Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas played in Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls less than 24 hours after learning his younger sister, Chyna, had been killed in a single-car accident across the country. He performed admirably, scoring a game-high 33 points in a disappointing four-point loss.
Before tip, television cameras captured Thomas crying courtside, being consoled by teammate Avery Bradley. His status remained in doubt. No one knew for sure how he’d cope with the situation.
Sports are great for many reasons — so many of them bigger than the actual game. Tragedy and the subsequent grief in the sports world provide a window into society as a whole. Heartbroken athletes persevere, sullen fans get lost in the distraction of a big game. Sports provide an outlet both to player and spectator alike.
But with good comes the bad. With the uplifting comes the troubling. Death is never easy or simple in any form and is almost always uncomfortable. Charles Barkley is currently in hot water for suggesting Thomas’ tears were “a bad look” and made him feel “uncomfortable.” Barkley, per usual, did not choose his words carefully but there’s some merit to his sentiments.
It is uncomfortable to watch a player cry. It is uncomfortable to know that their heart is breaking. It is uncomfortable to care about the game while that’s going on.
And it’s most uncomfortable when it’s real and raw, like it was for Thomas on Sunday. There’s something oddly addictive about cleanly packaged pain voiced by Tom Rinaldi. Immediate, soul-crushing pain without the flowery poetry is harder to handle.
While athletes are deified, they’re just as often dismissed as human beings. We see them as entertainers or robots there to carry out calculating athletic skills. Their problems are diminished and sympathy withheld because they make a lot of money.
That’s just the cost of doing business, we somehow say. But humanness should not be defined by salary. Thomas should not have had to live his grief out in public like that. He deserved better to have his every move scrutinized and his personal heartbreak become public. The choice he was forced to make Sunday was a personal one, but no one should ever have to make it.
It’s sickening knowing that, deep down, Thomas is a story and not a person in the eyes of many. There’s an enormous gulf between caring about the narrative for a few hours and caring about the person. Perhaps that’s why I found it so uncomfortable to watch. Asking myself if my compassion for Thomas had a shelf life until the final whistle or if it was authentic gave reason for pause.
Death is always complicated. Not every sports story in the wake of death hits the same way. Thomas’, for some reason, seemed so much more palpable than usual. It was easy to feel guilty watching and assessing his grief. It’s a situation no person deserves to be in. He handled it well, but it was anything but comfortable.