MIAMI (AP) — While growing up in Serbia, Florida International University forward Nikola Gacesa often heard his father talk about the way Isiah Thomas played basketball.
“He is a big fan,” Gacesa said.
Gacesa will soon have his own stories to tell: Thomas is back in coaching, accepting an offer from FIU to revive his career and their program.
Ending a whirlwind courtship, Thomas and FIU agreed on a five-year contract Tuesday, April 14 – an out-of-nowhere deal that gives the former Knicks coach and president a chance to restore the reputation he built as a Hall of Fame player and tarnished through a series of embarrassments in New York.
“I’m committed to growing something here, and strongly believe that over time, we'll put a team on the floor that everyone at FIU can be proud of,” Thomas said.
Thomas helped the Detroit Pistons win two NBA championships as one of the all-time great point guards, then coached the Indiana Pacers before taking over in New York, where an array of problems marred his tenure.
Nonetheless, FIU moved quickly to lock up its top choice for the job.
“I know he is a good person,” FIU athletic director Pete Garcia said. “Isiah is going to give our fans and alumni a lot of reasons to be excited.”
In New York, Thomas endured legal and personal troubles off the court, and more losses than wins on it. His Knicks were 23-59 last season, prompting a firing many fans had long awaited. The Knicks never won a playoff game in his tenure as president or coach.
Knicks president Donnie Walsh, who fired Thomas, wished him luck at FIU.
“I think it's a great thing for him and it's kind of what I wanted for him from the day I let him go,” Walsh said.
It was more than losses that doomed Thomas in New York.
In 2007, a jury ordered Knicks owner Madison Square Garden to pay $11.6 million to a former team executive who alleged she was sexually harassed by Thomas, who continually maintained his innocence and was never found personally liable.
This past October, there was more drama.
Officers responded to Thomas’ New York-area home after a 911 call reported someone had overdosed on sleeping pills. According to police reports, officers found a man passed out and gave him oxygen until an ambulance arrived.
Authorities never publicly identified Thomas as the victim, but a person familiar with the case confirmed to the AP that it was Thomas.
Still, Thomas’ hiring at FIU quickly became a galvanizing story in South Florida.
“This is bigger than basketball and bigger than athletics,” said FIU president Modesto A. Maidique. “Having a nationally recognized coach like Isiah at FIU will have a positive impact on our university as a whole, helping us achieve additional national exposure.”
With Thomas – whose career record in the NBA was 187-223 (including three playoff seasons with the Pacers) – on board, national exposure is certain.
“It’s a testament to the direction of FIU athletics,” Golden Panthers football coach Mario Cristobal said. “It’s a great thing. There’s tremendous amounts of excitement here.”
Thomas will face some immediate challenges: FIU went 13-20 this past season, its third 20-loss campaign in four years, and has not posted a winning record since 1999-2000. He'll need to move quickly on filling some roster slots, since the spring signing period for Division I players starts Wednesday.
“If you really think about it, some of these kids that are coming out of AAU that are going to go to college for one year, that’s a pretty good sell,” Walsh said. “ ‘Come down to Miami, spend a year with me.’ I think he’s positioned to do well with recruiting there.”
Miami Heat center Jermaine O’Neal, who played for Thomas at Indiana, said the coach deserved a new opportunity.
“He’s a motivator and a teacher and he has some skills that really fit the college level,” O'Neal said. “He can take people and make them feel like they have a chance to be anything they want in life.”
Thomas replaces Sergio Rouco, who was reassigned Monday after posting a losing record in each of his five seasons as coach.
Thomas’ hiring brings another coach with strong New York ties to the Sun Belt Conference’s schools in South Florida: Former St. John’s coach Mike Jarvis just completed his first year at Florida Atlantic, about an hour north of FIU in Boca Raton.
“I think it is a great day for the league, to be very honest with you,” Jarvis said. “Anything that will help bring real media attention to the league, it helps. It helps with recruiting, it helps with perceptions that people have.”
Wood Selig, the athletic director at Western Kentucky, said he was “shocked.”
“It is quite a coup for FIU,” Selig said.
Thomas spent his entire NBA playing career with the Pistons, appeared in 11 All-Star games and was the MVP of the 1990 NBA finals, when Detroit won its second straight title.
His new players, Gacesa said, couldn't be more thrilled.
“It's an incredible feeling,” Gacesa said. “I think we’re still realizing how big this is for us. We still don’t realize how big this is, how much knowledge and skills he can offer us and how much he can help us take this school to another level, take this school to where we are supposed to be.”
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney in Greenburgh, N.Y., and AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.
Photo: Isaih Thomas