Tragedy on I-5

Death be not proud, though some have called thee (John Donne)

Chyna Thomas, a student at the Tacoma School of the Arts, died Saturday morning when her car veered off I-5 in the state of Washington. According to witnesses, she wasn’t speeding. The 22 year old sister of Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas lost control of her car and crashed into a barrier and pole.  The presumptive theory is she may have fallen asleep; it was around five a.m. when the call came in. She wasn’t wearing a seat belt and died on the scene.

Her famous older brother who is set to begin a playoff run as the number one seed in the east was told of his sister’s tragic passing after practice by long time friend and teammate Avery Bradley, also from Washington. Thomas is in a state of shock. His father, James Thomas, told the Boston Globe, “It’s a crucial time for our family.” Anyone who has prematurely lost someone in their family knows exactly what he means.

Adam Silver said, “The NBA family mourns the tragic passing of Chyna Thomas and we send our deepest condolences to Isaiah, his family and the Celtics organization during this difficult time.” Thomas availability for tonight’s game is unknown as the Celtics host the Chicago Bulls.

Despite the illusion of perfection, there isn’t immunity for the gifted. Their lives are not so supremely special that tragedy runs away from their door. They have to live like the rest of us do, joy intermingled with heartbreak. At some point, everyone has a turn.

One year ago, Dion Waiters was the starting shooting guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was abruptly thrown into shock with news that his brother, Demetrius Pinckney, was slain. The crime of murder brings with it multiple pillars of exigent investigations, and bold tears. Waiters left the Thunder team for an indefinite period of time, just as Monty Williams left the team a month earlier after the death of his wife, who was driving with three of their children in the backseat, when she was hit by an out of control SUV who veered into her car head on.

February. March. April. Fourteen months and three men. Monty Williams. Dion Waiters. Isaiah Thomas. Three families. Often the details are redundant and reduced to the minimum. One more loss to speak of. One more eulogy. One more packed church. One more sad song. One more what if he hadn’t been where he was. Or what if she hadn’t been where she was.. One more life isn’t fair. It’s cruelty that gets us. And the timing. Why? And then, why now? But often, life turns faster than we can catch up to it or have an answer for the unanswerable questions.

Dion Waiters brother suffered from head injuries, according to a report from the Philadelphia ABC affiiate, WPVI-TV. Pinckney was one of several injuries that resulted from an argument. One wonders though, had Mr. Pinckney not been Waiters brother, would his death made the news, or would it have been one of those familiar stories buried on some back page in some small print that is usually passed over. Same with Chyna Thomas. Had she been Chyna Wallace would she have even made the paper?

24 years ago, former Celtics guard Brian Shaw answered an early morning phone call. It was the coroner’s office telling him his father, mother, sister and niece were involved in a car crash on I-15, driving from Richmond, California to Las Vegas. There was only one survivor, his one year old niece. It changed his life forever.  Lakers assistant Shaw said, “I never had anyone close to me die and I just lost my whole family.”

In 2015, NBA journeyman Wayne Ellington, also from Philadelphia like Waiters, had to take an indefinite leave of absence when his father was murdered as he sat in his car at a stoplight. His murderer has since been apprehended and the trial is pending.

If this was any other profession, these devastating losses would create the same open wounds but without the lens of strangers viewing from a distance. There would be privacy and a lot of closed doors. But the Celtics play the Bulls on Sunday. Their best player is Isaiah Thomas. He is their only hope to advance past the first round. But how can he concentrate in the face of such devastation?

Of course, he can shut emotions off and reflexively immerse himself in the game tonight, in how big it is, in who is going to possibly stop Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.  He can ignore those who say they know how he feels. Unless this has happened to your family you do not know how he feels and, please, consider yourself lucky or spared.

Tragedy is on no one’s clock, it happens when it happens, random and swift. But the essence of basketball is that in all of its competitive glory, it is still an escape, a place where the world is not really the world. Points and fouls and free throws and bad calls and dunks and layups and crossovers and last second shots take precedence. It is theater, manufactured as it may be, that lasts a little over two hours. It is a finite space that can be controlled in a short span of time. Unlike life where the unexpected, the sad, the gut wrenching, often happen when you are not prepared. You cannot control it. You cannot bear it.

They say for every man there will be a day and he will have his turn. Isaiah Thomas had his turn. Both the ecstasy of a brilliant season, the best of his career. And now, sadly, unfairly, the tragedy.

For whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne)


photo via llananba