Isiah Thomas Cheerfully Goes Back to School, Coaching
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Eleven games into his new career as the head coach of a small-time college basketball program in south Florida, Isiah Thomas remains undaunted. His team, Florida International University, has been forced to play small at a frenetic pace with plenty of ball screens because of injuries.
The Golden Panthers (3-8) went 1-1 in their recent trips to Florida's state capital, beating Florida A&M, 61-56, last Thursday night and doubling back here 48 hours later from their Miami campus and losing to Florida State, 82-62, Sunday.
Charismatic and handsomely dressed, Thomas remains a master of accentuating the positive. He readily admits his team, primarily a mesh of junior-college transfers and freshmen, is a work in progress. However, he likes what he's seeing and is genuinely having a good time watching his players grow and mature.
"I love it," Thomas said of college basketball.
"Basketball is basketball, but in the college game, it's a shorter game, 40 minutes. You can do a lot of things in the game, zone, matchups, traps that you could never do in the pro game. If this would have been a pro game, my team matched up against this (Florida State) team, you have no chance because the rules don't allow you to really have a chance."
While many in basketball circles wonder if FIU has a chance under Thomas, who landed in south Florida last fall with plenty of baggage, he certainly appears content away from the public glare and scrutiny.
Thomas received a nice ovation from FSU fans and he continually tweaked his mix-and-match lineup against a far superior Seminoles team.
Does his choirboy's smile, deep laugh and unwavering charm possibly suggest he's in a good place? Finally?
Since retiring as one of the NBA's greatest point guards, however, it's as if Thomas has been searching for something that he never seems to find.
After his playing career, punctuated by a pair of NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons, he was an executive with the Toronto Raptors, a television commentator, an executive with the Continental Basketball Association, head coach of the Indiana Pacers and an executive and head coach for the New York Knicks.
Of course, his tenure with the Knicks ended badly with his dismissal in April 2008.
In Thomas' return to the New York commuter corridor on Nov. 13 against Monmouth, his transgressions had not been forgotten.
Thomas was booed when he strolled into the Multipurpose Activity Center and booed again during introductions.There were chants from the crowd about Thomas' sleeping-pill overdose last year, his 2007 sexual harassment trial and his newly exposed rift with Magic Johnson.
Not even Thomas' coaching debut against defending national champion North Carolina was without stress. His mother, Mary, who is 86, had a heart attack at her home in Chicago two days prior to the game and she underwent successful heart surgery the morning of the game.
Thomas, who spent that weekend shuttling between Miami, Chicago and Chapel Hill, N.C., said his mother told him "to go to work."
That's what he has been doing, and says he's enjoying it. FSU point guard Luke Loucks enjoyed the opportunity to see Thomas up-close and personal.
"Watching the [NBA] classic games with him, Magic and (John) Stockton and hearing about those guys, he's one of the best point guards of all time so it was pretty neat to see him on the sidelines," Loucks said.
"You could tell why he recruited some of the kids he did, they can all dribble real well, they are all quick and fast like he was. I am sure he will do good things after a few years of recruiting there. They did a lot of ball-screen stuff. They don't have that size you need for a major program but their guards are very talented."
Thomas has talked about how he's always wanted to coach college basketball, about how taking a job in the Sun Belt Conference was about a challenge, not a choice or a last stop to resurrect his career.
Thomas signed a five-year deal in April to coach a team that has had nine consecutive losing seasons.
Thomas' tallest starter against FSU was 6-foot-5, and his bench isn't deep -- only seven players played double-digit minutes. Yet, he remains a powerful draw to young players.
"I'm going to learn everything he has to teach me," said guard Marvin Roberts, who wears Thomas' jersey No. 11 and had a team-high 18 points against the Seminoles.
Thomas earned his first victory Nov. 17, when the Panthers beat Florida Memorial, 88-82. In the midst of an eight-game road swing, FIU is at Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday.
Thomas remains upbeat and enamored with the college game.
"We're a work in progress," Thomas said. "We have a lot of work to do. And the goal for us is try to be a good basketball team come January.
"The great thing about college is the rules allows for the upset, allows for the Cinderella story, allows for us to compete and be in a game like this [against FSU], matched up against a team that is clearly better than you, more athletic than you, more talented than you.
"You have a chance, because of the rules, with zones and everything else, that help you. The college game levels the playing field more than the pro game. The pro game, that guy who is better than you, he's going to do it to you most nights."