MIAMI (AP) -Isiah Thomas is adjusting to what starting over really means at Florida International.
For tip-off at FIU's most recent home game, 11 people were in the student section near the Golden Panthers' bench, three of whom forgot to stand until midway through the national anthem. All but four of the 48 courtside premium seats were empty and in the gym's highest section, security guards outnumbered fans 2-0.
The NBA, this most assuredly is not.
``For the most part, I'm learning every day,'' Thomas said.
``I can cheer,'' he insisted to a university police officer, who couldn't calm the guy down. ``I'm teaching people how to cheer.''
Unlike the New York Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden, at least they're screaming for Thomas at FIU instead of at him.
An 84-71 loss to Murray State dropped FIU to 2-5 on the season, Thomas' first at the school. FIU was the first team in the nation to play seven games this season, which gave the Hall of Fame player plenty of early opportunities to assess where the Golden Panthers are and where they have to go.
If nothing else, Thomas has found ``glimmers of hope,'' he said.
``The college kids, they don't have as much talent, you know, as an NBA player has. But they have heart,'' Thomas said. ``I mean, these guys fight. They give you everything that you could possibly want. You root so hard for them because they try so hard. You're living with every mistake that they make and you're just rooting for them because they try so hard.''
It's going to take more than trying hard for FIU to win this season.
ked to win any of them.
A 2-5 record could be 2-13 quickly, especially since FIU has lost 34 of its last 39 road games.
``This'll be good for us,'' Thomas said. ``We'll get smacked around out there a little bit, but hopefully we can learn to fight back and scratch out a game or two. But if you learn how to win on the road, come conference play in January, then you can be all right.''
While he's still learning about his team - he laughed when he saw one of the upcoming itineraries included ``class time,'' which is a far cry from what he called ``recreation time'' during NBA road trips - the Golden Panthers are still learning about their coach, too.
FIU isn't used to this sort of attention, which started in earnest with the season-opening game at defending national champion North Carolina. And some players, they're not used to having an NBA champion calling their plays, either.
Frankly, it can be a little intimidating.
``Some players, they're scared to speak up or whatever,'' said Stephon Weaver, who scored 23 points in Monday's loss. ``I'm not one of them.''
Weaver said he's embraced having Thomas around, picking his brain, listening more than he probably did to any other coach in his life. With a loaded recruiting class set to come in next season, Thomas is vowing that FIU will be much improved a year from now.
ank this season, either.
``We're trying to listen to coach, but we don't want to make him have a hard time,'' Weaver said. ``From the Carolina game, we learned from it. We're just undersized.''
Plus, well, they're not very good, either.
FIU is making only 38 percent of its shots, not even 24 percent from 3-point range, and is allowing 84 points per game. Its only two wins have come when scoring at least 83 points, and one of those victories was against an NAIA Division II school.
``There's a certain way that we need to play,'' Thomas said. ``We need to play with energy and effort all the time. We're not an extremely talented team. ... And thus far, that's why we've been kind of scrappy and able to stay in games and make it a little exciting for our fans. We're not doing it because we're overwhelming people with talent right now.''
His silver lining is there, though. There's no ``Fire Isiah!'' chants at FIU, no whispers of scandal, no free agency debacles haunting him unlike the end of his stint with the Knicks.
Basketball, he said, feels like a game again.
``I'm falling in love with the guys. I'm falling in love with the game,'' Thomas said. ``That's a beautiful thing for me because sometimes, the game breaks your heart and I'm lovesick for the game.''

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