- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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If there wasn't much outcry from the general public or the basketball establishment when Isiah Thomas was abruptly dismissed by Florida International University as its head basketball coach, it's because of the Panthers' record for the past three years: 26-65.
That external silence, however, is in direct contrast to the loud protests from his players and others close to the program because of another record: 11-2. That's Thomas' success rate for graduating players over the past three years. It is as impressive compared to the average graduation rate among Division I men's basketball players as a winning percentage of .285 on the floor is woeful.
"He could've brought in a lot of people to talk to us about basketball," said senior guard DeJuan Wright, who is on track to raise that record to 12-2 this spring. "But he was bringing in professors and counselors to talk to us about life and how to be successful off the court. He did so much for us off the court. We grew as men."
Teams in this year's NCAA Division I men's tournament were on track to graduate 67 percent of their players, according to a report by Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF. The percentage of graduating African-American players: 60 percent. The percentage of African-American players graduating from all Division I basketball programs is only slightly better: 62.49. To be clear, the study does not pertain to the current student-athletes but to the success rate of the schools in this year's tournament based on four entering classes over a period of six years. So the comparison is not perfect. But, considering that all 14 Panthers who finished under Thomas' watch were minorities, and all but one was African-American, Thomas had FIU defying expectations in at least one respect.
He could've brought in a lot of people to talk to us about basketball. But he was bringing in professors and counselors to talk to us about life and how to be successful off the court. He did so much for us off the court. We grew as men.
--FIU senior DeJuan Wright
Before the school adopted a code of silence regarding Thomas, Paul Dodson, the school's assistant athletic director for media relations, sent a glowing email about Thomas' work on the team's academic front that included the graduate count. In an email in February, Dodson wrote that "last season, the basketball team's APR (Academic Progress Report) multi-year score (910) was the highest it has been in the seven-year history of the APR." He added it also marked the first time the men's basketball program had a score of more than 900. That's still low by overall Division I men's standards -- 944.88 is the average -- but considering FIU had been on academic probation when Thomas arrived, it shows marked improvement.
"We weren't ready to win the NCAA tournament," Thomas says. "But in terms of graduating players and winning off the court, who was better? On the floor, you'd say Kentucky was better than us. But off the floor, who was better? We knew, as coaches and as players, we were playing two games -- basketball and the game of life. The families trusted me with their kids. The great disappointment is that we weren't allowed to finish what we started."
I know, I know: The degree of difficulty in suggesting Thomas has been treated unfairly is monumental. It just isn't done. The court of public opinion already has measured the man based on everything from his work as the New York Knicks' president and then head coach, to the Continental Basketball Association's extinction following his ownership, to allegations by Magic Johnson of a Thomas-led smear campaign after Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. It isn't made any easier by Thomas comparing a team that finished last in the East Division of the Sun Belt Conference to the No. 1 Wildcats, as if there might not be programs in between that have won more than 26 games over the past three years and graduated more African-American players than Kentucky's 60 percent.
Here's the problem I have: I witnessed a different side of Thomas that doesn't fit the image and, apparently, so did his FIU players. It's a side I never dreamed of seeing when I went to Miami for a lockout-inspired exhibition last October in the Panthers' gym featuring LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and a dozen other young NBA stars. I went, to be honest, to investigate a tip that the players were thinking about forming their own league. I also wanted to see if James and Wade actually revered Thomas the way I'd heard they did, enough to have gone to New York to play for him and the Knicks before choosing the Heat. But after the exhibition on Saturday night, I attended a Sunday brunch with professors from the University of California-Berkeley, Panthers players and several other teachers and educators, including Thomas' sister, who has been a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system for more than 25 years. The conversation was not about the exhibition or the lockout or the Panthers' upcoming prospects. It was about educating minorities; specifically, finding a way to overcome the many inherent hurdles to do so.
On Monday during that same visit, I visited Thomas' painted cinder-block office as he sat behind his desk for five hours attending classes, via Skype, being taught by the same brunch-attending Cal-Berkeley professors now back in the Bay Area. Thomas has a degree in criminal justice from Indiana University, but his appetite for learning never has been sated. He didn't merely tell his players to make the most of their educational opportunities, he showed them how.
It's a side that obviously wasn't enough to convince FIU to keep him, even though just last month the sports information department spoke in glowing terms of the job he was doing, promoting the team's academic improvement while downplaying their struggles on the court as not being as bad as the record might suggest.
I know, I know: Haven't there been other fired coaches who were doing a better job academically than competitively? Did anyone write a column about them? Maybe not, but this is not just another college basketball coach. This is Isiah Thomas, who since being named one of the top 50 greatest players in NBA history seemingly has been a lightning rod wherever he's gone. FIU, to many, is just another plot of scorched earth on his travelogue.
But is that reason to ignore evidence that maybe, just maybe, the narrative doesn't fit all that neatly this time? Is it wrong to point out that Thomas, by all appearances, was helping his players in ways far more meaningful than retooling their jump shots or teaching them the finer points of a zone press? At a time when referring to someone as a "student-athlete" in a major Division I sport seems more trite than true, shouldn't it be noted that Thomas' players say he emphasized the first part of that label more than the second?
"He didn't promise we'd win anything," said sophomore starting forward Dominique Ferguson, whose request to transfer after Thomas' firing was denied by the school. "He just promised that I'd graduate. He made us wear suits to every game, even to home games, when we'd just be wearing them from the dorm to the gym. When I asked why, he said, 'Always be professional because you never know when someone's looking.' He stressed stuff like that more than the on-the-court things."
Wright, who is expected to graduate this spring with a liberal arts degree, wrote the letter of protest that his teammates co-signed and sent to school president Mark Rosenberg. Both Wright and Ferguson had read and heard about Thomas' travails before he became their head coach.
"I've never seen the guy they talk about and I've read about," Ferguson said. "He's been nothing like that here. We'll be more mad about it than coach will be when something comes up. But that he can be above all that has taught us something else: Every opinion doesn't matter."
Ferguson said this even after watching as Thomas and his staff were abruptly instructed to clear out their offices upon their dismissal. Four recruits, two who have already withdrawn their commitments, were suddenly pressed into helping lug boxes of books and personal belongings to their would-be coaches' cars. Police then escorted Thomas and his staff off the campus. Ferguson saw that, too.
Perhaps we'll eventually find out why. Who knows, perhaps it was warranted. In the meantime, we're left only with numbers by which to measure Thomas: 26-65. And 12-2. If we're still talking about student-athletes, it has to be both. And, for now, let's leave Kentucky out of it.
That Isiah Thomas was fired after three seasons and only 26 wins at Florida International is no surprise. But he was making gains in another arena -- the classroom -- that should carry some weight when considering his tenure.