Loyalty and sports

Run It Back

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Loyalty in the sporting world is a cute concept. There’s something about witnessing the Derek Jeters and Kobe Bryants of the world play for their entire careers with one team through thick and thin, to see grizzled veterans hang them up for good wearing the same threads they donned as a bright-eyed rookie.

There’s a notion that when a team’s superstar faces the inevitable decision between skipping town or sticking with his roots, he should go with the latter regardless of how lucrative a fresh start may be — a player shouldn’t prioritize a payday nor a potentially better team atmosphere. Hell, he shouldn’t even think about his long-term happiness.

If he doesn’t stick with his team and decides to head for greener pastures, then he’s considered a traitor. A snake. A backstabber. A villain. Jerseys will be burned. His name will be dragged through the mud. It happened to LeBron James. It happened to Kevin Durant. It will happen to another superstar in due time.

But let’s jump back into the real world. Let’s take a step back and evaluate the reality of the situation. If not nonexistent altogether, loyalty is, at the very least, extremely rare. Just take at what happened with Isaiah Thomas.

Players must look out for their own best interests, and general managers must look out for the best interest of their team. If those two concepts happen to intersect with one another, it’s all the merrier, but when it’s decision time, each party has to make decisions based on what course of action most benefits themselves.

It’s why front offices throw loyalty out the window when presented with an opportunity to strengthen their team. It’s why general managers, as cruel as it may sound, must hold themselves back from acting any form of sentimentality. It’s why the Boston Celtics decided to trade Thomas.
I completely understand the logic as to why Danny Ainge, the general manager of the Celtics, decided to pull the trigger and send Thomas, along with Jae Crowder, Ante Žižić and the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 unprotected first-round pick, to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving.

I’ll even admit I was excited when I first found out about the trade — how often does any league see the two best teams in a conference exchange players with one another, nevermind two stars and an important asset in the form of that draft pick? But upon taking a step back from my initial excitement, I can’t shake the feeling that the Celtics did Thomas wrong.

To the city of Boston, Thomas wasn’t just the centerpiece of the Celtics. Bill Simmons, the sports media giant with roots in Boston, says the man was a folk hero to the city. Despite his miniscule 5’9”, 185-pound frame, Thomas was unafraid to sacrifice his body and attack the paint with reckless abandon. That made him a fan favorite.

Then there was the roller coaster ride that was last season. Thomas was nothing short of magical in the regular season. He dominated the fourth quarter. He balled his way into the MVP discussion. He carried the Celtics to a one-seed. That made him a star.

On the eve of Boston’s first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, Thomas’ world was shaken to his core as his sister, Chyna Thomas, dies in a car crash. At Chyna’s funeral, Isaiah said he wanted to quit.

But he didn’t. Already playing with an injured hip, Thomas powered through the pain and led Boston to a series victory against Chicago. Thomas scored 33 points in the first game of the next series following the funeral. He followed it up with 53 in Game 2.

He played through pain, physically and mentally, before the Celtics’ inevitable elimination to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. That made him a hero.

But it didn’t matter.

Of the news which came out in the hours following the deal, the report which most irked me was one which detailed the potential severity of Thomas’ hip. There’s no doubt Thomas’ long-term health issues played into the deal. Once the Celtics discovered the severity of IT4’s injury, they dumped him for a potentially better option.

Thomas was loyal almost to a fault for his team — the epitome of sacrifice. He didn’t have to play hurt. He didn’t have to play with the death of a family member hanging over his head. Three months later, he’s dealt. Where’s the loyalty in that?

Thomas has stated on record that he’s thrilled to be in Cleveland, enamored by the possibility of playing with LeBron James (unlike a certain ex-teammate). That’s the right move on his part — welcome the new, show appreciation for the old. I can’t shake the feeling that behind those comments, Thomas must feel betrayed.

Loyalty is a fallacy, yet we treat it like it should be the status quo. This notion needs to end. If Durant, James or Thomas became shells of their former selves, they’d be released or traded in a heartbeat. General managers don’t need to be loyal to anyone except their teams, and players don’t need to be loyal to anyone except themselves.

And that’s the reality.

Justice delos Santos is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510