The Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas’ sneakers were an eloquent and appropriate tribute to his late sister
In what has become a sports tradition, the All-Star penned a heartfelt message on his Nike Kobes before Game 1 of the NBA playoffs
It wasn’t the black stripe each Boston Celtics player wore on the left side of his jersey. It wasn’t the moment of silence held at TD Garden before the game. It wasn’t even the game-high 33 points he fought through overwhelming emotions and tears to score. It was the shoes.
All night long, in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round NBA playoff series against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, the most important tribute Isaiah Thomas could give to his sister, Chyna, a day after she was killed at the age of 22 in a one-car accident in their home state of Washington was on his feet.
“CHYNA R.I.P. Lil Sis” Thomas wrote on the left outsole of his vibrant green, black and gold pair of Nike Kobe A.D. sneakers. The words “CHYNA I Love You” were inked on the right outsole, and tucked inside of each shoe was “4-15-17,” the date Chyna died.
In basketball, penning messages on sneakers is an age-old practice, though when exactly the trend started and the identity of the originator are both mysteries. Whoever came up with the idea, though, created a tradition that has become an immeasurably authentic aspect of the game. Jersey numbers, Bible verses and, in many cases, the names of those who’ve passed away find their way onto the outsoles, heels and toes of shoes worn by players young and old, from rec to AAU, college to the NBA, church league champion to Hall of Famer. (Marking up shoes is so common among ballplayers that in 2008 Reebok released the “Above The Rim Talkin’ Krazy” high-tops, which feature a dry-erase outsole, making writing on the them easier and less permanent.)
All of these examples illustrate players giving a voice to the voiceless in remembrance of people they barely knew or never got a chance to meet. Yet, in Thomas’ case, he was the voiceless, shaken by the loss of his blood sister before one of the biggest nights of his career. During Game 1, Thomas’ typically oozing, me-against-the-world personality was noticeably absent. In its place were the characteristics of a man deep in the early stages of grieving — glossy eyes, little to no smile, moments of unfocused lethargy. Leading up to the game, TV cameras caught Celtics guard Avery Bradley embracing a crying Thomas on the sideline, and during the moment of silence the arena observed for Chyna Thomas before tipoff, tears streamed down his face.
“You wanted to talk to him, but you really can’t talk to him because he’s not talkative right now,” Celtics forward Jae Crowder told SB Nation’s Celtics Blog after Boston, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, fell 106-102 to eighth-seeded Chicago in Game 1.
The way Thomas spoke up was through his shoes: the special-edition Kobe A.D.s that only No. 4 of the Boston Celtics wears. In mid-February, Nike presented Thomas with the player exclusives (or PEs, as they’re referred to in the sneaker world) in honor of his second All-Star Game appearance. Since then, the Kobes have become Thomas’ go-to option for games.
For the opening game of this year’s playoffs, Thomas again laced up the sneakers Nike designed to especially represent him. A double helix is embroidered on the heel of each shoe, symbolizing what’s envisioned as the 5-foot-9 point guard’s own DNA. But in the wake of Chyna’s death, Thomas needed his sister. So, he broke out a black Sharpie and customized the PEs more than Nike could’ve ever imagined.
On this night, Thomas remembered Chyna through the words he penned on his sneakers. And in every step, crossover and shot he took, she was with him.