College Basketball: Thomas to give first year salary to FIU
MIAMI ó Isiah Thomas sat in his new gym for an hour, at one point turning his gaze toward the Florida International players he’ll now coach.
“There’ll be a lot of ups,” Thomas said, almost in a cautionary tone. “There’ll be a lot of downs.”
He’s experienced plenty of both, of course.
Without the ups, FIU wouldn’t have wanted Thomas.
Without the downs, Thomas wouldn’t have needed FIU.
And so begins a surprising basketball marriage that got under way Wednesday when Thomas was introduced as FIU’s new coach, three days shy of the 1-year anniversary of his firing as coach of the New York Knicks. Thomas will not accept a salary in his first season, instead donating that money back to FIU, and will earn somewhere around $275,000 in the final four years of his deal.
That doesn’t count the $12 million or so the Knicks will continue paying him over the next two years.
“I did not come here for the money,” Thomas said.
Instead, he’ll have a chance to rebuild his tarnished Hall of Fame image.
Thomas wants to move past the problems that marred his tenure with the Knicks, such as being the central figure in a sexual harassment lawsuit and, according to authorities, being found unconscious in his New York-area home last fall after someone at the residence called 911 to report someone overdosed on sleeping pills.
He said few people in the sports and entertainment world stay on the mountaintop for long, even citing Prince and Michael Jackson as examples.
“When you rise all the way to the top of your profession, no matter who you are, the journey to the top is great,” Thomas said. “And then you’ve got to come down.”
So he came down to FIU and a program that went 13-20 this past season, has lost 20 games in three of its last four years, and made its lone appearance in the NCAA tournament 14 years ago. There’s 42 banners swaying in FIU’s gymnasium and only two have anything to do with men’s basketball.
“I like taking something from the bottom and trying to build it to the top,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of risk in that and there is a lot of reward in that.”
Thomas, a Hall of Fame inductee after a stellar playing career with the Detroit Pistons, coached the Indiana Pacers for three seasons, making the playoffs each time. He had two losing seasons in New York, and his career record in the NBA is 187-223.
“I’ve had three successful seasons and two losing seasons,” Thomas said. “So I would say that I’m up.”
FIU has “no doubt,” athletic director Pete Garcia said, that Thomas can get it done now.
Thomas arrived outside FIU’s basketball arena at 10:25 a.m. Wednesday, about an hour before his introductory news conference began, riding passenger in a sleek black Mercedes. Even before he could get out of the car, three well-wishers couldn’t wait to greet him.
“Hey! There he is!” shouted one of the men, all of whom got handshakes from Thomas before the car pulled into a parking space.
“It’s a landmark day in our history,” Garcia said.
Nonetheless, Garcia was dogged by questions about Thomas’ history.
“It’s safe to say the last two years have definitely taken a toll on my family,” Thomas said. “Again, I’m extremely comfortable, and I think the university is comfortable in their findings and what were the facts of the case. It was two years ago.”