MIAMI — On a sunny morning last week, Isiah Thomas politely asked an undergraduate poring over a textbook whether she would mind sharing an aluminum picnic table outside Florida International University’s home arena. She assented without showing a hint of interest or recognition, an indication of how one of the biggest men on this college campus can feel like one of the most ordinary.
Thomas, the former NBA superstar, coach and team executive, slid onto the bench at the opposite side of the table as the undergrad returned to her studies. He flashed his famous grin and elaborated on the quiet good life he has found as a head basketball coach at this large commuter school in west Miami.
Yet as he ruminated in advance of Wednesday night’s game in College Park against Maryland, there was no mistaking this sentiment: Building a college basketball program is fun, but the NBA brings challenges that can be irresistible, at least to those incessant mountain-climbers with the genetic makeup of Isiah Lord Thomas III.
So even as he reveled in the joy of molding young collegians at this Sun Belt Conference school, Thomas refused to discourage the advances of potential NBA suitors, regardless of the criticism that posture might generate.
“Unfortunately, when you are honest, some people don’t like that,” Thomas said. “But really, who knows? The way I’ve lived my life is that wherever the universe takes me, I’m at. My job is to be physically and mentally prepared for whatever challenge lies ahead.”
Whether that challenge be coaching an NBA team or running its front office, Thomas believes, his résumé supports his competence and acumen — however vociferously fans of the New York Knicks, the team from which he was dismissed after a tumultuous five-year tenure in 2008, might disagree. Asked whether he would prefer to be courtside or behind a desk should an NBA team come calling, Thomas nudged the door open wide.
He said his executive record dating from his days at the Toronto Raptors spoke to his basketball know-how and was enhanced by the street savvy he gained growing up on the west side of Chicago, a hard-knocks upbringing that taught him to take punches and throw them back.
“I want to say that every player that I’ve drafted in the first round has either (A) made the playoffs, (B) won a championship or (C) been an all-star,” Thomas said, then started naming names: Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Tracy McGrady. Of course, there were also less-acclaimed Knicks picks such as Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins, who did not meet any of the criteria.
Thomas admitted he didn’t check off every goal during his tenure in New York, where his dismal record as coach and general manager concluded with a 23-59 mark in his last season. He said the worst part of his departure a year before signing a five-year deal at FIU in April 2009 was the unfinished business he left behind
“I’m the guy who looks at the mountain and says, ‘I want to climb that,’ ” he said. “To me, winning an NBA championship in New York is the biggest challenge in sports. It’s a challenge that I think people like me, who have that gene, want to take. But that’s not to say that’s the only challenge in play.”
Right now, the closest, most daunting mountain in Thomas’s line of sight is putting the Golden Panthers on the national basketball radar, preferably with an invitation to the NCAA tournament next March. At the moment, that particular mountain looms like Everest. FIU went 7-25 in his first season, 11-19 last year, and this season — despite a resonant 79-76 overtime upset victory over George Mason last month — the Golden Panthers are off to a 3-6 start.
“We’re doing all the things you need to do to become a legitimate program,” Thomas said. “In the 21 / 2 years I’ve been there, the changes have been dramatic and drastic, because the school is moving at kind of warp speed.”
That has been displayed not only in the hiring of Thomas, but also in the recent $5 million renovation of the 6,000-seat U.S. Century Bank Arena and the promising recruiting classes that Thomas has lured. The recruiting, he said, requires a night-and-day commitment to the job.
“I think we can have a pretty decent run in a couple of years,” Thomas said.
The only question: Will Thomas be around when that run occurs?
“He loves being down here and teaching us what he knows,” Wright said. “He still believes in us. He wants to build this program. I think he will be here . . . until we reach that goal.”