Isiah Thomas Has New Hoop Dreams at FIU
MIAMI - On the sun-soaked campus of Florida International University, Isiah Thomas is a world away from the troubles of his past.
Here, he's the Hall of Fame basketball player who led the Detroit Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990 - the big name who, after a series of public missteps, has arrived to coach FIU's decidedly small-time basketball program. In the process, Thomas, 48, is seeking to build a sports legacy - and remove some of the tarnish from a career that in recent years has been as rough off the court as it was successful on it.
Here, the bad times seem distant: his failed attempt at running the Continental Basketball Association, his 4 1/2 years in the New York Knicks' front office - which included battles with players, losing records and sexual harassment accusations against him - and last fall's accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
As FIU begins practice Saturday for the 2009-10 season, Thomas will set out to rebuild his reputation and rejuvenate a squad that went 13-20 last season. Outside the Sun Belt Conference, this was a little-known school - until Thomas was hired - that averaged 681 fans for home games last season.
"My goal is to one day build a top-25 program," he says in an interview with USA TODAY.
In Division I basketball, there are three tiers of schools: high-major, mid-major and low-major. FIU, which opened its doors in 1972, has never climbed out of the basement save for its lone NCAA tournament appearance in 1995.
"I like getting my hands dirty," Thomas says. "I've never taken an easy job. If you were to apply business terminology, I'm into start-ups and turnarounds. This is a program that is very young and really hasn't established itself. But it has a major opportunity."
He will try to do at FIU what he failed to do as president and later coach of the Knicks: win.
"My one regret about New York was they never got to see me at my best, because there was so much other stuff going on," he says.
While he was with the Knicks in September 2007, a federal jury determined that he sexually harassed former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders, though Thomas was not held liable for any of the $11.6 million in punitive damages awarded her. Madison Square Garden, which owns the Knicks, was held financially responsible for creating a hostile work environment and firing her unfairly. Thomas still vehemently denies wrongdoing.
The case took its toll. Thomas went on to coach the Knicks as they tied a franchise record with 59 losses, his last of two seasons as coach before being reassigned as a consultant.
In October 2008, he was hospitalized for several hours after accidentally overdosing on sleeping pills. Thomas says a year of sleepless nights over the lawsuit combined with the Knicks' struggles led him to turn to sleep medicine. When one pill didn't suffice, he took more. He doesn't say how many.
"If you put anybody in that position and you send them through what I went through in that year, if they tell you they're sleeping well they're lying," he says.
His experience in New York - and the scrutiny he was under in the country's No. 1 media market - has left him more guarded.
"Ask me any tough question you can think of," Thomas says, but getting to him can be difficult. He hired a New York publicist to screen interview requests, and Thomas' interview with USA TODAY was conducted with FIU spokesman Richard Kelch standing a few feet away.
"We've had some bad experiences," Thomas says.
'You should take the job'
His mentors, Thomas says, encouraged him to take the plunge into the college game. The advisers included former Pistons coach Chuck Daly, who died from cancer about a month after Thomas took the FIU job in April.
He also turned to Bob Knight, the coach he played for at Indiana when the Hoosiers won the 1981 NCAA championship, as well as St. Joseph High School coach Gene Pingatore, whose team has a distinguished record in the Chicago suburb of Westchester, where Thomas once commuted 90 minutes each way by bus to escape his crime-ridden neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.
Longtime friend Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke and U.S. Olympic coach, gave moral support.
"I was getting great advice from all of them," Thomas says. "They were all saying, 'You should take the job.' They thought I would be good at it, and they thought the change in atmosphere would be good for me. They've all been right."
Pingatore says coaching at FIU, where expectations have long been modest, allows Thomas to work without pressure. Thomas will be successful because "besides the fact that he'll be a great coach, his background will allow him to be a tremendous recruiter," Pingatore predicts.
Thomas can connect with teenagers who grew up destitute as he did, Pingatore says, and with those who have NBA dreams.
"NBA players, we don't have trouble getting in people's living rooms, but you still have to close the deal," says Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who spent two seasons coaching at his alma mater, Houston, before stepping down in 2000 to spend more time with his family.
Thomas has secured a commitment from highly regarded high school senior Dominique Ferguson of Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va. He has searched the country for high-caliber players who in the past were out of FIU's reach.
"He's proving he can recruit at the highest level and against the top teams in the country and win," says FIU athletics director Pete Garcia, a longtime friend to Thomas who, after initially bouncing ideas off Thomas on how to improve FIU's program, pursued him for the job.
Asked whether the sexual harassment suit gave him pause on hiring Thomas, Garcia says: "I was asked in a press conference, 'How much research did you do?' Well, we did some, but I didn't have to do as much because it was like, 'I'm hiring someone I know.' "
The hire was made under former FIU President Modesto A. Maidique; current President Mark Rosenberg says he hasn't questioned it.
"I understand that we did the due diligence" researching the lawsuit, he says. "We did the assessments and we didn't pause once we did the assessments. I'm satisfied my predecessors did the right thing for FIU. Now that I have met Mr. Thomas and understand what his passions and commitments are, I understand the fit and I feel very good."
Thomas, who signed a five-year deal worth $1.25 million, wanted to show he didn't take this post for the money and donated his first year's pay (about $250,000) to the school.
Thomas has the school's compliance office next to his office and available on his phone's speed dial, should he have questions about the intricacies of NCAA rules, Garcia says.
FIU and Thomas attracted some negative publicity last summer by threatening to pull out of a tournament benefiting cancer research when organizers scheduled defending national champion North Carolina for FIU's opener. The school had been promised it would play Ohio State, Garcia says. Thomas had made plans for a reunion with friends from St. Joseph who would also be on hand to support Ohio State standout Evan Turner, a St. Joseph graduate like Thomas.
Thomas and Garcia say they were taken aback when North Carolina released its schedule with FIU on it. Garcia raised a fuss, but Thomas was depicted by some media outlets as a poor sport for complaining. The North Carolina game will be played.
Often under fire
Thomas has been under fire since his playing days. His Pistons teams were celebrated as the Bad Boys of the NBA for their unrelenting physical play, which Thomas says was eventually wrongly cast by critics as "criminal behavior."
He was skewered for not shaking hands with Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan after a game in 1991,@ which Thomas says stunned him. He says a few years earlier, almost every Boston Celtics starter had walked off the court without extending a hand to him after a Pistons win.
"That's how the torch was passed to the Pistons," he says.
There's also the supposed freeze-out of Jordan at the 1985 NBA All-Star Game, in which Thomas supposedly led an effort to keep Jordan, then a rookie and an All-Star teammate, from getting shots.
There was no freeze-out, Thomas says, adding that Jordan's agent, David Falk, started the rumor. "I should take that back," he says. "(Falk) sure as hell fanned it."
Falk scoffs at that. "The Chicago media promoted it because it was painfully obvious," he says.
Thomas says he drew ire from players' agents while president of the NBA Players' Association because he led the drive to limit agent commissions to 4% on player contracts.
"I've saved Jordan more money by that one rule than Falk has ever saved him," he says.
Falk disagrees, saying he had been charging players less than 4% and that the setting of the rate allowed him to raise fees.
Those early controversies were a prelude to Thomas' problems as an executive. Yet some believe Thomas gets a bad rap for his actions in management.
Sam Smith, a writer who covered the NBA for 25 years for the Chicago Tribune and wrote the book The Jordan Rules, notes that Thomas' contemporaries, among them Jordan and the Celtics' Kevin McHale, have been unsuccessful in managing NBA teams.
But it's Thomas who "has a scarlet letter around him," Smith says. Aside from New York, Thomas doesn't understand why many view his off-the-court work as failures.
Thomas' first stint in management was as general manager and vice president of the Toronto Raptors in 1994. He left four years later after a group he led was unable to buy the team.
Thomas points out he signed key players such as Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. Toronto made the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2001, losing in seven games to the Philadelphia 76ers. "How that got turned into a failure I don't know," he says.
He coached the Indiana Pacers from 2000 to 2003, making the playoffs three years in a row, but was fired after one-time rival Larry Bird became president. Had he been allowed to stay, Thomas believes he would have won an NBA championship.
"That one hurt because you basically got fired for personal reasons," he says. "That was a really special team."
To coach the Pacers, Thomas had to relinquish his ownership of the CBA, which he had from 1998 to 2000. The NBA ruled that dealings with both leagues would be a conflict of interest. Thomas tried to fight the NBA, but he ultimately put the CBA in a blind trust and it folded.
"It just died a natural death," he says.
Thomas was criticized heavily for failing to sell the league to the NBA when he had the chance. The CBA since has been resurrected under new ownership but continues to struggle.
His willingness to dump the CBA for a chance to get back in the NBA raises questions about whether he could do it again, with FIU the casualty this time. What would Thomas do if a more attractive job opened?
Garcia isn't worried. He thinks Thomas wants to leave a legacy at FIU the way Knight did at Indiana and Krzyzewski has at Duke.
"They built those programs . . . from nothing," Garcia says. "Isiah's legacy in the basketball world is still to be continued. He sees what he can do here, building from scratch. And this will be Isiah Thomas' program. There's no doubt about it."