You might have heard that Isaiah Thomas is only 5-9. It's kind of his thing -- the same that way putting up jaw-dropping numbers is his thing. This past season the formerly overlooked Boston point guard, 28, saw the highest of highs -- an MVP-worthy season and Eastern Conference finals run -- and lowest of lows, most notably the tragic death of his sister in a car accident during the playoffs. Though a hip injury ended Thomas' season early, he found one last way to make a splash: with a photo shoot for ESPN's ninth edition of the Body Issue, where he talked to us about his Mighty Mouse tattoo, studying Bruce Lee's moves and how he rose above the doubters. Here's Thomas' story in his own words:
Nobody's tall in my family. My father is 5-7, so I knew at a young age I wouldn't be that tall. But when I was younger, I always wanted to be taller. There was a pullup bar in my mom's basement, and I would do a lot of pullups down there. My mom will tell you that I'd be on there all the time trying to stretch myself out.
I always was in the weight room. My dad was a big bodybuilder and somebody who always was lifting weights and working out. He always told me, "Don't back down from anybody." I've always played with my heart, and I've always felt like I was better than the next guy.
When I was young -- 10, 11, 12 years old -- my dad would take me to the gym, and I was able to play open gym basketball with grown men. Some of them would want to fight me afterward because I talk mess -- and I back it up. First off, you don't want to be showed up by someone smaller than you, and then on top of that someone younger than you. I grew up in the Gary Payton era. He was arguably the best trash-talker there was. And I watched all his games and I read all the stories about him talking trash, so I kind of wanted to be like him when I was younger. To this day, I like to talk trash, but I'm not just talking out there; I'm backing it up.
And I'm not as small as you may think -- I'm stronger than most guys. I think by being strong and being as compact as I am, it's helped me take my game to another level.
I mean, the things that I'm doing -- if I were 6-5 or 6-6, it would be magnified even more, talked about even more. And that's how it's been my whole career -- my whole life. I've never been given a fair shake, even to this day. I always say nothing's been given to me; I always took what I believe is mine, and I always took advantage of the opportunity that I've got. And not to put anything against the bigger guys, but for the most part, they're handed a lot. Us little guys in the gutter, we're not handed anything. We're not given the benefit of the doubt. They always overlook us.
If I were taller, the season I had would be getting even more attention. For sure. There's no doubt about that. People always try to find something that I don't do well, or that the small guy doesn't do well, and put it against him. For instance, when you're smaller they always say you're a defensive liability. If somebody scores on a 6-5 guy, it's like, "Oh, that's good offense." If somebody scores on a 5-9 guy, it's like, "Oh, he's a liability; he's too small." It's always something.
If I were 6-3 or 6-5, I'd be the best player in the world. No doubt about it. And that's not just me thinking that; I mean, the world would think that.
People always wanted me to be somebody I wasn't, whether it be a pass-first point guard or a typical point guard, and I'm not that. I think people are just starting to accept who I am. And that's a good thing. Damon Stoudamire was one of my favorite players growing up; he was 5-10 and a left-handed guy like me, and I definitely tried to pattern my game after him. He's someone I definitely looked up to. When I was younger, my teammates and my coach called me Mighty Mouse after him. I got a Mighty Mouse tattoo because of him.
THE BRUCE LEE EFFECT
My mental edge is being counted out, being doubted. If you've ever been doubted in your life, you want to prove people wrong. So that's what I always wanted to do. I've been doubted every step of the way. I use every little bit of negativity as motivation to keep getting better and to show people what I'm capable of doing.
Being the last pick of the draft [in 2011] doesn't cross my mind anymore. But during my first few years, I was like, "Man, I'm about to kill this team" because I was holding it against them. Now I find other things that motivate me. That happened six years ago, but it definitely makes the story that much better in the end and something that I had to overcome. And that's just the definition of my story; the definition of my life. Being counted out, being picked last and overcoming those obstacles.
A few summers ago, I studied Bruce Lee -- read all his quotes, read his books and just tried to figure out how he got so sharp mentally. He was the best at what he did. Mentally, he went to a level that nobody can reach, and he's someone who didn't really make too many mistakes at what he was doing. His quote "Be shapeless. Be formless. Be like water," that was one of the quotes that stuck with me. Be able to adapt to anything that comes your way -- whether it be in life, in basketball. You've got to adapt to everything on the fly, and don't be just put in a box. I don't like when people just try to put you in a certain box. "Is he a point guard? Is he a shooting guard?" No, I'm a guard that makes plays and is effective on the court. Don't try to put me in no certain box, because I'm not that.
"WHEN YOU'RE SMALL, YOU'VE GOT TO BE SPECIAL."
Obviously, when you're smaller, you've got to figure out different ways to maneuver around the big guys, different ways to score the basketball around the hoop. It's a challenge I've always had to overcome. So it's nothing new for me. I always say [how I play] is not a surprise to me; it's a surprise to everybody else.
Being the smallest guy on the court has actually been to my advantage. When I tell people that, they always look at me like I'm crazy. But Gary Payton, years ago, told me that "the guy that's lowest to the ground usually always wins." I've talked to the guys like Muggsy Bogues and Nate Robinson and Damon Stoudamire. I've built relationships with those guys. And the main thing they tell me is, "Just be yourself. Whatever you bring to the table, do it at a high level." All of the small guys who played before me and who've played during my time, they've been special in their own way. I think that's the difference between the small guys and the giants out there: When you're small, you've got to be special in some way, somehow.
Allen Iverson was also somebody I felt like I could relate to because he was smaller, and he's pound for pound the best to ever play, arguably -- somebody who changed the game of basketball just by being who he was. I can relate to that. There was always a doubt in other people's minds: They didn't feel like I could do it, they felt like I was too small, they felt like I wasn't a typical point guard. And now, I just laugh at those people. I just make them eat their words. And if people don't believe in me, I make them believers.
For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki