Isiah Thomas, when he played for the Pistons, was equal parts charming and vicious in way that made him extremely well-liked in and around Detroit. Since he retired, liking him hasn’t been quite so easy. I won’t rehash all his mistakes and perceived mistakes here, but to anyone who’s paid any attention to the NBA in the last several years, they’ve been difficult to avoid. Making fun of Isiah has become ritual for many.
The latest round of Isiah bashing came when Florida International fired him, and to be fair, his 26-65 record and clear desire to find another NBA job makes some of it warranted. But as detailed in a fantastic column by ESPN’s Ric Bucher – that’s well worth reading in its entirety – there’s more than meets the eye:
"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.
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.
As Bucher says in the column, perhaps Florida International was right to fire Thomas. The school’s administrators are certainly privy to more information than we are. But it’s at least comforting, as a Pistons fan and an Isiah fan, to read an article that highlight’s Thomas’ successes rather than his failures.