WALTHAM, Mass. -- The morning after scoring 29 points while helping the Boston Celtics rally from a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit for a thrilling win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Isaiah Thomas awoke in his Twin Cities hotel room to find a flurry of congratulatory text messages, but one of the green blurbs on his iPhone stood out more than the others.
Keep doing your thing. I’m watching.
The message was from NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, a player that Thomas lists on his NBA Mount Rushmore and the player whom most undersized guards of this generation aspire to be like.
"It was real early in the morning that he texted, like 8:30, so he must have been watching highlights [of the Minnesota game] or something," Thomas said, unable to muffle a smile. "I told him, 'I appreciate it and that I'm just trying to be like you.' He was like, ‘Say no more.’ Those texts man, it just motivates me to keep going. Someone like that is watching me without me even reaching out to him, so I guess I’m doing something right."
It's been a wild 2016 for Thomas, who didn't just elevate to All-Star status in Boston but has emerged as the face of one of the NBA's most storied franchises. Along the way, he has added the likes of Tom Brady to his contacts and still marvels when he trades texts with the four-time Super Bowl champion.
But seeing Iverson pop up in his messages really resonates with the 5-foot-9 Thomas. The two first crossed paths when Thomas was with Reebok. They bumped into each other again when Thomas attended a boxing match of good friend Floyd Mayweather. Thomas recalled: "[Iverson] was around his friends, and he was like, ‘Man, we were just talking about you the other night and how you’ve been killing it.'" But the relationship between Iverson and Thomas truly blossomed at All-Star weekend in Toronto in February, when Iverson sought out Thomas at an NBA event.
"[Iverson] came over and talked to me for like 30 minutes, just about how big of a fan he was of me," Thomas said. "And people can say that, but then he was even doing my moves. He was like, ‘I like that move, the little hesitation move to the right.’ And that’s when I realized that he’s not just saying it, he watches my game."
Iverson's reps reached out to Thomas this summer and asked him to attend a gala in Philadelphia in August. Thomas said he dropped everything he was doing because, "That’s Allen Iverson, so I couldn’t say no." The two got a chance to talk again, and Thomas emerged with a prized gift: an Iverson autographed jersey that the Hall of Famer personalized to Thomas with, "To: A real killa."
In a video produced by Thomas' reps, it showed behind-the-scenes footage of Thomas and Iverson meeting at the gala and Thomas sheepishly asking him for his autograph. Iverson then gushes about Thomas and calls him the future of the NBA. Back in his hotel room, Thomas is supremely motivated to improve his game after the meeting.
"Damn, I gotta be Allen Iverson, bro," he tells a friend in the video while gushing about how Iverson averaged 28 points per game for his career. "I gotta get better. It's not cool, I gotta get better. ... I averaged 22 [points] and six [assists]. That's not a good year. I gotta go for 25."
Fast-forward a couple months and, through Boston's first 16 games of the 2016-17 season, Thomas is averaging 26.1 points and 6.3 assists per game. He ranks ninth in the league in scoring, a half-point behind reigning league MVP Stephen Curry.
How does it feel to be nearing the Iverson-caliber benchmark?
"I’m getting close," said Thomas. "I’m trying. I’m trying. I’m going to keep going, and to have guys like [Iverson] in my ear that tell me to keep grinding and keep doing my thing is only motivation to continue to get better.
"It’s just like, when you have a stamp from arguably the pound-for-pound best player ever, it's like, I'm not going to listen to nobody else. I already got the stamp. [Iverson] already said I was pretty good and that I’m cut from the same cloth as him. And those type of things only motivate me to keep going."