LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be there, as will Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, all of them All-Stars. They are coming for two reasons: charity and . And, specifically, for Thomas’s charitable foundation.
This exhibition game could have been staged anywhere, certainly in a much larger arena, and surely at a more renowned college than Florida International University. But Thomas is F.I.U.’s basketball coach. And Thomas, the Hall of Fame point guard, has the ear of nearly every young star in the N.B.A — despite his chaotic tenure as the and team president.
When James and Wade, the Miami Heat co-stars, decided to hold a charity exhibition, they took the proposal straight to Thomas, whose foundation Mary’s Court — named for his late mother — seeks to help families in poverty.
“It wasn’t a discussion,” Thomas said in a telephone interview Friday. “It was basically, ‘We want to come to F.I.U., we want to honor your mom and we want to play at F.I.U. and do the charity game there.’ ”
Thomas added: “I’m humbled. It’s very, very kind.”
The game, which will be played at F.I.U.’s 5,000-seat arena, presents a fascinating prism for viewing Thomas in his post-Knicks career.
There is Thomas the coach, working to regain credibility at a relatively obscure midmajor program.
There is Thomas the humanitarian, channeling his tough, West Side of Chicago upbringing into a broad effort to help children who face the same challenging environment: poverty, drugs and violent crime.
And there is Thomas, the consummate insider, the charmer with the disarming smile and the empathetic voice, forever working behind the scenes, connecting and advising and cajoling the many stars in his basketball orbit.
Players, especially young stars, respect Thomas for his game, his grit and his championship pedigree with the Detroit Pistons. The five messy years he spent at Madison Square Garden are a distant afterthought.
It is because of Thomas’s influence with today’s stars that he remains a relevant figure in N.B.A. circles — and a frightening specter to many New York fans and commentators.
In the last year alone, Thomas has been linked — rightly or wrongly, publicly or through anonymously sourced reports — to the Knicks’ signing of Stoudemire, their trade for Anthony, their presumed pursuit of Paul and to their hiring of Mike Woodson as an assistant coach. Frustration over Thomas’s continued influence on James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, was said to be a factor in Donnie Walsh’s decision to step down as team president last spring.
Thomas addresses every item on the list with a uniform, “No comment,” although he allows that Woodson is “a good friend of mine” and that he has “a great relationship” with Anthony.
“And anything outside of that, you would have to talk to the Knicks about,” Thomas said. “It’s not my place to comment on that.”
It is debatable whether Thomas had much impact on the player acquisitions. The Knicks were the only team willing to offer Stoudemire a fully guaranteed, $100 million deal. Anthony, who forced a trade from Denver, had insisted all along on a trade to New York, using his own leverage — pending free agency — as the means to direct the outcome. Neither player needed Thomas to broker a deal, or to sell them on anything.
Yet the rumors of Thomas’s influence persist, which is both to his benefit and his detriment. The reports help inflate his reputation as an N.B.A. kingpin, perhaps convincing another owner to hire him. But they also serve as a constant irritant to Knicks officials and to many fans, who resent the idea that Thomas — who was fired in 2008 — is still shaping anything.
Thomas’s name is probably invoked more often in the New York news media than it is in Miami.
“The universe has a way of trying to right itself,” Thomas said, pausing at length. “I’ll leave it at that.”
He is much more talkative on the subject of his community work. Mary’s Court, established last year, is focused on helping families deal with gang violence while also promoting education and literacy. The efforts have mostly been concentrated in Thomas’s old neighborhood in Chicago and in Detroit, but he wants to expand the programs to Memphis, Boston, Miami and other cities with high percentages of impoverished youth.
“We want our kids to be healthy, safe and educated,” said Thomas, whose mother was active in N.B.A. circles and in her community.
“She was always everyone’s mother,” Thomas said. “In the N.B.A., all the moms that would come into the N.B.A., they would always reach out to her, and she would reach out to them and help them with the personal or private moments that they were dealing with.”
Networking, it seems, runs in the family.