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Isiah Thomas hasn't lost smile.
Isiah Thomas said he always had a good relationship with his rival Michael Jordan. (AP File)
Isiah Thomas hasn't lost smile
He's survived all the controversies and difficult moments
November 22, 2010
BY RICK MORRISSEYSun-Times Columnist
MIAMI -- If you prefer imagery that lacks subtlety, hurricane-shelter signs dot the campus of Florida International University, where Isiah Thomas coaches the men's basketball team.
Yes, Thomas knows a thing or two about seeking refuge and weathering storms. He also knows a 23-point loss to Florida State the night before isn't the end of the world, not after he survived the brutal poverty of Chicago's West Side and not after he lived through a tumultuous period with the Knicks. Finding a 7-foot center would solve a lot of his current problems.
His route to FIU last year is not the one he would've chosen, but he likes it here, likes his players, likes his fairly uncomplicated life.
He does not like the beating his reputation has taken over what he simply refers to as ''the trial.'' His struggles as the Knicks' president and coach were nothing compared with the controversy tied to a 2007 sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by former Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders against Thomas and Madison Square Garden.
A jury awarded the former Northwestern basketball star $11.6 million.
Of all the bad times he has had in his life, he calls that the low point.
''I couldn't believe I was in the courtroom after everything I had gone through on the West Side -- never having been in a courtroom there, escaping that sort of thing -- and that at the zenith of your career, you find yourself in the courtroom,'' he said. ''It was awful for me. It was awful for our family. It was awful for my wife and kids.''
To this day, Thomas steadfastly maintains his innocence and finds comfort in the fact that he wasn't ordered to pay a dime toward the jury award. Others have called that semantics.
''The jury, I believe, found Madison Square Garden had a hostile work environment and that she was wrongfully terminated,'' he said. ''Basically, the Garden and [Knicks owner] Jim Dolan were ordered to pay $11 million, and everyone else was found liable for contributing to a hostile work environment. I wasn't ordered to pay anything.''
A year later, as if he needed another layer of darkness, he had to be taken to the hospital after an overdose of sleeping pills. It was not a suicide attempt, he said, but a response to stress. His daughter had been hospitalized hours before for an undisclosed medical issue. He had lost his Knicks job titles months earlier.
''I wanted to go to sleep, period,'' he said. ''If anybody can't understand the things that I was going through, where I was having a hard time sleeping, tell them to go through it and get a good night's sleep. The intention wasn't to do harm to myself. The intention was to get that day over and wake up the next day.''
Storm clouds still drift in occasionally. He caused a recent stir in New York by saying he dreamed of returning to the Knicks as president. Other clouds come from the distant past. Magic Johnson, who had been one of his best friends in the NBA, said in a 2009 book that rumors he was 🤬 came from Thomas. Johnson also said he played a role in keeping Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team.
''I didn't know he felt that way,'' Thomas said. ''I didn't know he kept me off the Olympic team. For a lot of years, he let people think it was Michael Jordan. Then he writes a book and says it was him. Now, I didn't know that.
''I can only speak for myself as a man. As a man, I was a genuine friend to him. I will still be a friend to him if he needs me. He has chosen to believe and act on some inaccurate information that was provided to him by his agent, Lon Rosen. He chose to believe that.''
Johnson's revelations about his role in the Dream Team blackballing won't change Thomas' relationship with Jordan.
''I always had a good relationship with Michael,'' he said. ''Now, we were fierce, fierce competitors, and I think he and I both loved competing like that. But we've always respected each other. I've never heard Michael Jordan say one bad thing about me. You've never heard me say one bad thing about Michael Jordan. Everyone else has said we don't like one another, but I've never read or said a thing.
''When Michael Jordan was asked, 'Did you keep Isiah Thomas off the Olympic team?' he said no. Then they asked me. I said, 'I take Michael at his word.' Yes, I believed him. Why shouldn't I believe him?''
He'd like more love given to the basketball that came out of the entire West Side, not just the part where the United Center sits. But Chicago doesn't forget its own, never has.
''[Westinghouse's] Mark Aguirre and I were the No. 1 and 2 picks in the  NBA draft,'' he argued. ''Look what's come out of the West Side of Chicago, and Chicago has not embraced that. That's sports history that should be preserved. I don't think we should throw that all away.
''What [Proviso East's] Doc Rivers is doing as coach of the Celtics, that's Chicago. That's us. We're all the same guys.''
Thomas' life story is well-known: how he was the youngest in a family of nine kids. How getting food was a constant challenge. How his mother brandished a sawed-off shotgun to ward off gang leaders trying to recruit her boys. How he rode three buses and an L every day just to get to St. Joseph High School in Westchester, where he became a star. How he won a national title at Indiana and two NBA titles with the Pistons.
How he charmed people with that cherubic smile of his. He still does.
''Why shouldn't I be smiling?'' he said. ''If there's a person in America that has lived through the hell I had to grow up in and they're still living, they should be smiling, too. Yeah, I'm smiling. And I should be smiling. I eat every day.''
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