Bob Knight still remembers exactly what Isiah Thomas said to him the moment Thomas signed an Indiana letter of intent two years ago.
"It was the first day he could sign and I was at his house at 8 o'clock in the morning," Knight said. "Isiah signed, then he turned to me and said, 'See, Coach, I told you all along I was going to go to Indiana.'"
Knight learned a lesson from that experience: if Isiah Thomas says something is going to happen, it usually does. "When he tell me we're going to play well I don't worry," Knight said. "He's usually right."
Thomas has always been an exceptional player. Gene Pingatore, who coached him at St. Joseph's high school in the Chicago suburb of Westchester, remembers seeing him play for the first time when Thomas was in the eighth grade. The coach got so excited that he told all his friends he was going to be one of the greats.
Joey Meyer, a De Paul assistant coach and chief recruiter, first saw Thomas when he was in ninth grade. "You just knew," Meyer said. "It wasn't just the talent. It was the flair."
Pingatore calls it charisma. Thomas has it. Not quite in the bubbly Magic Johnson style, but in a more subtle way.
It starts with a smile. At age 19 Thomas is still blessed with a baby face. He has wide brown eyes that light up when he smiles. And Thomas can light up a 17,000-seat gym and his smile as quickly as he can electrify it with his ball-handling.
On the court he radiates confidence. His peripheral vision keeps him a half-step (or more) ahead of everyone else.His quickness leaves opponents in his wake.
Off the court it is different. Because so much has been expected of him for so long, he hesitates to talk about his talent. Suddenly, he is 19 again. His voice is soft, his answers measured. He would rather not be treated as the superstar. The role makes him uncomfortable.
Unlike those who watch him play and those who have chronicled his every move since he became a high school all-America as a junior, Thomas is keenly aware of his own limitations. He likely will turn down a chance to turn professional next season because he knows his outside shooting needs work and because he is interested in an Indiana degree.
His big worry prior to the Mideast regional last week was his midterm exams. "I didn't fail," he said when asked how he had done. Actually, he is more comfortable talking about a forensics class. There, he is just another sophomore. On a basketball court, he has already reached that level where people refer to him simply by nickname or first name only. The Doctor. Magic. Kareem. Ralph. Isiah.
But . . .
"This isn't my team or anything like that," he said. "This is the coach's team, the seniors' team and partly, everyone's team. But it isn't my team. I'm supposed to be the leader because I have the ball. I have to give directions. That's my job out there."
Convincing Thomas that his job is to give directions, or orders, if you will, has been one of Knight's major projects this season.In fact, convincing Thomas to simply be Thomas has been a Knight project.
"Isiah has had the green light from Knight ever since he got to Indiana," Pingatore said. "But in his mind he hasn't. He had to realize that Knight wanted him to do these things, that Knight had confidence in him. I think the best thing that's happened to him this season is finding out that Knight really does want him in control out there.
"It's always been hard for him because he's so good. When he was a sophomore in high school all the other starters were seniors. I wanted him in control, but he wasn't sure he should be. It took a while for him to understand that for the team to be successful he had to be the boss.
"That's a tough thing for him. What other people think is very important to him. When he was a senior in high school and was an all-America he would come into my office and say, 'Have I changed? Am I okay? Am I still the same person?' It's the same way now."
Now, on a team that starts a senior, three juniors and Thomas, the most precocious sophomore in the country, the sophomore has become the symbol. He is the man who makes Indiana go. Where he goes, the Hoosiers follow.getting in Knight, so the tantrums didn't disturb him that much.
"When you come to college, a program like this, there's a tendency to think you can get away with the same things you did in high school," Thomas said. "You can't, though. Now, you're against the best of the best and you have to be more disciplined.
"It can be hard to understand that, though. One thing Coach does well is make you understand you aren't in high school anymore. You aren't the big star. You are among stars. You are just one of 14."
Thomas isn't just one of 14, though. He knows it, but won't say it. Knight knows it and wants to be sure Thomas knows it. When Indiana plays LSU Saturday in the first national semifinal game in Philadelphia, the Hoosiers will depend largely on Thomas.
Knight, whose shrewdness if often forgotten amid the commotion surrounding his coaching talent and his personality, knew prior to the start of this season that Thomas had to be his boss on the court. He also knew that the other players had to believe Thomas was doing it Knight's way, although he planned to give Thomas more freedom than any other guard he has ever had.
To give the illusion that he was bullying Thomas, Knight tossed him out of practice a couple of times, at least once doing so with enough accompanying screaming and cursing that a sailor might have blushed.
Thomas took it all, played tentatively in December, then gradually took over. He knew when he chose Indiana what he was specifically, on his ability to control the flow of the game.
"He's got to be the one who sets the pace for us," Knight said. "When he goes, this team goes. That doesn't mean he doesn't need the other guys, because he does. But we need him clicking."
For the last six weeks, Thomas has clicked. He finished Indiana's 21-9 regular season averaging 15.7 points and 5.1 assists a game and shooting 55 percent from the floor. In three tournament games he has averaged 14 points and 11.3 assists a game. He has committed only seven turnovers. All this after a 7.5 December that had people wondering if Thomas might have been overrated.
"In the back of our minds coming out of December we knew we were much better than we had showed," Thomas said. "The important thing was for us to go out in practice every day knowing we still had a lot of work to do to reach our potential."
Now, that potential is being approached -- "We can still play better," Thomas says -- largely because Thomas is telling the world that Knight is completely in command. Knight, meanwhile, winks and whispers that Isiah is on his own out there.
Last week, someone told Knight that Thomas had said to ask the coach how he deflates players' egos.
"Just because Isiah said to ask me doesn't mean I have to answer you," Knight said. "Of course there are a lot of things Isiah tells me to do that I do."
Everyone laughed. Knight just smiled. He always smiles at the truth.