MIAMI — A year ago, Isiah Thomas was asked more than a few times about how long he planned to remain coaching at Florida International.
The same question keeps coming these days, too.
He was hired as a consultant for the New York Knicks this past summer, even going as far as to help them try to recruit LeBron James during free agency. James ended up in Miami, of course, and a few weeks later Thomas essentially recommitted himself to the job he has in Miami as well by deciding to rescind his deal with the Knicks.
So the story ends there, right?
Oh, no. Not even remotely close.
Thomas’ future remains the source of incessant speculation, especially after he was quoted by outlets last week saying that he still dreams of one day running the Knicks. For now, here’s his answer: He likes FIU, believes he’s on the cusp of building a winner at FIU, and will be on the FIU sidelines Friday night when Year 2 of his reign with the Panthers begins against Florida Memorial.
“When the choice was presented, either be a consultant with the Knicks or stay at FIU, I chose to stay at FIU,” Thomas said. “Now, if you would have told me at the start of the summer, I probably would have bet you that I wouldn’t have made the choice to come back to FIU. But I like what we’re doing. I’m excited about what we’re building. I chose the kids, I chose FIU and I’m glad I did.”
The Thomas-Knicks remarriage seemed odd, given that from the time he started as their team president in December 2003 until his firing as general manager and coach in 2008, the Knicks never won a playoff game despite having one of the NBA’s highest payrolls.
Besides, there’s rules keeping those working for NBA clubs from having contact with players not eligible for the draft.
There’s no way Thomas could have bypassed that one if he tried to keep working for both the Knicks and at FIU, where he went 7-25 last season with a roster that had glaring holes; he got the job too late in the recruiting cycle to have a chance at fixing much of anything in his first season.
This time, there’s a little more reason for hope.
The roster looks different. Players are bigger, faster, more athletic. And the holdovers from last season now know what the Hall of Fame player expects.
More importantly, they also know how to deal with the attention FIU gets just by having Thomas around.
“Coach Thomas, that’s a big name,” guard Marvin Roberts said. “He put this team together. If the attention is going to be all on him, if this is going to be Coach Thomas and the Thomases, that’s no problem at all with us.”
Naturally, there are drawbacks to that attention.
It’s not difficult for other schools to recruit against FIU, simply by telling high school juniors and seniors who want to commit and play for Thomas that there’s no guarantee he’ll stay with the Panthers much longer. Thomas has already seen some highly rated recruits commit to FIU after hearing his sales pitch, then waver after the fact.
For his part, Thomas said he tells everyone the same thing, that he’s still a simple guy.
“As long as I’m in the gym, I’m fine,” Thomas said. “I like to ride the bike, I like to swim and I like to go to the gym. And I don’t care what city or state that’s in, if I’m allowed to do those three things, then I’m good, I’m at peace. I like what we’re building here.”
Even for someone with Thomas’ resume, last season was humbling.
FIU ended the season on a nine-game slide, went 4-14 in the Sun Belt, only had one winning streak — all of two games — and had a 3-15 record away from home. But there were signs of hope; even during that late-season slump, the Panthers had five straight games where the losing margin was either two, three or four points.
A play here, a play there, things could have been a little different. And with a year to recruit, Thomas thinks those close ones from a year ago may shift FIU’s way this time around.
“We have some tools that we can use within the course of the game,” Thomas said. “There’ll still be a lot of nights where you’re overmatched, but still, you do have some things that you can work with. Last year the thing we worked with was our grit, our desire, our perseverance. This year, grit, desire, perseverance — with some talent — can hopefully propel us to some new heights.”
In turn, it could possibly propel him back to the NBA.
Thomas won’t say the door to return to the professional ranks is closed. In an interview with The Associated Press, he insisted that not only is he trying to win at FIU right now, he’s still scouring the nation — particularly talent-rich Florida — for talent to win at FIU in the future as well.
“There are a lot of us coaching in college that I think the NBA will always flirt with,” Thomas said. “It’s not just me. Other coaches, they get offered the same opportunities. I think it’ll always be there.”
And his players aren’t bothered.
“I’m not worried about it,” Roberts said. “It’s a business. Business is business. If he took that job, I wouldn’t have been mad at him.”