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Reclaiming Isiah

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

The word came to Isiah Thomas on Saturday night. His 86-year-old mother, Mary, had suffered a heart attack back in Chicago and suddenly his unlikely reclamation project (both professional and personal) didn't seem to matter as much.

His college coaching debut Monday night, leading humble Florida International University against the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels, was on hold (school officials now expect him to be on the sideline).

At the time, his mother's health was everything. He left the team and jetted to his hometown, staying almost all of Sunday.

Mary pulled through. She's expected to be fine.

So too, perhaps, will Isiah.

Plagued by a rut of professional failures and personal controversies, Thomas has decided to rebuild his reputation from the bottom. He's returned to coaching not in the big-money NBA, where he once led Indiana and New York. He isn't at the helm of a high-profile college program, such as his alma mater, Indiana.

Instead he took over one of the most anonymous programs in the country, low-major FIU, a mostly commuter school in the Miami area. The basketball team plays in the Sun Belt Conference and hasn't produced a winning season in a decade.

It's about the last place you'd expect to find a Hall of Fame player who last coached in Madison Square Garden.

The budgets are small. The media attention is limited. His salary would be considered low except in a gesture of goodwill and clear purpose Thomas is refusing a paycheck.

"I didn't come here for the money," he said.

He came here to find success, something that he once created with ease yet of late has had trouble finding.

"A lot of this is about proving himself," one of his friends said Sunday. The friend asked for anonymity because Thomas "wouldn't want me analyzing him."

"He wants to prove that he can coach and that he's a good person, a leader, a winner," the friend continued. "He wants a new reputation. If he wins at FIU, just gets them to the NCAA tournament, what can anyone say then? That’s what's driving him."

What can anyone say then?

Consider what's been said about him lately, and you can understand the motivation. There's a laundry list of reasons why people have soured on Isiah Thomas.

He once thrilled fans with his smooth style and high-wattage smile. He had a will to win that belied his relatively slight size. He won an NCAA title at Indiana in 1981. He delivered a couple NBA titles for the Detroit Pistons. He's universally hailed as one of the game's greatest point guards.

Yet, he was the leader of the much-vilified Detroit Bad Boys, whose at times brutish style and unsportsmanlike conduct (the famed walking off the court without a handshake after a playoff loss to Chicago) isn't forgotten by some.

His NBA peers never took to him. He's feuded at various times with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, who many believe was instrumental in keeping Thomas off the original Olympic Dream Team.

After his playing days he purchased the Continental Basketball Association, only to have it go bankrupt. Thomas was assigned much of the blame by longtime team executives.

He became an NBA coach and found success in Indiana but was often decried by players as aloof. In New York he oversaw a disastrous run as both team president and coach that was filled with bad personnel decisions and long losing streaks. Worse, in 2006, there was a sexual harassment case that featured controversial testimony from Thomas. The Knicks settled it to the tune of $11.6 million.

After losing his job in New York, in 2008, police were summoned to his home due to an overdose of sleeping pills.

Thomas had become a pariah. He wasn't just a touchstone for fan anger, he was a running joke, much mocked for everything from bad trades to bad legal testimony.

Most people would've retreated. Thomas is 48 and has plenty of money – he didn't just make tens of millions as a player and commercial endorser, but tens of millions more as an NBA executive and coach.

He could've retired, played golf and waited for the wounds to his reputation to heal. He could've just spent time with his family – from mother Mary to his wife of 20 years and their two children.

"But he's got something to prove," his friend said.

So in a whirlwind, he got involved in the FIU job last spring, stunning the basketball world when he took it. Everyone kept wondering why, if Isiah Thomas wanted a college job, he didn't try to get a better one than this?

Perhaps no one was as shocked as the FIU administration itself.

"This is bigger than basketball and bigger than athletics," school president Modesto A. Maidique told the Associated Press.

There is nothing glamorous about this position. The gym holds 5,000. Tradition is non-existent. Tough losses are guaranteed – his team is a 30-point underdog to UNC, a likely not-fun blowout that will be televised nationally.

Yet this is where Thomas believes he can turn everything around.

He was once the youngest of nine kids, just a smallish guard on the hardscrabble playgrounds of Chicago's West Side. No one gave him anything then. He had to go out and take it.

It's no different today.

He impressed his coaching peers with his dedication to off-season recruiting – he put in the long, unglamorous hours of the summer scouting circuit.

He then showed he was for real by landing commitments from two top 100 recruits for next season. Those kinds of prospects had never before looked twice at FIU. Observers say he's poured himself into teaching the game this preseason to the raw players on his current roster.

This isn't a gimmick. It isn't about money. It isn't about fame. It isn't about adoring crowds at some famous program. It can't be; none of that is even possible at FIU.

This is about Isiah Thomas choosing a path where he can make something from nothing. This is about Mary Thomas' son once again proving himself in every way possible – because what if he shows he's a capable coach and caring leader at little FIU?

What can anyone say then?