Isiah Thomas bringing struggling Florida International squad to Maryland

Isiah Thomas can recall facing Maryland once in his college basketball career, as a sophomore guard at Indiana in the NCAA tournament "the year we won it."

That would have been in 1981, when the Hoosiers crushed the Terps by 35 points in the second round. It was the largest margin of defeat for Maryland in the NCAA tournament under Lefty Driesell.

Three decades later, Thomas will be taking on the Terps again, this time as the third-year coach of a struggling Florida International University program that the Hall of Fame player and former NBA coach and executive is trying to build.

Maryland (5-3) will play FIU (3-6) Wednesday night at Comcast Center at 7:30 p.m.

"It's been a very enjoyable and introspective experience," Thomas said last Friday night by telephone from Texas, where his team lost to Texas Wesleyan on Saturday before beating Stephen F. Austin on Sunday for its first win road of the season. "Coming back to the college campus and being around young kids, to see the energy and the optimism they have — at one time we were all like them — has been really, really good for me."

Thomas, 50, took the job at the southwest Miami school in the aftermath of his tumultuous departure from the New York Knicks in 2008 after he was fired as coach and team president. He had also gone through a lengthy, and costly, sexual harassment suit filed against the Knicks by a high-ranking female team official which was settled out of court despite Thomas' claim that he was innocent.

After donating his first year's salary back to FIU's financially strapped athletic department, Thomas was then hired by the Knicks as a consultant while remaining as coach of the Golden Panthers — a move that was criticized by the New York media and eventually rescinded by Thomas because it violated league bylaws. Now Thomas appears to have cut ties with the NBA, though he doesn't totally rule out a return to the pros someday.

"No one has any idea what the universe holds two years, five years, 10 years from now,," said Thomas, who was owed $12 million when he was fired by the Knicks.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, Thomas' universe revolves around a group of players, several with the same Midwest roots as their famous coach. They clearly are not as talented as Thomas once was, but he said they could even be stronger emotionally than he was when he left the West Side of Chicago as the youngest of nine siblings to play for Bob Knight at Indiana.

"We have some tough kids who can take a hard loss and are able to deal with it," Thomas said.

The Golden Panthers, and Thomas, have gained quite a bit of experience with defeat his first two seasons. Inheriting a team that had four straight 20-loss seasons and hadn't had a winning record since 1999-2000, Thomas went 7-23 and 11-19 in his first two seasons.

DeJuan Wright, a 6-4 senior guard and the team's leading scorer this season (17 points per game), admitted that playing for someone voted among the NBA's 50 Top All-Time players can be a little intimidating at times.

"Definitely for me, coming from Detroit, I had to get the awe factor out," said Wright, one of four players on the roster from Thomas' adopted hometown. "But I am honored to play for someone like Isiah Thomas."

Thomas hopes that the awe factor has dissipated as the program grows, excruciatingly slow at times. Wright said that at first he didn't't believe it was really Thomas calling to recruit him out of junior college in Wyoming. Wright had heard stories from his parents and watched ESPN Classic games featuring the Thomas and the infamous Bad Boys teams of the Pistons from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Not that the awe has been totally removed. Wright said that Thomas has gone onto the court and scrimmaged with the team three times over the past two years, most recently last week before the Golden Panthers went out on a nine-day road trip that concludes later this week with a game at Dayton on Saturday.

"He's definitely still got it," Wright said with a laugh.

Wright said that Thomas gets on his players as much off the court as he does for what they do on the floor, perhaps more. Thomas is proud of the fact that all six seniors from last year's team graduated.

"He wants us to be responsible men," said Wright, who would like to play professionally but can see himself working as a school counselor.

There's some interesting juxtaposition in the location of FIU, about a 45-minute drive to the American Airlines Arena where a circus known as the Miami Heat is now about to raise its big top for the second season with LeBron James as its ringmaster.

It is a world that Thomas is quite familiar with, but one he doesn't seem to miss.

"For me, as long as I'm in the game of basketball, I'm happy," Thomas said. "Whether it be in college, professional, high school. I love going to the gym every day. This has always been a big part of my life. As long as I'm involved in the game of basketball and get to go to the gym, I'm good with it."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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