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Thomas Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, and the American dream

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It all started on a cold windy winter Saturday in upstate New York. On February 19, 2000, over five thousand spectators filled War Memorial, Rochester’s iconic downtown arena, now formally known as the Blue Cross Arena. Among them were Edward Thomas, Jr., and his 3-year old son, Thomas Bryant. The two, together with Thomas’ older brother, were celebrating the long President’s weekend with courtside tickets to see the visiting Harlem Globetrotters. Edward just bought his son a small red, white, and blue basketball and little Thomas was as excited as he ever was.

He was so enthralled that, as Edward vividly recalls, as soon as the horn sounded for halftime, Thomas ran out on the floor and tried to shoot his new basketball. “The whole arena erupted and started cheering him on!” Edward recounts.

Almost 19 years later, against all conceivable odds, Thomas Bryant is now playing in the grandest basketball stage of all, the NBA, as the Washington Wizards’ starting center.

To put this achievement in perspective is important, even before considering Bryant’s meteoric ascent this season. Rochester had a grand history of basketball. Once the home of the 1951 NBA champions Rochester Royals, the city was a landing spot for many revered players, such as the legendary Red Holzman (who went on to win two more championships as the Knicks’ coach in the 70’s), and two-time NBA champion Arnie Risen. But in 1957, local legend, renowned owner and coach, Lester “Lucky Les” Harrison decided to move to Cincinnati, and eventually the franchise ended up as the current day Sacramento Kings. Rochester has since only sparingly produced NBA talent. In fact, a year before Bryant was born was the last time a Rochester native, John Wallace, was drafted to the NBA.

Bryant still remembers every detail of that life-changing moment as a little kid as if it just took place, “It was mesmerizing. Just to see those guys do all those tricks, dunk the ball like that. I always wanted to do something like that. I was mesmerized by it.” As Edward recalls, little Thomas’ life was now divided to before and after that moment, “From that day until this day, he has never lived without a basketball. He carried a basketball with him everywhere he went.” Thomas, with his eyes almost closed, his facial expression dreamy as he dives back into memory lane, adds “after that night I always had a basketball with me no matter where we went. Everywhere there is a basketball court, I always had some shorts, always had some shoes, always had a basketball with me. I always loved playing basketball.”

Life rarely recreates those Holywoodesque come-full-circle moments, but it did for Thomas Bryant. Thirteen years and two weeks later, on March 3, 2013, Thomas Bryant returned to the Rochester War Memorial. Thomas was now the starting center for the Bishop Kearney high-school, playing for the New York Section V Championship. This time he was introduced to loud cheers without needing to await halftime. His team needed him badly. The Bishop Kearney Kings, with a record of 12-7 on the season, were the clear underdogs going up against the all-but-once-undefeated Webster Schroeder high-school who just won a dozen straight and were the conspicuous favorites. Bryant hustled and clawed for his team who went on to a wild upset win 58-55.

But Bryant had greater ambitions. Already on his fifth birthday, Edward recalls, “Thomas told me: Dad, I am going to the NBA.” All along, basketball has been almost life itself for Thomas. When he had to choose a jersey number in high-school, he combined his love for mathematics in school to his passion and dedication for basketball, “31, it always goes back down to when I was born, July 31. I always pride myself to work on the game of basketball 24 hours a day seven days a week and 24 plus 7 equals 31.” Thomas’ work ethic is emblematic of his blue-collar Rochester hometown and can be traced to his upbringing. Both of his parents were basketball aficionados that themselves dreamed of a career as professional players. They both made it to college teams, but neither was able to carry that dream through. Edward, his father, dropped out of college and went on to work on the assembly line for Eastman-Kodak building microfilm machines and later became a mason. Linda, his mother, played for two years in college before seeking other jobs that could support a family.

When Thomas was just six, his parents separated, his dad relocating out of state. Life quickly became challenging. Linda was working two jobs and late shifts, and Thomas was left with navigating Rochester’s East Side inner city hardships on his own: “It wasn’t the prettiest place ever,” he said, so he dedicated himself to the game, “The gym would be empty, I would be there for hours.” Bryant still plays with that chip on his blue collar.

Thomas was drafted by the Lakers in 2017 together with promising and better known young stars Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma. In hindsight, the Lakers were not the perfect landing spot, as they were loaded with options at the center position and were concentrating their development efforts, and hence minutes, on their other draftees. It was the first time in Bryant’s career that not only was he not starting, but he was not even playing. Instead, except for some rare garbage time minutes in the NBA, Bryant spent the year playing in the G-League, the NBA’s minor league, and was subsequently cut by the Lakers. This was all-the-more puzzling given all the praise Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka of the Lakers’ management bestowed on Bryant when drafting him just a year earlier, calling him an “incredibly interesting talent” that “has a chance to be an elite shooting 5.”

Cast down from heaven to earth, from a high roof to a deep pit, as an ancient traditional saying goes, it seemed like the NBA dream had been cut short. Edward recalls, “Thomas called me and said: Dad, I don’t know if I’m going to have a job.” His mom, Linda, lamented “He should have been playing with LeBron!”

Did the Lakers’ explain their decision to him? “No.” A quick notification call from Pelinka, the Lakers’ GM, seemed to be the end of the story. As Thomas understood the hard way, the NBA is a cold-hearted business.

Two days later, on July 2, 2018, the Washington Wizards resurrected Bryant’s career, claiming him off waivers. At first, it did not look any more promising than the situation had been in Los Angeles. Bryant was once again the fourth center on the roster, this time behind former All-Star Dwight Howard, as well as veterans Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith. Worse, head coach Scott Brooks was known for his tendency to prefer experienced players. To put a nail in the coffin, the Wizards organization was clearly in a win-now mentality with no time to fool around with roster experiments. In fact, the Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis famously declared in the off-season that this year there were going to be “no excuses” and that he wanted to see the Wizards achieve their first conference finals appearance in 40 years.

And yet, one magical night, the stars all aligned, in a wild twist of events. On December 22, Bryant seized an opportunity unimaginable just a few weeks earlier. Howard had been sidelined due to back surgery. Smith had been recently traded away to Milwaukee. Mahinmi tended to get into foul trouble and could not stay on the floor for extended periods. Still, Brooks shied away from playing Bryant extended minutes, opting for a smaller line-up featuring Markieff Morris at center. This, despite the fact that Bryant was perfect from the field having made all six of his shots. Less than three minutes before the end of regulation, Morris fouled out. Brooks stared at the bench for what seemed like eternity, after which eventually, reluctantly, as if in desperation, he signaled Bryant to sub in. Bryant recalled, “I was very excited. Jitters were coming.”

Bryant had played his usual 18-minute dose prior to that moment, but that, and so much more, would all change right there, right then. With his team down 104-97, Bryant, with his signature grit and hustle, was able to limit the Phoenix Suns’ star center, and top overall pick DeAndre Ayton, to a single point in the remaining three minutes of regulation. Ayton had 19 points up until Bryant re-entered the game and had wreaked havoc in the Wizards’ paint up until then. The Wizards rallied behind this contagious burst of energy and forced an extremely unlikely overtime.

The night was still young though, and Bryant was about to make history. The Wizards eventually prevailed over the Suns 149-146 in a triple-overtime showdown, in which Bryant made 8 more shots and 2 more free throws, all without a miss. Many of those buckets came at clutch moments. A few of those shots were absolute poster-worthy acrobatic feats. 31 points total, to match Bryant’s mathematical work-ethic formula for success: 24+7.

In doing so, Bryant made history. The only player to make more shots without a miss in a game was no other than the legendary Wilt Chamberlain in his record-setting 1966-67 championship season. Anecdotally, both players wore jersey number 13.

After the game, Bryant learned of his historic feat and, with his timid baby face charm, quickly reacted to the news with a genuine smile and raw excitement that seemed to belong to that three-year old-kid from Rochester: “It’s a blessing. It tells me that I got more work to do.” Beating Wilt might be hard as it will require going 19-of-19, but Bryant is not the type of person to shy away from that challenge, or anything else in his way. It is only fitting that Wilt Chamberlain was once, exactly 60 years ago, a member of the Harlem Globetrotters.