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Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart

The first-year Washington Wizards point guard is still trying to come to grips with losing his close friend seven months later

Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom collected a litany of titles during his short, yet prolific life. Grammy-nominated rapper. Rollin’ 60s Crip. Community activist. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Lauren London’s soulmate. Emani and Kross’ father.

And Isaiah Thomas’ favorite artist — though their marathon, a bond dating back more than a decade, is far deeper than rap. Tattooed on the Washington Wizards point guard’s left leg are two checkered flags and an all-caps mantra, “I been fighting battles up a steep hill.”

“That’s my life story,” Thomas said shortly after the Wizards’ practice in early October. The two-time All-Star made his season debut Oct. 26 for Washington after recovering from offseason thumb surgery. He posted an impressive 16 points, three rebounds and five assists in 20 minutes in a 124-122 loss in San Antonio.

The lyrics inked on his skin derive from the now self-written eulogy “Racks In The Middle” from Thomas’ close friend turned guardian angel. Hussle was gunned down in front of his South Central Los Angeles-based Marathon clothing store on March 31. Eric Holder, 29, is facing trial in his murder. Thomas also cherishes another Hussle-inspired tat saying “TMC,” short for “The Marathon Continues” on his right shoulder. It’s an adage that defined their friendship, the similar trajectory of their careers and their ability to find strength after immeasurable grief in both of their lives. Thomas losing his sister and Hussle losing a close childhood friend within months of each other in 2017.

“That’s what it was. We had each other to lean on,” Thomas said. “We went through real-life situations that a lot of people can’t relate to.”

Hussle’s murder shook hip-hop to its core and sent emotional shock waves across the pop culture universe. His death particularly resonated in the NBA community, where he held close friendships with players James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams, Stephen Curry, Wilson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma and several more.

“[Ballplayers] come from the same environment. They going through the same struggle. They’re just attacking it through their gifts on the court or on the field,” Hussle said in a 2018 interview. “Likewise, we’ll be in the studio and have the playoffs on mute and go back and watch classic performances. And just be like, ‘Look at the zone they was in.’ We both feed off each other.”

Hussle’s bond with Thomas was uniquely poignant. One built off similar self-made, get-it-out-the-mud, rags to riches orbits. Hussle was a child of South Central Los Angeles’ slums who had risen to the cusp of mainstream stardom at the time of his death. And Thomas from last pick in the 2011 NBA draft to undersized superstar point guard and now veteran aiming to prove that a string of injuries aren’t the final professional chapter of his marathon.

Thomas signed with the Wizards following one season with the Nuggets in July. He did so by paying homage to Hussle via Twitter through lyrics applicable to his journey’s newest chapter. As the Wizards start the season for the first time without John Wall in nearly a decade, Thomas will have an opportunity to play valuable minutes as a floor general. The eight-year veteran has coined this season his “victory lap” — an homage to Hussle’s Grammy-nominated final project. “When [Nipsey] came out with Victory Lap, I wasn’t able to play like I wanted to. I wanna show the world I can play at a high level like before I got injured.”

Hussle will be with Thomas for every game this season both in spirit and in playlist. But Thomas hasn’t yet given himself the emotional real estate to ponder how he’ll react not seeing Hussle courtside at his games for the first time since he entered the league with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas hasn’t let go of Hussle. Out of love and loyalty, he won’t. And out of confusion and pain, he refuses.

“I can’t even explain it. To this day it don’t seem real,” Thomas said, looking at the floor. “A person that positive and that genuine to everybody, anybody, it’s like that shouldn’t happen. They always say, ‘The good die young,’ and it’s really like that.”

Every marathon begins with a first step. In the University of Washington’s locker room in the fall of 2008, each member of the men’s basketball team had a chance to be team DJ. Freshman forward Darnell Gant, a Crenshaw High School graduate, used his opportunity to put on for his South Central brethren. One of Hussle’s earliest hits, the Kriss Kross “Jump”-inspired, but code of the street-driven “Hussle In The House” had recently become the MC’s first introduction to some of his earliest fans outside of Los Angeles.

“I was playing [Nipsey],” said Gant. “Then I remember Isaiah coming up to me in the locker room.”

“Who’s that?” Thomas asked.

“This Nipsey from Crenshaw.”

From there, Gant gladly offered his fellow freshman Thomas an immediate curriculum on Hussle. One of the hardest new acts to emerge out of California since The Game dropped The Documentary in 2005. An artist with a vision for his community wise beyond his years — and whose graphic street narratives of Los Angeles were scribed with John Singleton-like precision. Gant never knew Hussle personally, but his OG’s did. All Gant was doing was paying it forward by putting his teammate onto hometown game. He had no way of knowing an otherwise innocent locker room conversation would help inspire an unbreakable bond.

Isaiah Thomas (second from left) and Nipsey Hussle (center) attend the Nipsey Hussle album release party for Victory Lap at Medusa Lounge on Feb. 25, 2018, in Atlanta.

Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage

Thomas took his education on Hussle far beyond UW’s training facilities. He devoured every piece of Hussle content he could find on the Internet. Thomas would tirelessly tweet Hussle’s lyrics, attaching the @NipseyHussle handle to make sure the rapper would notice the admiration. Hussle, an avid basketball fan with a respectable game himself, soon began following Thomas. The two swapped messages and months later met for the first time at a February 2009 show at Seattle’s Showbox SoDo while Hussle was on The Game’s “LAX” Tour.

“It was genuine love on both sides. He knew who I was, just from playing basketball. I knew who he was and he was up-and-coming [like me],” Thomas reflected. “He was a real genuine person and his energy just rubbed off on everybody in the room. It was dope from day one.”

Thomas and Hussle’s marathons ran at similar paces. Their progress was mutually inspirational. Thomas earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year during the 2008-09 season. Hussle being featured on the 2010 XXL Freshmen cover alongside future stars J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa. Thomas firmly establishing himself as one of the country’s most prolific scorers and named Pac-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore — and honorable mention All-American as a junior. And Hussle transitioning from his critically acclaimed Bullets Ain’t Got No Names mixtape series into The Marathon and The Marathon Continues.

By the summer of 2011, Thomas and Hussle had grown far beyond celebrity acquaintances. They were friends with a deep respect for the other’s craft and dedication. Days after being drafted by the Kings, Thomas took to Facebook expressing his desire to have Hussle perform at his draft party in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Thomas dreamed it, then Hussle real life’d it.

“[Nipsey] did the whole Marathon mixtape,” Thomas said still in awe. “Usually guys do a few songs, then get up out there. He did every song on there. He just showed real genuine love to my city. From that day forward, we would text, we would call. Every time I’m in L.A., I would go by the shop. He’d send me Marathon clothing. We’ve been really close since then.”

Their marathons would continue analogous paths. Hussle’s vision for music, but his growing business empire caused an entire industry to take notice despite the absence of Billboard chart-topping recognition. In 2013, Jay-Z made headlines when he purchased 100 copies of Hussle’s Crenshaw mixtape being sold at $100 per disc. The entire time, both celebrated the other’s win as their own. Thomas would bounce from Sacramento to Phoenix and to Boston — each stop establishing him as a bona fide scoring threat with unassailable heart.

“To see [Isaiah] make his moves in the NBA, go give n—-s hell last season and just run up his value. I look at his career a lot like I look at mine. His trajectory — he proved himself,” Hussle said, expressing his admiration for Thomas. “He made himself valuable. Against a lot of odds. And so I f— with I.T., heavy.”

All marathons present moments of self-doubt. And friendship has a profound way of evolving through tragedy. By 2017, Thomas was one of basketball’s most venomous scorers, averaging 28.9 points. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” for a string of heroic performances throughout the season leading the Celtics to 53 wins. The watershed campaign led to Thomas’ second consecutive All-Star berth. What had been a season-long coronation for Thomas as a true NBA superstar soon gave way to disaster. On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas, Thomas’ younger sister, died in a car accident in Washington state. Thomas, in a heroic performance for the ages, would drop 33 points in a Game 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls a day later. (Boston would win the series in six.) In Thomas’ corner the entire time was a familiar friend. Hussle’s texts messages about looking catastrophe in the face and continuing “run[ing] your race” provided invaluable moments of peace and motivation that Thomas needed.

“He sent a really long text to me just being inspiring to keep going, knowing that life is a marathon,” said Thomas. “He always been that type of friend. It’s always been real genuine love. A marathon is tough. Life is tough. That was probably the biggest thing that I would keep in my heart. Just keep running your race no matter what.”

Five months later, Hussle’s childhood friend and business partner Stephen “Fats” Donelson was murdered while standing outside a marijuana dispensary where he was employed. Donelson’s death hit Hussle extremely hard at a time in his life and career were trending upward toward the release his highly anticipated debut album in Victory Lap. Hussle would later commemorate Fats on the aforementioned “Racks In The Middle.” “Damn I wish my n—- Fats was here/ How you die at 30-something after banging all them years,” Hussle pleaded in 2019’s most chilling verse. “Grammy-nominated, in the sauna shedding tears/ All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear.”

“When Fats died,” Thomas said, “I reached out to him and it was just like, ‘I’m here for you if you need me. I know you got a thousand people in your corner, but if you ever need to talk, you know I’m here.’ ”

Celebrate every victory during a marathon, because the last will never announce itself beforehand. Hussle and Thomas saw a reflection in themselves in the other. The “Blue Laces 2” MC was particularly prideful when his friend made his season debut with the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 13. Thomas smiled when seeing checkered flag emojis, symbolic for Hussle’s marathon edict, appear in his inbox.

“I know he was just about to send me some new music, actually the last time we had talked,” said Thomas.

Days after that conversation, the Nuggets were preparing, coincidentally, to host the Washington Wizards. Thomas was going through pregame routines, taking him away from his phone. By the time he returned, the news had already spread. Nipsey Hussle dead at 33. Thomas sat in a daze. The last thing on his mind was basketball. He didn’t play that night. Almost two years after the worst news of his life following losing his sister, now Thomas had another soul-piercing loss to manage. Nothing felt real.

“I just feel like coming home,” Thomas remembered telling his wife, Kayla, after receiving the news.

Around the same time, Thomas’ former college teammate Gant was getting off work in Los Angeles. The city was already paralyzed with a wicked elixir of fear, anger and depression. The two former teammates swapped messages, Gant more so checking on his friend whom he had introduced to Hussle’s music a decade earlier. He admired from afar how Hussle attended Thomas’ games, often donning Thomas’ jerseys. But now he was concerned about Thomas’ well-being.

“Losing [his sister] Chyna, I knew if he took that hard, he was gonna do the same thing with Nip,” said Gant. “I took it as he lost a family member.”

“That was a really good friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He meant a lot to me. [Nipsey] was like a brother, for sure.”

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With a new season underway, Thomas is excited for the opportunity in front of him in the nation’s capital. But make no mistake, Thomas is still very much grieving. He will be for quite some time, if not the rest of his life. Thomas’ eyes become glossy at the mention of Hussle’s name. He laughs at the funny memories — he refuses to say what his favorite memory of Hussle courtside is, choosing to keep that between him and his friend. But the weight of the loss visibly sits on his shoulders. How Thomas stares off to a different part of the room. How he fidgets with his hands when speaking. How he remains silent when trying to gather the correct words. Just the thought of Hussle oftentimes dictates his body language.

A natural human reaction to any uncomfortable or painful event in life is to develop tangible steps on how to resolve it. Grief, says Washington-based clinical psychologist Justin S. Hopkins, doesn’t work that way. It ebbs and flows, and trigger points such as birthdays or anniversaries are always looming. “I think it’s hard for people to understand that grief continues in many different forms long after a person is lost,” Hopkins said. “It’s one of those things that you have to continue to manage, process and make meaning of losing someone and how you remember them. And how you continue to love them long after they’re gone.”

Loss has a way of clarifying the magnitude of life. Death, in particular the passing of a close loved one, is incredibly difficult to compartmentalize and move on as if it didn’t happen.

“Disbelief is a really common aspect of grieving,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to accept that someone you love will continue to have a relationship through your memories, but is no longer here physically. That’s really, really hard to take in. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of time and a lot of processing.”

Thomas continues his marathon with a lifetime of Hussle-curated memories. He’s only gotten emotional once over the past seven months. That was April 11, the day he saw Hussle laid to rest. Being in the Staples Center that day was an emotional juxtaposition for Thomas. Less than a year had passed since he was with Hussle at the same arena as he performed at the 2018 BET Awards. Part of Thomas refuses to accept what he knows is the reality. He snickers at Hussle becoming a meme during last season’s Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets fight that involved Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — Courtside, goin viral when them punches thrown, Hussle rapped posthumously on Rick Ross’ “Rich N—a Lifestyle.”

“It was funny to see that picture,” Thomas said, chuckling, “because that’s what most dudes in those types of situations has been in [do] … you’re going to pull up your pants and be ready.”

For Thomas, it all goes back to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central. His whole life story was on that block, on that corner, Thomas says. Every time he’d touch down in L.A., Hussle would meet Thomas at his Marathon store. Occasionally, he’d take his sons, James and Jaiden. Thomas says every time, without fail, Hussle and friends would walk him back to his car. Hussle’s message was simple, yet poignant. Be safe out here.

“That’s why I haven’t been there [since], because it’s just like I keep saying. It just doesn’t seem real for him to be taken in front of what he built,” Thomas said. “It would probably be hard for me to go back over that way because that was a real special person to me.”

Thomas hasn’t given much thought to how he’ll react not seeing his friend courtside in Los Angeles, Houston or even welcoming him to Washington this season. Hussle’s absence won’t change the way he plays, but similar to his sister’s death, he finds peace “staying on [my] marathon.” He knows that would be Hussle’s only wish for him. The marathon was the root of their conversations, their friendship and their brotherhood. Staying 10 toes down and never letting a hard time humble them doesn’t stop just because one isn’t physically here anymore. Until they meet again in the next lifetime, Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart and on his skin.

“[Nipsey was] probably the realest person I ever met. [He’s] somebody that I would want my kids to be like. Nothing about him was fake.”

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.