- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

MIAMI (AP) - The walls were still bare Thursday evening in Isiah Thomas’ office at Florida International.

A sub sandwich and bag of chips that he hadn’t found time to eat were alongside a 428-page NCAA recruiting manual on a table by the door, and the only items on his desk were a bottle of water, a ballpoint pen and a new pair of swimming goggles.

“I’m not that complicated,” Thomas said.

That’s hard to believe, given the events of the past two years _ he was a central figure in a sexual harassment lawsuit, an embattled coach of the New York Knicks and, he acknowledged Thursday, the person found unconscious in his home by rescue workers after taking sleeping pills in a much publicized incident last October.

“Yeah, that had to be me,” Thomas said. “I was asleep.”

In a wide-ranging interview, FIU’s new basketball coach insisted that he’s not only ready to lead a college program for the first time, but is eager to tackle what he described as another in a long series of challenges in his life.

“I love it,” Thomas said. “Strange, but I do.”

After what he’s gone through of late, by his own doing or otherwise, it’s not so strange that Thomas wanted a fresh start.

He was looking for jobs that would take him away from the New York area, where any successes he had with the Knicks were overshadowed by spectacular failures. Then came the lawsuit, where a New York Knicks female executive was awarded $11.6 million by a jury that never said Thomas did anything wrong. Then came the sleeping-pill incident.

That was the last strike for Thomas _ and he wanted out of New York, weighing moves to Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami.

Officers who responded last Oct. 23 to Thomas’ home after a 911 call reporting an overdose on sleeping pills found a man passed out on the floor and gave him oxygen until an ambulance arrived.

“On that day, my daughter and I were both in the hospital,” Thomas said. “She went early in the afternoon, OK? I went later in the evening. When I woke up, there’s a reporter on the other end and he said, ‘Are you OK?’ And I think I said, ‘My daughter’s in the hospital and no, we are not OK,’ or something to that effect.”

Thomas did not say what prompted his daughter to go to the hospital, but confirmed he was the person rescuers found that night.

The outcry last fall was swift.

Police officials chastised Thomas after The New York Post reported that he said it was his daughter, not him, who required treatment.

“People said, ‘Well, why didn’t you correct it?’ And that’s not how I live,” Thomas said. “I’ve got to take care of my family. I didn’t really care about correcting anything. My main focus was my family and that’s always been my focus and that’s what I’ll always do.”

Thomas knows he will hear the tough questions recruiting for FIU.

When he goes into a young man’s home and tries to get the boy’s mother and father to enjoy balmy Miami, he won’t hear much about winning two NBA titles and one NCAA championship, how he took the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs three times or any of the other great moments of his career.

He is confident he can overcome all the negative perceptions. His future depends on it.

“At the end of the day,” Thomas said, “people know the kind of person that I am.”

He is banking on that to accomplish his mission: Building a program at a place that hasn’t been to an NCAA tournament since 1995.

It’s an unlikely pairing: Hall of Fame player and little-known program. So unlikely, Thomas said, that some friends tried to talk him out of taking the job.

But he insists the first step for getting FIU rolling is already done _ his hiring made news.

“People know about us now,” Thomas said. “It’s about shining a light on the university and shining a light on how big a school we are. We’ve got an enrollment of 36,000 or 37,000 students. We’re one of the largest universities in the United States. We’re a hidden gem here, so to speak. And now we’ve got national attention and national exposure, so we’ve got to put a basketball program that reflects that.”

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