate to his fight.”

After Team IT wins by a modest margin, Isaiah shakes every hand on his way off the court. Fans await him in the hall, eager for autographs and pictures. He greets an elderly man he knows with a warm hug bigger than he is.

Notable Current NBA Players from the State of Washington

  • Isaiah Thomas (Tacoma)
  • Avery Bradley (Tacoma)
  • Jamal Crawford (Seattle)
  • Dejounte Murray (Seattle)
  • Kevin Porter Jr. (Seattle)
  • Allonzo Trier (Seattle)
  • Marvin Williams (Bremerton)
  • Joe Harris (Chelan)
  • Zach LaVine (Renton)

“I think if you respect people and treat people the right way, it goes beyond basketball,” Isaiah says. “That’s the feeling I want people to know—that I’m not just a basketball player and I care about people’s actual feelings. I just want people to be happy and successful.”

A father of three, Isaiah has impressionable eyes on him at home as well. His sons, James and Jaiden, are eight and seven, respectively, soon to be young men. His daughter, Journey, is 10 months old. She looks like her father.

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Several children his sons’ ages maneuver through the sea of people to get a closer look at Isaiah. Many have hats, jerseys, cards and, most importantly, Sharpies. He indulges each while security officers keep a watchful eye without trying to separate him from the crowd.

Isaiah has made it a point to lead by example for his kids. He emulates his teachers and, in turn, emanates respect, specifically noting how he treats his loving wife, Kayla. How he behaves towards her informs how they do. Being a father and a husband has made him a better man.

“It’s bigger than me,” he says. “It’s about my kids and their future, and putting them in position to be the most successful they can possibly be. That goes with my wife as well. My wife is a big part of what we do in our household, and I can’t thank her enough.”

As the next slate of games begins at TCC, Isaiah retreats to a back room to relax after posing for photos. He will not play again on this day, but the crowd remains to watch the competition heat up.

Isaiah looks forward to the Zeke-End every summer. It’s a reliable opportunity to bring people together in what has been an otherwise turbulent time for him.

The Wizards will be his fifth NBA team since 2017. In April of that year, Isaiah lost his sister, Chyna Thomas, in a tragic car crash. A right hip injury, re-aggravated during the Boston Celtics’ postseason run that spring, began a cascade of relocation and recovery. In August 2017, the Celtics traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who flipped him to the Los Angeles Lakers in February 2018. He played sparingly for the Denver Nuggets during the 2018-19 season before signing in Washington this past July. He hopes to play well enough to earn “a two, three, four-year deal” and reciprocate the stability his wife and children provide for him.

“It’s been tough, but my family is my backbone,” he says. “My wife is everything to me. She helps me out more than anybody. That’s the one I complain to the most. I go home upset at certain things that I can’t control and she helps me through that.” 

Isaiah’s three children are plenty supportive, too, albeit in a different way.

“My kids think I’m the best player in the world,” he says. “Anything that happens, they’re all smiles and rooting me on, so that helps me. It’s been a tough last couple years, but I’ve been through real-life situations that are way tougher than what I’m going through on the basketball floor.”

The Thomases will all be moving from one Washington to another later this month. Isaiah and Kayla have already found a place to live in D.C. and picked out schools for their kids to attend.

When the 2019-20 season begins in the fall, Isaiah will be in the ear of teammate and longtime friend John Wall, who is recovering from surgery on his Achilles tendon. The two were Eastern Conference All-Star teammates in 2016 and 2017, but have known each other since high school. Isaiah relays that his intention to help John was “one of the keys” to him signing with the Wizards, to get him through the “dark days” of recovery.

That sort of altruism at every level of life is such a rarity in a star of Isaiah’s caliber. Although his father nicknamed him “Big Head” as a youth, it’s clear that when it comes to self-interest, the moniker doesn’t fit.

Which is not to say that Isaiah is without ambition. Now 30 years old, he insists he’s still in his prime with “a lot left in the tank,” though there is more to it than that.

“I just want to be remembered as somebody that cared about the community and gave back in any way possible,” he says without hesitation. “Obviously, I want to be the best player to ever come out of the state of Washington, but that’s not the most important thing for me. The most important thing is people to remember me for who I am as a person—not just as a basketball player.”

 

David MacKay is a veteran NBA writer based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

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