SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Isaiah Thomas felt discouraged during the opening weeks of the 2011-12 NBA season. He was a rookie, and he was struggling to earn playing time with the Sacramento Kings. Doubt crept into his mind.
Thomas needed advice and a sympathetic ear.
He called Jameer Nelson in the middle of the night.
They endorsed the same shoe company, Reebok — and that's how they met — but they shared a more fundamental bond. In a league that celebrates height, they are outsiders: players at or under 6 feet tall.
"What do I do?" Thomas asked.
"Keep grinding," Nelson responded. "The NBA is a business, and the NBA is all about opportunity. Once your opportunity comes, you've got to take it and run with it."
Thomas followed that advice, and he's now the Kings' starting point guard.
"I was humbled that he actually came to me and asked me for advice," Nelson said.
On Friday night, Thomas and Nelson will face each other for the second time this season. Thomas' Kings will host Nelson's Orlando Magic at Sleep Train Arena.
Nelson is listed as 6 feet tall.
Thomas is 5 feet 9.
Their height — or lack thereof — hurt their draft stock. In 2004, Nelson was selected 20th overall. In 2011, Thomas was chosen 60th overall, the last pick in the entire draft.
"My whole life they always said I wasn't going to make it," Thomas said. "They always said I'm not that good because I'm small. It's frustrating, because it's not about how tall you are, how big you are, how small you are.
"To this day," Thomas added, "I use that as motivation each and every game."
Thomas feels gratitude toward the small point guards who preceded him in the NBA: 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, 5-foot-6 Spud Webb and Nelson. Bogues and Webb each lasted over a decade in the league, while Nelson is in his 10th NBA season.
Asked how he'd describe Nelson, Thomas answered, "a guy that paved the way for me." When he was 14 years old and growing up in Tacoma, Wash., he watched Nelson as Nelson led St. Joseph's, a university in Philadelphia, to a 27-0 regular-season record.
"It's always good when you have somebody like Jameer do what he did and to be selected in the first round and to have the career he's had, because it helps younger guys like me," Thomas said.
Nelson and Thomas have played against each other three times, with Sacramento winning two of the three games. On Dec. 21, the Kings beat the Magic 105-100 at Amway Center as Thomas scored 23 points, collected five rebounds and dished out nine assists.
Michael Malone, the Kings' first-year head coach, has game-planned against Nelson for years, and he sees commonalities between Nelson and Thomas.
"They both have huge hearts," Malone said.
"I think Isaiah is a great story because he was the last pick in the draft and he's always had that against-the-world mentality. I think that's just the nature of a little man in a big man's business. So, you can never judge Isaiah by his height."
That, of course, is what Thomas and Nelson have wanted all along: to be judged as players by how they produce on the court, not by their size.
"It's almost a craft to be short," Nelson said. "We have to learn how to play at a high level amongst the giants. One thing we have to do is be crafty. We have to be smarter than somebody who's 6-5 and much more athletic."
That's good advice for any young, short point guard.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun