MIAMI — Isiah Thomas said Saturday that he is deeply disappointed by his firing by Florida International, adding that he felt the long-struggling program was on the verge of a breakthrough season.
The Basketball Hall of Fame player was fired Friday. He went 26-65 in three years, and FIU's program hasn't had a winning record since 1999-2000.
"I am deeply disappointed that I wasn't given the time to finish the job of building FIU into one of the nation's top basketball programs," Thomas said in a statement released to The Associated Press. "The foundation for success had been laid and we were looking forward to having our breakout year, with another strong recruiting class."
Other than a three-line statement released Friday to announce Thomas' firing, FIU officials have not made any other public comments about the move.
Thomas' former players, though, are not pleased.
"Everyone really, really took it hard," DeJuan Wright, FIU's leading scorer this past season, said Saturday. "It hasn't settled in. Besides basketball, everyone from top to bottom on our team looked up to coach Thomas. He has really helped us as men. I know that's cliche to say, but it's really, really true. He's really helped all of us as men, in the classroom and making sure we're doing the right things."
Wright was among several players who were working out in the FIU gym on Friday with Thomas, when news of the coach's firing broke.
Not long afterward, Wright and those same players were helping Thomas carry hastily packed boxes from his now-former office to his car.
"Surreal. It was bad, man," Wright said. "We're hurt. We're upset. It is a business, but this hasn't sunk in yet at all."
Thomas had two years remaining on his contract, one where he waived any base salary for his first season in part because of financial problems within the school's athletic department at the time. He also was still collecting about $12 million from the remainder of his contract with the New York Knicks, the team he was with as coach and president before a series of on- and off-the-court missteps led to him starting over at FIU.
The Knicks tried to hire Thomas after his first FIU season as a consultant. Thomas said he ultimately declined that position because it would violate certain NBA rules, including those prohibiting team officials from having contact with college players who are not eligible for the draft, but several FIU officials also worked hard to convince him to stay.
Less than two years later, he was fired.
"Coaching FIU had everything to do with my love of the game and the truly rewarding work of helping to shape the character of our players," Thomas said.
Thomas cited several accomplishments in his statement, including that 17 of a possible 19 players will have graduated by the end of this academic year, his helping organize a charity game with NBA players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade during the lockout that raised $100,000 for scholarships for future FIU students and that the school started a collaboration with the University of California "to educate our athletes about the importance of academics."
It's unclear how many players who came to FIU to play for Thomas will choose to stay. The school has not divulged if any players have already asked to be released from their letters of intent.
Also unknown: How many recruits who had committed to FIU will actually sign with the Panthers. Thomas said FIU planned to sign four of the Florida's top 50 players this season, who could have potentially lined up with two returning Sun Belt all-conference players, a pair of 7-footers and other newcomers from Chicago, Baltimore and Wyoming.
"He was building," Wright said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. I really think next year, they had a great chance, more than any other class coming in to turn that corner. It's just unfortunate that he doesn't get to at least finish what he started."
Follow Tim Reynolds on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ByTimReynolds