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The Isiah Thomas That I Know

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The old axiom "bad news will walk around the world while good news is putting on shoes" can very much be applicable to the media's coverage of NBA Hall of Famer and recently fired Florida International University (FIU) Basketball Coach Isiah Thomas. This week I have seen and heard him demonized and vilified by fans, reporters, and others. A prime example of this was an article written by ESPN's Dana O'Neil where FIU's hiring of Thomas as men's basketball coach was characterized as a "joke from the start". O'Neil suggested that Thomas was somehow unqualified for the position based on having "zero college coaching experience" despite the fact that Thomas had previously coached the NBA's Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks. I don't recall other NBA or NFL coaches who move to the college level being deemed as such. O'Neal and others automatically assumed that Thomas did not have good intentions by going to FIU and paid "little more than lip service" to the job. The fact that he maintained some kind of relationship with the Knicks upper management automatically meant that he cared nothing about coaching at FIU. The assumption amongst the majority of the media is that he is disingenuous, arrogant, incompetent, sleazy and generally up to no good.

O'Neal's article failed to mention the fact that the FIU basketball program has been abysmal throughout its history and hasn't has a winning season since the 1999-2000. There was no mention of the bare cupboard in terms of talent that was left to Thomas who was hired late in the Spring of 2009 with the recruiting period all but over. No mention of the FIU arena that could be better characterized as a large high school gym or the severe lack of attendance that had long preceded Thomas' arrival. No mention that the coach prior to Thomas was given five seasons while Thomas was nixed after just three. No mention of the fact that 8 of FIU's losses this year were by four points or less. No mention of the thousands of dollars that Thomas raised for the school in scholarships by putting on the South Florida All Star Charity Classic through his various NBA connections that were supposedly such a negative for FIU.

No mention of the fact that Thomas didn't even take a salary his first season at FIU to help a school that was in the midst of a budget crisis. No mention of a program that will graduate 17 out of 19 players despite the fact that a large majority of them were deemed as very "at risk" academically. No mention of the fact that Thomas established a partnership with the University of California to hold seminars geared toward stressing the importance of academics to his players. No mention that Thomas carried himself with class and dignity throughout his entire reign at the school, bringing a university that was little known outside of South Florida national attention only to be discarded like yesterday's trash with no forewarning. No mention of the young men, including my own brother, whose lives were positively impacted by Thomas' efforts. The only thank you that he was given was a three-line statement from the Athletic Director and two police officers waiting at his office to escort him off of the campus in front of his entire team.

None of the derogatory caricatures that the media has conjured up are congruent with the Isiah Thomas that I know. The Isiah that I know is a man of incredible generosity, heart, and humility. He should have be applauded and not condemned for coming and coaching at the university with no salary for the first year. This is an extreme rarity in an era of college athletics where many coaches like Nick Saban, John Calipari, Urban Meyer, and others make millions and millions of dollars while the families of a large percentage of their players languish in poverty. The NCAA allows everyone else to profit immensely but the actual players that fans come to see. Coaches and administrators make huge sums of money while players are severely punished for selling their own jerseys. The Isiah that I know is very intellectually engaged and wanted to set an example for his team by pursuing a Master's Degree of his own from the University of California at Berkeley. I was there when Isiah served on panels discussing education, youth violence prevention and the criminal justice system with Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Congressman Bobby Rush and others at the Congressional Black Caucus last year in Washington, D.C.

Isiah has dedicated his life to combating and addressing the daunting realities that encompass the lives of young African-American males. He has expressed tremendous concern about the significantly high rate of black males in urban school districts that don't graduate high school and the massively disproportionate number of young black men who find themselves incarcerated and thus rendered as second-class citizens by our society even after they have served their time.

Thomas has done impactful work in several cities across the country with very little media fanfare to help address these concerns. An example of this kind of work are the initiatives launched at George Washington Carver Elementary School and Northwestern High School in Miami. I witnessed this as a Student-Athlete Academic Coordinator at FIU and as an Instructor and PhD Candidate in Public Administration at FAU. The Isiah Thomas that I know is a family man who has managed to fulfill his roles as a husband and as a father despite viscous media bombardment. The demonization, personal attacks and character assassination attempts brought upon Thomas by various members of the media should be contended against and a more balanced picture of the man should be presented.