Shortly before 7:30 p.m. last night, a sparse crowd gathered outside the entrance to the freshly renovated $5 million U.S. Century Bank Arena at Florida International University's south campus.
A bald man with a goatee wearing a navy blue FIU t-shirt talking to three other Golden Panthers fans relayed the latest controversy involving the school's new celebrity head basketball coach Isiah Thomas. "Yeah Magic Johnson trashed him in his new book," the FIU alum explained. "But Isiah came back swinging in an article by Sports Illustrated."
Soon, the man and his pals joined 50 other alumni and students inside the Golden Panthers' home gym to meet the Hall of Fame point guard whose recent history made him the perennial Bad Boy of Roundball, a role Thomas eloquently enjoyed when he led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back world titles in 1989 and 1990.
Near midcourt, Thomas signed autographs and posed for pictures with
kids before addressing the crowd about what to expect from the FIU
Golden Panthers this year - a team that has produced five losing
seasons in a row. Dressed in a white FIU shirt tucked into black
shorts, Thomas informed the audience: "We may be small, undermanned,
but we will be scrappy. There won't be a harder working team in college
basketball this year than FIU."
Thomas, who waived his first year's pay from his $1.2 million five-year
salary, admitted to the fans he didn't know much about FIU when Athletic
Director Pete Garcia invited him to tour the campus earlier this year.
"When I came down for my first visit," he said, "I thought I would just
visit my friends in Miami, play some golf, pass by the school and then
leave. But when I got here and saw the new law building, the arena, the
new medical building going up, I said to myself: 'I could make this
Indeed, Thomas has already done a decent job adding good players like
Marvin Roberts, the nation's leading junior college scorer, and his
teammate Antoine Watson, who was fifth in scoring among JUCO players.
Roberts and Watson, who came from Redlands Community College in
Oklahoma, certainly appeared happy to be at FIU as they shimmy-shaked
to New Boyz's hip-hop ditty "You're a Jerk" blaring from the arena's
public address system.
"I can't play for a better coach," Watson asserted. I was about to sign
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with Memphis when he called me. He convinced me to come to FIU by
beaing 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."