From the Ground Up
Isiah Thomas quietly building FIU’s hoops program.
Perhaps the most recurring question since Isiah signed with the Golden Panthers in April 2009: Is he staying or going?
According to many of the Golden Panther’s finest authorities, the furthest Isiah is going to go from the FIU campus is South Beach to “people watch” for the day. FIU’s Garcia weighs in: “They ask me the same thing about my football and baseball coaches whether they are staying or leaving,” Garcia says. “I would much rather have coaches that everyone wants than coaches that nobody wants.”
At the end of the day, only Isiah truly knows if he will stay in or fold at FIU. When asked about returning to the Garden last week on the WQAM’s Sid Rosenberg Show, Isiah vaguely replied with his vintage response: “Who knows?”
Every now and again, Isiah still finds a way to make some headlines by participating in an interview with ESPN, serving up a controversial comment that inevitably dominates the airwaves, or staging a megastar NBA All-Star pick-up game on the confines of his college team’s cozy 5,000-seat arena. These actions, whether intentional or spontaneous, elevate his stature as well as FIU’s to the national media forefront.
Recently, the Big Three—LeBron “King” James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—reached out to Isiah to host a star-studded charity basketball game at FIU. The game’s proceeds went toward the Mary Court Foundation, an educational-based charity for minorities, established in honor of Isiah’s late mother, Mary Thomas.
The game attracted such fan-fare, students camped outside of the arena the night before tickets went on sale for their chance to attend the event. The tickets were snatched up in two hours and some cost as much as $1,200. Isiah shrugged off the notion it was his star power among the elite NBA fraternity that tilted the game to FIU, a veritable marketing coup for a university, once known as a commuter school.
“Actually it was all these guys’ (The Big Three’s) idea. They wanted to do something here in Miami for their fans. I received a call from them asking me if I would be interested in hosting the game at FIU,” Isiah recollects. “They wanted to do something for charity and they wanted to do something for my mom to acknowledge her efforts.”
Isiah’s mom, Mary Thomas, who was portrayed in a the movie A Mother’s Courage, ran a youth center at a local church in West Chicago, where she spent a good part of her 87-year life helping people—whether it was intervening in a gang fight, providing food and clothing for the indigent, or just making sure her seven kids and 50 grandchildren took care of business in the classroom.
As far as Isiah’s squad this year, at first blush, the team appears to have mounting issues. The Golden Panthers have lost three starters representing 51 percent of their offense and will begin the season without prep standout freshman center Joey De La Rosa. The team’s star, DeJuan Wright, is currently rehabilitating a knee injury.
But there is also a glimmer of light flickering at the end of the tunnel. The Golden Panthers return a formidable trio, comprised of the team’s leading scorer and rebounder Wright, a.k.a “Flight 14,” 6-9 sophomore forward and former top-100 high school recruit Dominique Ferguson, and diminutive 5-9 sophomore point guard Phil Taylor, who continued to improve and provide court leadership as last season progressed.
Isiah also has other potential assets at his disposal that could deepen his arsenal—although they pose some unanswered questions:
Can bookend twin towers, 6-10 junior center Brandon Moore and 7-1 freshman center Gilles Dierickx, develop and learn to be effective inside the paint and off the glass?
Will 6-6 sophomore swingman Adetola Akomolafe provide immediate inside presence and bench depth, given the sudden departures of high scoring and talented journeymen Alex Legion and Eric Frederick?
Is the triumvirate of senior shooting guard Jeremy Allen, sophomore Richaud Pack and hot-shot freshman Tanner Wozniak adequate perimeter fire power?
Isiah, never short on critics, seems to receive the most plaudits from the people who know him the best, like two-time former Detroit Pistons NBA Champion and All-Star backcourt mate Joe Dumars.
“Isiah is doing a tremendous job at FIU and they’re real fortunate to have him leading the way,” says Dumars, currently the President of Basketball Operations for the Pistons. “His passion, knowledge and love for the game of basketball are infectious and his ability to teach the game will benefit each player that steps on the floor to play at FIU.”
FIU’s first test will take place on November 14, as they face NCAA post-season juggernaut and 2006 Final Four finalist George Mason, in the NIT Season Tip-Off.
At age 50, Isiah still possesses that charismatic smile he displayed time and time again in the winning locker room back in the glory days, after methodically eviscerating teams that passed through his cross-hairs with clutch late-game jump shots, Bonnie and Clyde-like game clinching thefts, and theatrical game-winning passes that would draw eyes from even Tom Brady. FIU hoop fans hope this will be the season Isiah instills some of this quality into the FIU basketball team.
Scott Brand has been authoring sports articles for over 25 years, specializing in NCAA men’s basketball as well as the NBA. Brand is performing consulting work for sports teams seeking to increase attendance.