Down in Florida, Thomas keeping his sunny side up
Isiah Thomas is comfortable with the rumors and speculation, content with those who believe his coaching stop at Florida International University is merely a respite until he interests an NBA team again.
The Hall of Famer won’t predict the future or make a long-term commitment to FIU. His taking the job was eye-raising news, considering he had never coached in college.
After being fired by the Knicks in 2008, Thomas was expected to embrace semi-retirement, perhaps pursue a television job and recharge his batteries. Instead, he accepted FIU’s offer to resuscitate a program with no tradition, its most famous alumnus being Celtics guard Carlos Arroyo.
The transformation is far from complete. The Panthers finished 11-19 this season, last in the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference. The upside is that Thomas has recruited five blue-chip prospects, but he will make no promises about taking the big step.
“Before I took the job I had a conversation, with Coach K [Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski], and he was talking about his first three years at Duke and how they were tough years in terms of building it,’’ said Thomas, who is 18-44 in two years at FIU. “And then Johnny Dawkins said yes. And when Johnny Dawkins came, everything changes for Duke.
“When you are trying to build a program, you only need one or two guys to say yes.
“There’s some kids looking to make their marks, and some kids looking to follow their own paths. We’ve been fortunate enough to grab some kids who have been untraditional. The mid-majors and the small schools bring a little-engine-that-could mentality.’’
The success of mid-majors such as Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, and Richmond is not lost on him. What’s more, Arkansas-Little Rock, which finished fifth in the Sun Belt West, won the conference tourney to reach the NCAA Tournament.
But as confident as Thomas was during a stellar playing career with Detroit and bumpy coaching tenures in Indiana and New York, he won’t make any promises.
There has been speculation that his relationship with Knicks chairman James Dolan would lead to a return to New York after a brief stint as a Knicks consultant. Thomas quickly dropped that title, but many believe he was offering advice to Dolan during the Carmelo Anthony trade discussions.
The university appears committed to Thomas, and he remains based in South Florida until further notice. It would give the school peace of mind if Thomas pledged a long-term commitment, but he won’t.
“You’ve got to remember, I’ve been on the public stage since I was 17 years old,’’ he said. “And basketball has its own journey in terms of where it takes you. No one really knows where you’ll end up tomorrow.
“I believe the universe places you where you need to be at that time. And all I can do is be physically, mentally, and educationally prepared for wherever the universe takes me. I’m prepared for the challenge.
“You try to do the best where you’re at, and when basketball takes you someplace else, that’s where you go. My journey is no different from any other coach’s or player’s journey. My journey is just speculated on a little bit more.’’
When asked if he would rule out a return to NBA coaching or management, he said, “In life, just like your mom taught you and my mom taught me, you never say never and you never burn bridges. You don’t know. You just don’t know.’’
Thomas historically has worked well with younger players; his history of developing talent such as Damon Stoudemire and Jermaine O’Neal is well-chronicled. The question is whether he can guide that talent to prolonged success.
He sets no goals and refrains from coachspeak. FIU is a long-term project.
“From my experiences in basketball, I don’t know too many programs that turn around in a year,’’ he said. “But we can get lucky.
“Trying to win championships is a lot of dirty work. You have to roll up your sleeves and you got to be in it for the long haul. I remember when I was [in Boston] with the Knicks and we had Boston down by 30 in their building and everybody was hollering, ‘Fire Doc, fire Doc,’ and the next year you get [Kevin] Garnett and [Ray] Allen and you win the championship. It’s a funny business, basketball.’’
Thomas has remained somewhat of a recluse after turbulent times that included an $11.6 million sexual harassment suit levied by a Knicks employee in 2006 and an accidental overdose of a sleeping medication in October 2008.
For now, Thomas said, he is content. Life has calmed down, but he was someone who thrived in the spotlight during his playing days, and may be lured back by the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong. He appears to be waiting for the right time.
“I’m good,’’ he said. “I got a refrigerator full of food, I got a car that I can drive, and I can pay my bills.
“I’m still alive. And a kid from the West Side [of Chicago] . . . I was supposed to be dead a long time ago. I’m all right.’’
He had served a 10-game suspension for the use of a performance-enhancing drug, gotten into a fight with teammate Tony Allen over an in-flight card game, and has never fit comfortably into the Grizzlies’ system. Once a third overall pick, Mayo has seen his scoring average dip each of his three seasons.
Funny how fortunes change. Grizzlies star swingman Rudy Gay suffered a separated shoulder that will cost him the rest of the season.
And now Memphis is depending on Mayo for off-the-bench scoring to make a run at the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Grizzlies made a significant step toward that goal with a win at Boston Wednesday in which Mayo tallied 11 points in 19 minutes.
Still, Mayo is unsure of what’s ahead. The Grizzlies made it abundantly clear that they don’t feel he’s a part of their long-term future. They were prepared to deal him for a moderately talented player in McRoberts and a pick that will be in the middle of the first round — not much for a player who was expected to be a perennial All-Star.
Mayo is in the unenviable position of playing for a team that likely doesn’t want him.
“I asked a couple of guys in the locker room, ‘How am I supposed to feel now?’ ’’ he said. “All the stuff I had been through this season, and then trade day, a trade goes through three minutes too late.
“So now I’m supposed to come out here the next day and go to work? I don’t know. I’m like anybody else. How would you feel?
“At the same time, I have a comfort level and care for all these guys in the locker room, so it’s nothing I’m going to bring into this locker room or bring the energy down, or put the focus somewhere else. So the most important thing is getting this team to the postseason.’’
It’s a shocking development for a multi-skilled guard who played varsity basketball as an eighth-grader, breezed through Southern Cal, then averaged 18.5 points per game as a rookie.
“It’s the NBA, no boys allowed, so you really don’t have time to sit back and cry,’’ said Mayo, who will be a restricted free agent next summer. “You can’t complain about how unhappy you are.
“We’re all in a blessed situation and it’s my job to give all I got this year and when the summer comes hit the lab and go and put that work in. That’s the only thing I know.’’
Mayo undoubtedly can score, but he is better when handling the ball, which is why he has faltered as a shooting guard. The Grizzlies just signed point guard Mike Conley to a five-year contract extension, while Gay signed a six-year deal, and Zach Randolph is close to a four-year deal, so a long-term extension for a player who doesn’t have a true position is unlikely.
“It’s a first-time deal with all of this,’’ said Mayo. “All in all, you have to take all punches and put the work in and try to keep a certain focus level to where it’s best for every guy on this team. No matter what happens, I have to get ready to put that work in this summer.’’
Until then, Mayo will be in limbo.
Against the Celtics last week, Anthony scored 17 of New York’s 51 first-half points, but the ball slowed down considerably during their offensive possessions.
Anthony needs time to create his offense in a halfcourt set, which forces his teammates to stand and watch. It’s no shock that the Nuggets have become one of the league’s hottest teams since trading him, because the ball doesn’t stick in halfcourt sets.
D’Antoni’s system encourages ball movement and 3-pointers, so unless there are changes in the offensive philosophy, it will continue to be a poor fit.
“I think we know that we are a much better team than the way we are playing, and we just have to make sure that we understand that the offense works,’’ said All-Star forward Amar’e Stoudemire.
“We just have to keep it going, because the offense allows guys like Landry [Fields] and Shawne Williams and other role players to get it going, and we just need those players to play with confidence.
“If we can play the way we have been playing, move the ball and play team basketball offensively, we can get the rest of the guys going and become a much better team.’’
Anthony said that the feeling-out process could extend into next season, but there has been private and public disdain toward D’Antoni.
“We’re going to get it right,’’ Anthony said. “There’s no need to panic, and it’s always tough when you lose games. It’s easy to say what you’re not doing right, but for the most part, I was just thinking, ‘This ship is going to turn right,’ and I’m excited about it.’’
Layups Good news for former West Virginia guard Da’Sean Butler, who blew out his knee during the Final Four matchup with Duke last year and was a victim of the Heat’s roster overhaul because he wasn’t healthy enough to play. Any signing by the Spurs shouldn’t be taken lightly, (see: Neal, Gary), and general manager R.C. Buford has added Butler to San Antonio’s core of younger players. Butler will continue to rehabilitate the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The Heat did not have enough roster space to allow Butler to rehab this season, a move they may regret . . . Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson seems resigned to the fact that the Kings will move to Anaheim next season. There isn’t much stopping the Maloof brothers from relocating, especially if the NBA Board of Governors views the Kings as benefiting financially from the move. The board approved the Sonics’ move to Oklahoma City, a relocation that faced much more controversy and criticism than this one. The question is whether the Maloof brothers will pay the relocation fee, which will be at least $30 million. Clay Bennett’s ownership group not only footed that bill to move to Oklahoma City but also agreed to pay an additional $30 million to Seattle if the city refurbished KeyArena by the end of 2009 and did not receive a new NBA team by 2012. Of course, the city bypassed on the opportunity to improve KeyArena and Bennett saved his $30 million . . . This won’t be a normal period of anticipation after the college season ends. Prospects will have to decide whether to leave school for the NBA with a potential lockout looming. The NBA draft comes before the collective bargaining agreement expires, so there is no threat of that being canceled. But if a lockout begins once the CBA expires July 1, draftees won’t get a chance to work out with their new teams, participate in summer league, or earn an NBA check. That may discourage some of the top prospects from leaving.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.