Sunday Musings: Heroes come and go

Isaiah Thomas watches the Kings take on the Thunder from the bench. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Sacramento Kings fans were shocked to see Isaiah Thomas traded away for what amounted to a small sack of peanuts.  He was a fan favorite, and of course, the Pizza Guy.  A 5-foot-9 dynamo taken with the final selection in the 2011 NBA Draft, his story had the makings of a legend.  It’s heartbreaking and sad, especially for young fans who don’t understand the concept of sports as a business.  But there is a harsh reality to professional sports – heroes come and go.

If you don’t believe it, look at what the Oakland A’s did at the trade deadline earlier this week.  Sitting atop all of Major League Baseball with a record of 66-41, general manager Billy Beane traded away his most marketable player, Yoenis Cespedes.

On Saturday, the A’s handed out 10,000 “La Potencia” (Spanish for “power”) T-shirts to honor their former left fielder.  It wasn’t a grand send-off gesture, but a reality of the situation.  They had ordered the shirts long before the trade was made and had no choice but to honor the commitment to the fans.

Despite anchoring the heart of the A’s lineup and winning back-to-back Home Run Derby titles at All-Star weekend, Cespedes was dealt for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes.

It is a move viewed by many as Oakland going all in.  They traded a year and a half of Cespedes for a rental of an elite starting pitcher with playoff experience.

This is the sports world in which we live.  Players like Derek Jeter and Dirk Nowitzki, who have played their entire careers for the same team, are a dying breed.

Joe Montana was dealt from the San Francisco 49ers to the Kansas City Chiefs late in his career.  Karl Malone finished up with the Lakers, not the Utah Jazz.  Emmitt Smith played two seasons in Arizona, Jerry Rice finished his career in a Seattle Seahawks jersey and Michael Jordan came out of retirement at age 38, playing two seasons in Washington before hanging it up for good in 2003.

These players are known by a singular team that they played for as much as any individual accomplishment.  But that doesn’t change the fact that they moved on to new locations before their careers ended.

Isaiah Thomas is not in the category of these greats, but his impact on the current Kings fanbase was tremendous.  Kings fans have been through the ringer, and Thomas had worked his way into the hearts of many.

Most people are fans of a franchise first and the myriad of players that come through are secondary.  That doesn’t mean that it will hurt less when you see Thomas come through town with the Phoenix Suns later this year.

It should be noted that Thomas is the eighth player to wear No. 22 in the Sacramento era of Kings basketball.  Larry Drew, Jerry Evans, Franklin Edwards, Rodney McCray, Lionel Simmons, Jim Jackson and Sheldon Williams each took their turn with 22 stitched to the back.

The outpouring of emotion over Thomas’ departure is understandable, but outrage is always short-lived.  Eventually, someone else will become the ninth player to don the number, and there will probably be more after that.

Like the Oakland Athletics situation with Cespedes, the Sacramento Kings believe that they need something different to win. Darren Collison is no Jon Lester.  For that matter, he is no Isaiah Thomas.

Collison wasn’t brought in to score 20 points and hand out six assists this season.  He wasn’t brought in to be Thomas.  He was brought in because the Kings brass think they will be a better team with him, instead of Thomas.

The Kings front office sees the Collison-Thomas situation through a different lens than the fans do.  They see more than purple when they look at a player.  Whatever the reason, they didn’t buy Thomas as the answer, at least not at four years and $27 million.

They may be completely wrong.  They have the benefit of not having three years of emotional attachment to the player.  Their decision is based on their beliefs as basketball talent evaluators.  And still, they may regret this decision for years to come.

It is confusing, because at 25, Thomas still has a lot of basketball in his future.  He has potential to improve, and he is going to a conference rival that won 48 games last season.  More than that, he is a superior player to Collison.

None of that matters to the Kings front office.  What matters is that they had a 28-win team last season, and they believe that they can win more with someone other than Thomas.

The Kings won’t be able to hide from this decision.  If they are right, they will win more games and improve as a team.

If they are wrong, Thomas will rub it in their face every time he matches up against them and the media will torch them unmercifully.

“I tell everybody I love Sacramento,” Thomas told Sactown Royalty.  “I always will love Sacramento, but when we play them I’m going to kill Sacramento.”

There is no doubt that Thomas will punish the Kings for this decision.  But if he truly understands what happened here, he will do more than just drop 30 on his former teammates.  He will get his revenge by leading the Suns to victory.  He will win by helping to elevate his team to the playoffs.

Swapping out Collison for Thomas was a bold move.   Sometimes being bold is necessary and sometimes it blows up in your face.  Either way, heroes come and go.  It is the reality of professional sports.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also provides game day coverage for NBA.com and is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart".