By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Back then, Thomas recalls, the only thing he knew about FIU is that the football team had participated in a nasty on-field brawl with UM in 2005. But he agreed to visit the campus. "I thought I was going to just come down to play some golf and see some old friends," Thomas says. "I wasn't serious. But when Pete drove me around the campus, it wasn't what I expected. I remember calling my wife and telling her I was thinking about taking the job."
When Thomas informed Garcia he was accepting his offer, the athletic director wasted no time reassigning Sergio Rouco, who had guided the Golden Panthers for five seasons.
Four days later, and one year after losing the Knicks gig, Thomas was introduced as FIU's new head coach before a throng of 500 reporters and FIU boosters at U.S. Century Bank Arena, a 6,000-seat oval arena the school opened in 1987. He was to be paid just shy of $1.2 million for five years. He even agreed to work for free his first year to offset school-wide budget cuts. Thomas was introduced by the school's then-provost, Ronald Berkman, who misidentified the new head coach as "Isiah Thompson."
But that didn't dampen Thomas's spirit. "This is an emerging university in an emerging city," he says. "I can see what the basketball program can be. If we can galvanize the fan and alumni base, then we can just ride the wave."
On a rare frosty evening this past January 7, only a handful of fans are scattered around the U.S. Century Bank Arena. The Golden Panthers are playing the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. Both teams sit at the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference. At 10:26 in the second period, the Warhawks cut the Golden Panthers' lead to one point.
The only sign of a home-court advantage comes from the second row behind the FIU bench, where Lissette Bonefont boisterously cheers for her son, Steven Miro, a freshman point guard making his first start for the Golden Panthers. "Let's go, FIU!" her voice rumbles. "Let's go, Steven! Con calma! Con calma!"
Her 18-year-old son, who wears number 33, walks to the team huddle and takes a spot next to his coach. Thomas crouches and draws a play on his clipboard. "The tougher guy always wins," he relays to Miro and his sour-looking teammates.
The lanky 6-foot-3 Miro smiles and nods in agreement and then leads his team on a 5-0 tear. He assists small forward Marvin Robert on a layup, hits a ten-foot jumper, and sinks a foul shot. His mother pumps her fist in the air. She turns to a spectator. "I've been to every home game this year," she says. "I let him know his mama is here for him no matter what."
A few weeks later, she sits on a beige sofa in the two-bedroom apartment on SW 22nd Avenue at 16th Street she rents for her son. Bonefont — whose husband, Miro's father, passed away last year — says her primary residence is in Puerto Rico. But the 47-year-old attorney and Miro live in Miami during the months he attends school. "He feels comfortable here," she says.
Then she pulls out a Miami Herald article from April 16, 2008, when Miro was named to the Class 3A All-State boys' basketball team. During his senior season at La Salle High, a private Catholic school in Coconut Grove, he was also voted student athlete of the year after finishing with a 4.0 grade point average and being named to the All Miami-Dade first team.
Miro, a dark-blond, well-mannered young man wearing a black New York Yankees cap to match his black tracksuit, leans against the sofa's armrest. "I was accepted into Harvard and Columbia," he says. "But I hate cold weather. And the distance was a problem for me too. Puerto Rico is only a two-hour plane ride from Miami."
So he opted to attend FIU. He joined the team as a walk-on last August. Despite competing with three top prospects for the point guard spot, Miro has earned his 20 minutes a game. "Steven has been playing really good basketball," Thomas says. "I like what I see in him. Every week, every practice, he develops into a better player."
Says Bonefont: "Steven is learning a lot from Coach Thomas. This is a good experience for him."
Bonefont says she has met Thomas once, following FIU's win over Louisiana-Monroe. The encounter, she says, lasted no longer than five minutes. "I didn't want to take up too much of his time," she explains. "I let him know how happy my son is to be coached by him."
Regarding the sexual harassment lawsuit, she says, "That doesn't bother me. He treats my son and all the players very good."
Others apparently feel the same way. At the end of last April, two weeks after being named head coach, Thomas signed four junior college players with substantial skills. They are 6-foot-3 guard Stephon Weaver, who led Connor State to the 2009 NJCAA Region II Championship; forward guard Marvin Roberts, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Redland Community College who was the NJCAA's leading scorer last season; 6-foot-4 guard Antoine Watson, another Redland Community College transfer who led the NJCAA in steals in 2008-09; and point guard Phil Gary Jr., a soft-spoken 5-foot-10 Chicago native who grew up playing ball with Bulls superstar Derrick Rose.