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."
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.
After his sophomore year, Thomas entered the 1981 NBA draft. The Detroit Pistons picked the point guard second overall. In his first season as playmaker, the team posted an 18-game turnaround. The 19-year-old led the squad in assists and steals, while averaging 17 points per game. He was named to the NBA all-rookie team and participated in the first of 12 consecutive NBA All-Star games.
Thomas steered the Motor City Bad Boys against the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls, and the Los Angeles Lakers for NBA supremacy. He reached his zenith in 1989 and 1990, when the Pistons won back-to-back championships.
During that time, Thomas set a record by averaging 13.9 assists per game. He was selected to the all-NBA first team three consecutive seasons and was named most valuable player in the 1984 and 1986 All-Star games.
Four years later, he retired after tearing his Achilles' tendon. He left having scored 18,882 points, dished out 9,061 assists, and claimed 1,861 steals — all Pistons records. The team retired his number 11 in 1995, and in 2000, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. "I like what I've accomplished," Thomas says unabashedly. "I'm happy that I've been able to make a career out of basketball."
As a player, Thomas was known for an electric smile and effortlessly upbeat attitude. As an executive, he has had a rougher go. In 1994, he became part owner and executive vice president of the expansion Toronto Raptors. Four years later, he left the club after a dispute with partners over the franchise's direction. He set his sights on the upstart Continental Basketball Association, a league that developed players for the NBA and had 12 teams.
In 1999, Thomas bought the CBA for $10 million. A year later, the NBA offered to buy the league for $11 million and a percentage of the profit. The former Pistons star passed.
When he accepted the head-coaching job with the NBA's Indiana Pacers in June 2000, Thomas transferred the CBA's ownership to a blind trust. Suddenly directionless and faceless, the league lost attendance, and in 2001, it folded with more than $2 million in debt. Clay Moser, former president and general manager of the Idaho Stampede, later groused, "The league was doing fine before [Thomas] got here. In a matter of 18 months, he ran it into the ground."
Thomas's tenure with the Pacers also went poorly. Although he brought in talent such as (now Miami Heat) center Jermaine O'Neal, (now Los Angeles Lakers) forward Ron Artest, and (now Memphis Grizzlies) point guard Jamaal Tinsley, the team lost in the first round of the playoffs each of three seasons. In 2003, NBA legend Larry Bird took over and canned Thomas.
Next the Knicks hired him as president of basketball operations. He brought in former Pistons coach Larry Brown and traded draft picks for Chicago Bulls center Eddy Curry. Soon he was overseeing the team with the NBA's highest payroll and second-worst record. In 2006, owner Jack Dolan fired Brown and named Thomas coach.
Then came perhaps the worst moment in his life. In January 2006, with the Knicks in the cellar, Anucha Browne Sanders, who had been fired as vice president of marketing days earlier, sued Thomas, the team, and Madison Square Garden. Her claim: The 12-time NBA All-Star had sexually harassed her. He referred to her as a "bitch," "ho," and "motherfucker," according to the suit. And he made inappropriate sexual advances. Her complaints to Knicks management were ignored, she claimed.
"He felt like he needed to conquer me," Browne Sanders told Essence. "And if he wasn't going to conquer me, he was going to destroy me."
On October 2, 2007, a Manhattan jury of four women and three men held Thomas and Madison Square Garden responsible for the sexual harassment. Damages came to $11 million, and Thomas was canned April 16, 2008. The following day, the New York Post ran this headline: "Finally! It's the End of an Error: Isiah Booted From Bench."
Today, he denies the allegations. "That trial was a real pain," he says, even refusing to acknowledge the jury's verdict. "I was found not guilty," Thomas insists, "but it is never written that way."
The hard fall took a mighty toll on Thomas, who on October 24, 2008, was treated for overdosing on sleeping pills. Bizarrely, he claimed his teenage daughter had been taken to the hospital, which prompted Harrison, New York's police chief, David Hall, to tell the Associated Press: "He is lying... These people should learn something from Richard Nixon — it's not the crime, it's the coverup."
But just a couple of months later, Thomas ran into FIU athletic director Pete Garcia during halftime of the 2009 Orange Bowl in Miami. The tall, salt-and-pepper-haired Cuban-American had cut his teeth during two stints as an assistant athletic director at the University of Miami and as a Cleveland Browns executive. FIU's former president Modesto Maidique hired Garcia in 2006.
Garcia was bothered by the fact that the team had endured five consecutive losing seasons, and he was seeking a change. He recalls he was acquainted with Thomas through mutual friends in the NFL.
"We exchanged numbers," Garcia says. "About a week or so later, I called Isiah up. I asked him if he would be interested in building his own program."
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.
After a recent practice in the gym, Watson and Gary hang out near the entrance to the men's restroom at FIU arena. The juniors say Thomas was the sole reason they came to FIU. His blue practice jersey soaked in sweat, Gary talks about the day his idol came looking for him. "It was the week after my birthday," he says. "Coach Thomas called me and asked if I wanted to play for him. It was the easiest decision I ever made."
Watson, a jovial Raleigh, North Carolina native who weighs 200 pounds, says he passed up the University of Memphis to come to Miami. "I couldn't play for a better coach," Watson asserts. "He convinced me to come to FIU by being real with me. He didn't promise me anything except that he's going to push me hard to get me to the next level."
Miro drives aggressively to the basket with 5:07 left in the first period of FIU's January 21 match against Arkansas State University, the top-seeded team in the Sun Belt's West Division. The Red Wolves boast a 6-2 conference record (11-8 overall). The hazel-eyed Boricua baller is fouled hard as his layup drops through the net. He calmly sinks the free throw to extend the Golden Panthers' lead to 25-20. A jumper by senior forward Marlon Bright, a Martin, Tennessee native, puts FIU up by seven.
Then the game begins to unravel. The Red Wolves pull off a 13-4 run that gives Arkansas State the lead. A frustrated Thomas storms over to the FIU bench and slams the heel of his shoe on a chair. He appears angry with 6-foot-1 guard Tremayne Russell, a Savannah native, who attempted a no-look pass that the Red Wolves stole and converted into points. "That shit doesn't work," Thomas hisses. "Damn it!"
The first half ends with Arkansas State up by two points. Things only get worse. FIU ends up losing by 15. And less than 100 people attended the game. In fact, FIU's home attendance is definitely not a good recruiting tool. According to information the school provided, the Golden Panthers have sold a total of 1,075 individual tickets for nine home games played between this past November 17 and January 23. But the school has seen a boost in season ticket sales from last year's 207 to this year's 507.
That is nevertheless an abysmal turnout for a university that spent $5 million to renovate the 23-year-old on-campus arena, installing a state-of-the-art public address system and courtside seats. The hiring of Thomas was supposed to give the school a boost in attendance, but it hasn't turned out that way. In fact, bringing in the disgraced ex-Knicks boss is beginning to look like a sign of desperation from a university that has struggled to validate its investment in competing in big-time college athletics.
In 2008, FIU opened its new on-site football stadium, with $50 million ($35 million in public money) spent on upgrades including 20,000 seats, 1,400 club seats, and 50 club suites and a clubhouse for big-money season ticketholders. Shortly before the beginning of the 2008 football season, athletic director Pete Garcia boasted the stadium would be "the crown jewel for the entire FIU community."
Then-President Modesto Maidique championed it as a way for FIU to make its mark on collegiate athletics. The same year the stadium opened, the school faced a $32 million budget shortfall, laid off about 200 employees, shut down several academic centers, eliminated 23 degree programs, and raised tuition by 6 percent.
What's more, the football team finished 5-7 in 2008 and went 3-9 last year. For the stadium's inaugural season, FIU sold 6,651 season tickets. Last year, that number dropped to 2,435.
Floundering finances and a moribund athletic program might have factored into the university's decision to take a chance on Thomas. But it is pretty clear from the basketball team's record that he has not yet galvanized the Golden Panther nation.
FIU finance professor John Zdanowicz says investing in athletics would make sense if university sports teams were competitive. "If our athletic program were as lucrative as the University of Florida's, then it would be a good investment," he says. "[UF] makes a big rate of return from football and men's basketball."
Of course, FIU athletic boosters say it will take more than one year of Isiah Thomas at the helm to build a winning program and thriving fan base. Alberto Padron, director of integrated marketing for Miami-based ad firm Zubi Advertising, graduated with a bachelor's degree in public administration from FIU in 1998. Last year, he earned a master's in business administration. "We are just beginning to lay down the foundation," he says.
Padron is exactly the type of booster FIU needs on the front lines. He is enthusiastic but also admits the athletic program still has not attracted the type of support it needs. "When you are further removed from FIU, it is easy to draw that conclusion," Padron says. "But we all knew that this was a transition year for men's basketball. Let's wait and see what Isiah does next year."
Padron's pal Julian Kasdin, a 24-year-old who graduated with a history degree in 2007, has more tempered expectations. "One of the problems with being a commuter school is that you don't have that sense of community you find at more traditional universities like Florida State and the University of Florida," he says. "A lot of alums don't understand that to be competitive in sports, you have to show up for games and you have to raise money."
Kasdin says to attract alumni to support the athletic program, especially men's basketball, boosters need to be more honest. "Overall, hiring Isiah Thomas was a good move by the university," he says. "He is bringing quality players, and he knows how to develop talent. You have to take this season for what it is. Obviously, it would be great if we were winning."
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Three days after losing to Arkansas State, FIU demolishes the University of Arkansas-Little Rock — a team that is 1-8 in Sun Belt Conference play — 96-81. After the game, Thomas, customarily dressed in an understated navy two-piece suit, enters the media room. The only reporters present are Miami Herald FIU sports beat writer Pete Pelegrin, two editors from the student newspaper, and a Miami New Times staff writer. The smattering of scribes bears little resemblance to the hostile hordes Thomas faced in New York.
Although the first year has been a dud, Thomas says, he is confident next season will pay off. He notes that Alex Legion, a highly touted former Parade All-American shooting guard, will soon arrive as a transfer from the University of Illinois. And he has secured a commitment from high school All-American Dominique Ferguson, who passed up offers from high-caliber basketball programs at Kentucky, UF, Duke, and the University of Connecticut.
"We have had a lot of success on the recruiting trail," Thomas says. Then he adds, with a touch of the same optimism that once motivated the Pistons: "That has been a huge plus. If you get the players, the people will come."