Isiah gets mom's blessing to coach in FIU debut
On a night in which his 86-year-old mother was back home in Chicago fighting for her life, new Florida International coach Isiah Thomas took to the sidelines to kick off the college basketball campaign against the defending national champions.
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It couldn't get much worse for the NBA Hall of Famer, yet Thomas somehow managed to flash that trademark smile on Monday night even after an 88-72 loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels that wasn't quite as close as the score indicated.
"I love basketball," Thomas said shortly after walking off the floor. "I need it. This is what I do."
Thomas grew up on the west side of Chicago as the youngest of nine children raised by his mother.
After an illustrious playing career with the Detroit Pistons, Thomas has taken his share of criticism — some justified and some unwarranted.
He has been credited with ruining the CBA and also became the latest New York Knicks coach to fail.
"There have been a lot of talented, smart people to come through our organization," Thomas said, referring to the Knicks.
He then rattled off the names of Don Nelson, Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy — and himself.
"All of us tried to fix it, and we just haven't been able to," Thomas said.
Now, Thomas starts the latest chapter in his career.
He takes over a fledgling FIU program that hasn't had a winning season in nine years.
Thomas made FIU relevant the day he was hired and again on Monday night when he took his team into the Smith Center for their lone television appearance of the season.
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But his goal is for the program to make it onto the national map for its on-court performance — not just because of its high-profile coach.
"North Carolina showed us how champions are," Thomas said. "One day, we'd like to be champions."
That thought seems like a scene out of "Rudy," especially after a night watching his patchwork team, one that was put together in the 11th hour with a group of unheralded players — many of the junior-college variety. FIU was picked to finish dead last in the Sun Belt Conference.
"I like the way we battled," Thomas said. "We fought tonight."
It may be the last you hear of Isiah this season, but he will make the Golden Panthers relevant. He's already received a commitment from one of the nation's top 50 seniors, Dominique Ferguson, and is certain to upgrade the talent level at FIU.
Isiah may not be hanging any national championship banners down in sunny Miami, but he may be challenging for the Sun Belt crown and a berth in the NCAA tournament sooner than many anticipated.
For the final 20 minutes of Monday night's game, Isiah's bunch battled the young and talented Tar Heels — a team full of McDonald's All-Americans — to a virtual draw.