You have to hand it to Isiah Thomas: The man clearly loves basketball.
Whatever his other motivations for taking the Florida International job three years ago, it's hard to argue that a love of basketball wasn't at least partially behind it. The sport had bruised and battered Thomas at every level since his playing days; whether he was running the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association into the ground or signing Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry as his luxury-tax-engulfing starting New York Knicks frontcourt, it was long since clear that the gift Thomas had for the sport as a player had failed to carry over into management or coaching. And yet, he wanted back in, wanted to keep coaching, wanted to start over at a place that would offer him the chance to directly affect young players.
Even after the FIU experiment flamed out in epic fashion -- Thomas went 26-65 in three seasons, never winning more than 11 games in any one year -- the man remains determined to be near the sport, whether as an executive, NBA coach, or even, believe it or not, in the college ranks. That's what he told ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers this weekend, anyway:
"I definitely want to be in basketball again whether it be coaching or as a general manager," Thomas said by phone. "My gift is basketball. I would love working with the kids. If it's the right college program, I would consider it. If it's the right GM job or coaching job in the NBA, I would consider it. I love the game. I just want to be in the game." [...]
Thomas felt he wasn't given enough time to succeed at Florida International. With the players he had coming in this season and the ones returning from last season's 8-21 team, Thomas believed the program was on the rise.
"College sports finds itself in a transition right now," Thomas said. "There's old-school guys who know it takes time to build and do things right. Then, there's the new school that probably thinks you can get it done in 2-3 years. That's not how it goes. If I can find the right people with the right program, I'm confident I can put together a good college program."
That last bit is difficult to swallow. It's not like Thomas was obviously on the verge of a breakout season at FIU. He recruited some talent to the school, sure -- forward Dominique Ferguson, though troubled, was a highly touted recruit when he chose to play for the Panthers -- but he wasn't revolutionizing the way people viewed FIU. He wasn't even winning games. FIU athletic director Pete Garcia decided to end the experiment quickly; given Thomas's record, few have questioned that decision. Throw in Zeke's failures before FIU, and his on-again-off-again dalliance with the Knicks during his time at the school, he probably didn't deserve to keep his job.
So when I was catching up on all the weekend college hoops news this morning (I turned my computer off for the entirety of Memorial Day weekend, and I remain very happy with this decision) I read this story and immediately thought of ways to make fun of Thomas anew. That's what we do with Thomas now. He does something or says something worthy of ridicule, and then we ridicule him. Rinse, repeat.
This time, I'm going to pass. (In case you are interested in some good Zeke schadenfreude, the finest example may be the first comment on the above story by Howdy220, who wrote "You know what they say, if you can't make it at Florida International you can make it anywhere." +1.) It's not just because it's all been done before, though it has. It's more because the man clearly loves the sport of basketball and all it entails. He wants to be in it -- to compete, to observe, to analyze, to mentor, to fuel his own ego, whatever -- and he doesn't seem interested in much else.
For better or worse, I can identify with that. Can't we all?
But now Zeke's options are running thin. The FIU debacle has done little for his standing in the game, whether at the college level or in the pros. What athletic director would want to take a shot on Thomas now? What NBA front office -- other than the Knicks, it seems -- would want him around? Very few. And yet he keeps smiling and hoping for another chance, one he probably doesn't deserve, for the same reasons that made him the legendary player he was in the first place: The game is in him.
Sooner or later, the game won't want him anymore. It happens to almost everyone, one way or the other. The game moves on. For Isiah Thomas, that day may be coming far faster than he is willing to admit.