At Monmouth, Thomas Comes Close Enough to Hear Boos
By HOWARD BECK
WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — Isiah Thomas is starting over, which is not the same as starting with a clean slate. But then, some slates require more scrubbing than others.
Two games into his new career, as the head coach of a small-time college basketball program, Thomas is still fending off bad memories and familiar demons. His team is winless and his very presence incites mass hostility.
It did not help that his second game was played in the New York commuter corridor.
The result was familiar, as Thomas’s team, Florida International University, was routed, 99-70, by Monmouth on Friday. The atmosphere was familiar, too, even in a 4,100-seat college arena nestled along the Jersey Shore.
Thomas was booed when he strolled into the Multipurpose Activity Center and booed again during introductions. The taunts from the student section were pointed, harsh and sometimes crude. There were chants about Thomas’s sleeping-pill overdose last year, his 2007 sexual harassment trial and his newly exposed rift with Magic Johnson (“Magic hates you!”)
Finally, with Thomas’s team trailing by 17 in the second half, came the most familiar taunt of all: “Fire Isiah.”
That phrase filled Madison Square Garden for Thomas’s final two years as the Knicks’ coach and president, a tenure that ended with his dismissal in April 2008. Nineteen months later and 56 miles south of the Garden, his transgressions had not been forgotten.
As Thomas left the court, an older fan accosted him and shouted profanities, then was taken away by security.
“It’s part of sports, and it goes all the way back to the Romans,” Thomas said in typically glib fashion. “That’s what happens in the arena. And that’s why you love being in the arena.”
Thomas is 0-2 as a college coach, which perhaps does not look so bad compared with the Knicks’ 1-9 record.
Of course, the Knicks are still trying to burrow out of the financial and competitive ditch that Thomas dug in his four and a half years as team president. The new president, Donnie Walsh, has jettisoned nearly all of the high-salaried players that Thomas acquired and is trying to rebuild from scratch.
“I tried as hard as I possibly could to build it and do it,” Thomas said. “I think that every guy that has come into the Knicks has his own ideas of how to fix it. And a lot of us have failed. I hope he has success.”
The Knicks never had a winning season in Thomas’s four-and-a-half-year tenure as president, and they went 56-108 in his two seasons on the bench.
The eerie parallels were everywhere Friday, even on Thomas’s roster, which includes a Stephon (Weaver) and a Crawford (Marcus), but no one who could consistently score, defend or hold on to the ball. F.I.U. had nine turnovers in the first 15 minutes and fell behind by 17 points.
It has been a stressful time for Thomas. His mother, Mary, who is 86, had a heart attack last weekend at her home in Chicago. Thomas, whose team opened the season Monday against North Carolina, spent the week shuttling between Miami, Chicago, Chapel Hill and finally New Jersey.
Mary Thomas had heart surgery early in the week. “She’s doing much better,” Thomas said. “She’s a tough lady, she’s a fighter.”
Thomas opened his college coaching career with an 88-72 loss to North Carolina, the defending national champion. F.I.U. trailed by as many as 26 points against the Tar Heels, but Thomas, a master of accentuating the positive, praised his team for forcing 26 turnovers.
“We’re a work in progress,” he said, sounding very much like the Thomas of 2005, 2006 and 2007. “We have a lot of work to do. And the goal for us is try to be a good basketball team come January.”
Off the court, Thomas has already found controversy. In August, he threatened to withdraw his team from the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament when he learned that F.I.U. would open against North Carolina. Thomas insisted that he had been promised an opener against Ohio State.
This promises to be a rough first season. The tallest player on the F.I.U. roster is Nikola Gacesa, a 6-foot-9 senior who went down with a knee injury Friday night.
Like the Knicks, Thomas is grinding through a difficult rebuilding effort. Unlike the Knicks, he has already locked up some high-level talent. Three top-rated players signed letters of intent this week, giving Thomas perhaps the best recruiting class in the program’s history. The group includes forward Dominique Ferguson, who is the 10th best prospect at his position, according to Rivals.com.
If Thomas is considered toxic in N.B.A. circles, he remains a powerful draw to young players.
“I’m going to learn everything he has to teach me,” said F.I.U. guard Marvin Roberts, who grew up in Brooklyn. “I’m all ears.”
At least in the short term, the lessons will be about enduring defeats and derision. Thomas could teach a master’s course.