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On the road with Isiah: Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS -- He stood out, which you would expect of Isiah Thomas.

The Henderson International School gym, a sweatbox of a hoops court with maybe eight rows of bleachers on one side and folding chairs doubling as the bench on the other, isn't where you'd expect to find a former NBA Finals MVP and 11-time All-Star.

Except on this steamy July Wednesday, it wasn't who he is that made Thomas easy to find. He was easy to find because of what he was wearing.

In a sea of school-emblazoned golf shirts and T-shirts lacking only the work of a BeDazzler to draw attention to them, Thomas stood out in a pale blue-checked shirt, a pair of navy blue dress pants and loafers.

There was not a single stitch representing Florida International on him -- not a logo, not an emblem, not even his new employer's initials.

Understand the significance of this -- ubermarketer Tom Crean had T-shirts specifically made for the July recruiting period, with an intersecting IU on the front and "It's Indiana" printed on the back so "kids could see us coming and going."

Coaches don't endure a 12-hour case of bleacher butt to evaluate talent so much as to baby-sit the talent they've already evaluated. This is a place to be seen.

As he hugged the side railing near the door, Thomas was taking a major risk in his anonymity … which would, of course, be the case if he weren't Isiah Thomas.

Without moving from his perch of more than six hours, 48-year-old Thomas welcomed a steady receiving line of visitors. College coaches stopped by to introduce or reintroduce themselves, the various hangers-on and entrepreneurs who populate the summer-league circuit inserted themselves into conversations just to say hello, and spectators tried desperately to be inconspicuous as they nonchalantly walked by, only to whisper and rubberneck once they passed.

"Sure, the recognition helps," Thomas laughs, "but that's the way it's been my whole life. That's not why I'm here."

Critics might snicker that Thomas' new head-coaching gig at Florida International is nothing more than an image reclamation project by the man and a public relations stunt by the university.

They wonder how the bus rides to Mobile, Ala., will play out to a man accustomed to flying charters, question whether he has the stomach for the grind of recruiting when he has spent years evaluating NBA talent.

To spend the end of the recruiting period on the road with college coaches is to spend a week in Dante's lowest circle of hell. Coaches are exhausted, bored and fed up. They're tired of being on the road, tired of watching games all day and half the night, tired of the travel.

Fueled by nothing more than a fruit smoothie at 9 a.m., Thomas looks -- four hours later in a stuffy gym in the middle of the desert at the end of July -- as if he has landed in Candy Land.

"The biggest difference I notice now is the passion and the raw emotion here,'' he says. "This game goes to the soul of these kids. In the NBA, it's entertainment or a job. This is the game at its purest. You can't fake that. You can practically smell it. And for me, it's so refreshing because I haven't smelled that smell in a while."

He has smelled a more offensive stench recently. In three seasons with the Pacers, he endured three first-round playoff exits.

And then there was the nadir in New York, the professional and personal disaster that ended with him on the wrong side of a 23-59 record and an $11 million sexual harassment lawsuit.

Of that, Thomas, who always has proclaimed his innocence, says, "Who knows what that was all about? I mean … who knows?"

From the outside, FIU seems the perfect place to rebuild a career and a life -- a mid-major school that has not had a winning season in nine years.

How can a man fail at a place that has never tasted success?

But Thomas insists this isn't about licking his wounds and saving face. It is about basketball. It has always been about basketball. He likens the game to the adrenaline rush a person might get jumping from a plane, talks wistfully about his childhood days in Chicago, days when he played until he threw up and refused to leave the court even to use the bathroom.

With candor, he admits that this interview wouldn't have gone as well if it had taken place in a coffee shop, that the comfort zone of the gym allows him to let down his guard.

He has tried to find another love. Before taking the FIU job, Thomas dreamed of competing in an Ironman triathlon. He has biked a century race (100 miles) and still will pedal 30 to 40 miles a day when time permits.

It wasn't the same. Since he was a kid sitting at the feet of Naismith pupil John McLendon, listening to McLendon speak at the Martin Luther King Boys Club in Chicago, Thomas has held strong to one belief:

"I remember him saying this ball can you take you anywhere, all around the world," Thomas says. "You can dine with kings and queens, you can meet presidents and heads of state. If you're true to the game, it will be true to you. I've tried to stay true to the game, and it has always been true to me."

It is this almost carnal love for the game that Thomas says has made the transition to FIU so easy. Others might look at it as a major step down. He considers it just another job in basketball.

Sure, things are different. For one, he never had to sweat out an exam in the NBA. Passing the NCAA compliance test brought all sorts of horrors back for Thomas -- "I hadn't taken a test since college. I forgot how nervous I got. I was a wreck."

And although the accoutrements of fame aren't vital to him, they are still available to him: He stayed at the luxurious Wynn while in Las Vegas, not exactly the host hotel and casino for his Sun Belt brethren.

But on the positive side, there is the bounty of recruiting, where everyone, he says, is a free agent. No one is slotting whom he can and can't have. Everyone is up for grabs to the hardest worker, a challenge Thomas relishes. He already has commitments from 2010 point guard Phil Taylor, rated the 37th best at his position, and 2011's Chris Coleman, tabbed the No. 5 center in his class.

For those who think he will thumb his nose when his new hotels fail to rate a Fodor's ranking, that he will succumb to the grueling schedule of summer recruiting, Thomas just laughs.

You think sitting in a gym all day is tough? Try his final year in New York.

Better yet, try his childhood.

"You know the poverty line?" he says. "We were below it."

Try playing a couple of years for Bob Knight.

Or better yet, try living your whole life under the watchful eye of Mary Thomas. Now a feisty 87-year-old who has lost a leg to amputation, survived three heart attacks and every day all but gives the grim reaper a polite but firm middle-finger salute, Thomas' mother does not suffer fools or tolerate BS.

When her son recently took her to one of the Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas, Mary decided when it was over.

"I said, 'But Mom, it's the finale,'" Thomas recalls. "She just said, 'Mmmm-hmm' and got up. That was it. I used to tell Coach Knight all the time that he was nothing compared to my mother."

And so as Hour 4 turns into Hour 5 without any sustenance save the water from the now-empty bottle at his feet, Thomas sits contentedly. Despite a thermostat that will not go below 80, even after Gonzaga coach Mark Few adjusts it, Thomas isn't sweating.

He knows he's fortunate. His NBA career has dealt him the comfortable hand of not needing to coach for the money. If he gets canned in April, his pride might take a hit but his bank account will be just fine.

"I know the rest of these guys, they can't say that," says Thomas, who donated this year's salary to charity. "For them, this is about money and survival. Me, I'm here because I want to be here."

As he talks, a slow smile creeps across Isiah Thomas' face.

This isn't where he needs to be for now.

This is where he always wanted to be.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.