Isiah Thomas struggles to reshape FIU hoops

Round leather bounces on maple wood flooring, and the sound echoes through the cavernous arena. The Florida International University Golden Panthers are taking on the University of South Alabama Jaguars.

FIU is erratic. On one play, a pass intended for power forward Marlon Bright goes through his legs and out of bounds. Then Bright heaves a pass that sails over guard Antoine Watson and into the bleachers' third row. The Panthers follow with a shot clock violation, and an argument ensues.

Head coach Isiah Thomas paces the sideline before the scorer's table. Decked out in a navy suit, powder-blue dress shirt, blue tie, and shiny black loafers, he scolds Watson for bickering with the ref. "Antoine!" he barks. "No more talking!"

Behind the home team's basket, the Golden Dazzlers, FIU's female dance squad, shimmy to a bass-heavy Sean Paul track. Empty blue seats outnumber Golden Panthers fans 50 to 1.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Thomas was christened the school's basketball savior last April after being dismissed as president and head coach of the New York Knicks in 2008. But in the first three losing games of the Golden Panthers' season, the Hall of Famer's team was outscored 268-191. Its overall record stands at an abysmal 7-19. In the Sun Belt Conference, a middling group of unrated basketball teams, FIU is last in the East Division with a 4-9 tally.

Nor has Thomas's arrival led to a surge in alumni interest or cash. Although FIU has invested more than $55 million in building a new football stadium and upgrading the arena — while cutting back more than $32 million on academics — so far, there's nothing to show for it.

The gridiron Panthers had a dismal year, and the basketball team has averaged a paltry 120 attendees per home game this season. The arena seats 6,000.

Yet the opportunity to learn from one of the NBA's 50 greatest players is enough for Bright, Watson, their teammates, and a heralded incoming class of recruits to join a Division I team that has made only one appearance in the NCAA tournament during its 29 years.

Whether the program reverses course might depend on whether the tiny guard who piloted the Detroit Pistons' bad boys to two world championships has the will to do as a coach what he did as a player: Snatch victory from defeat.

On December 31, the Golden Panthers ended up losing 71-59 to the Jaguars. After the game, sitting at a table in the arena's media room, Thomas spoke in a soft voice to a handful of reporters about the lack of wins. "It's been frustrating," he admitted. "It has been a struggle for all of us."

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On a sunny Wednesday afternoon a week before the Golden Panthers open their 2009-10 season, Thomas sits at the head of a table inside the presidential suite at the school's glorious new football stadium. He's casually dressed in a white FIU T-shirt tucked into black shorts. He sports a wide grin while recounting his childhood in Chicago.

"Growing up, there was one snack we could always afford," he says. "When Batman would come on the television, followed by The Green Hornet with Bruce Lee, my mom would make us a big bowl of popcorn. Our family came together around that bowl."

Thomas is the youngest of nine brothers and sisters born to Mary Thomas, whose life was depicted in the TV movie A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story. She died this past January at the age of 87, three months after undergoing open-heart surgery.

Mary Thomas struggled to provide for her brood. The refrigerator was so bare that, as a child, Thomas would pick up discarded food wrappers off the street and devour the scraps. He shined shoes for money and scoured the pavement for loose change. His boyhood dreams were about owning a well-stocked fridge.

Thomas and his brothers saw basketball as the ticket to alleviating the constant, gnawing hunger. His brother Larry took him to the basketball court at Gladys Park near Chicago's Eisenhower Expressway every day and drilled him on fundamentals. In the eighth grade, his skills impressed Gene Pingatore, then-head basketball coach at Westchester, Illinois's St. Joseph High, a suburban, all-boys prep school. Pingatore secured financial aid.

On school days, Thomas would wake up at 5:30 a.m. for his 90-minute commute. During his junior and senior years, Thomas led the Chargers to a 57-5 record. The squad finished second in the 1977-78 Illinois state high school championship tournament.

In 1979, he was a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the Pan American Games.

That fall, he enrolled at Indiana University, where iconic coach Bobby Knight gave him a scholarship. Thomas averaged 14.6 points and 5.5 assists a game during his freshman year with the Hoosiers. In 1980, he was selected to play on the national Olympic team, but a U.S. boycott of the Moscow games denied him the experience.

While attending Indiana, Thomas met Lynn Kendall, the daughter of a Secret Service agent and a nurse from Westchester. In summer 1980, he drove his sweetheart to Bloomington under the pretext of attending basketball practice. Instead, he proposed to her on the steps of the campus library where they had met. They married in 1985. Today, Lynn and Isiah have two grown children: 22-year-old Joshua and 19-year-old Lauren. He also has a 23-year-old son from a liaison before he married Lynn.

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