Months before his banishment to the bench to coach the New York Knicks, Isiah Thomas made a mid-winter scouting trip to South Beach replete with the 5-star hotel and lavish amenities befitting the emperor of Madison Square Garden.
The expense report was detailed, but the scouting report was a little light. Upon inspection, the University of Miami had been on the road. There was no ACC basketball, no pro prospects in town. Just Isiah, an expense account and several days and nights on Ocean Drive.
This time, Thomas will burn through someone else’s cash in South Florida. He’s been hired as the basketball coach at Florida International University, and Thomas can make history here. This job gives Thomas the chance to obliterate programs in the NBA, CBA and now, NCAA.
Already, Thomas is talking about how he’s always wanted to coach college basketball, about how taking a job in the Sun Belt Conference was about a challenge, a choice. He isn’t going to FIU because he wants to, but because there’s nothing else for him. Beyond his professional failures, his behavior has made it impossible for a franchise to sell him politically in a public job.
“He feels like he’s toxic in the NBA right now,” a longtime Thomas associate said. “He thinks this is the only way to get back in the basketball world.”
Out of the era of Michael, Magic and Larry, Thomas always considered himself the outsider, the dismissed superstar. He was the captain of the Bad Boys, the 6-foot-nothing point guard missed on being mythologized like Jordan, Johnson and Bird because genetics dealt him six too few inches. He never got over it, and never stopped making everyone else pay a price for his perceived slights. As a pro basketball commissioner, executive and coach, Thomas lived to abuse power and humiliate and even sexually harass underlings. He spent too much money on players, too little time on the job. His Knicks days were one big party on someone else’s tab.
Out of charity, Donnie Walsh let Thomas stay as a scout this past year. They were paying Thomas, anyway. Friends described him as disconsolate over his tumble, a spiral that culminated with an overdose of sleeping pills at his suburban New York home. In what had to be some altered state of reality, he appeared to pin the episode on his teenage daughter.
Through it all, Thomas kept scouting for the Knicks. For the past few weeks, he had been on the pre-draft scouting circuit in Europe. As the GMs and scouts gathered at the arenas, they noticed that Thomas still reveled in his celebrity there. Some league executives are relatively recognizable ex-players, but none come close to Thomas’ stature.
“He was kind of a pseudo-celebrity in the VIP rooms at the games,” one NBA executive said. “But even then, he seemed out of it, distant, somewhere else.”
For Thomas, this kind of behind-the-scenes grunt work no longer could be balanced with the public glare that came with running a franchise, or coaching. His vanity couldn’t be nourished this way. So, league sources say that he started calling close friends over the past week, and asking opinions on this Florida International job: Should I do it?
In the end, the truth made itself clear: This was the best he could do. He’ll probably believe that his playing credentials, his charm, his smile, will make recruiting a snap. It won’t be that easy. If he doesn’t work at this job, Thomas won’t win there. He can’t just show up and be Isiah Thomas. After the Pistons, he’s tried that everywhere and it doesn’t work.
Eventually, something strange will happen at Florida International, because it always does with Thomas. Since retiring as a player, he’s been searching for something that he never seems to find. Now, he leaves behind the cold winters of Chicago and Detroit, Indianapolis and New York, and moves toward the warm sun, the light, in Miami.
He has a news conference on Wednesday, where he’ll smile and charm everyone and make promises that’ll he’ll never keep. He’ll take shortcuts, make egregious mistakes and this shortsighted, wannabe basketball power will end up like everything else in Isiah Thomas’ post-Pistons path. He’ll be gone, leaving behind a carnage of angry, confused and betrayed people.
Mostly, Florida International University will wonder: What the hell hit us?