Strange Loyalty: Dominique Ferguson, Isiah Thomas, Florida International and The Breaks

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There are exceptions to the rule. Kentucky's Terrence Jones looks kind of like a "Simpsons" character and his universe-bending teammate Anthony Davis looks like a weird Modigliani/Frida Kahlo collaboration. But for the most part, even the college hoops recruits who are not actually named "Chicken" look weirdly like alien hatchlings. "Weirdly" because, in most cases, these are people with outlandish, outsized bodies and the specific type of talent most adults spent their adolescences wishing they had, and spend much of their adulthood admiring, still-kind-of-envying, wrapping into overelaborate social critiques (ahem) or less-elaborate basketball-based gripes, punning about on Twitter and otherwise obsessing over. But, more than that and also, That Hatchling Look is not at all weird. Because these are just big kids, and so it probably shouldn't be that surprising that they look like big kids.

They're commodities, too, for revenue-generating, results-oriented basketball programs, and human talking points who will be criticized by adults who will never meet them, on message boards and in bars, in tones alternately sour and bitter. But mostly and moreover they're kids. Imagine a teenager with a learner's permit piloting, under scrutiny and with the highest of stakes, the heavy machinery that is a McDonald's All-American physique, and you're close. That Dominique Ferguson—once a top-50 recruit, and as of today a longshot early-entry candidate for the NBA Draft—may have wrecked is sad for a number of reasons, but probably shouldn't be surprising. Who, at his age, could drive something this big and this fast? Or, without the metaphor: what teenager hasn't misplaced his trust and made some bad decisions? Ferguson, because he is bigger and more valuable than most teenagers, had an opportunity to make bigger mistakes. Because he made the choices he did, and because the NCAA is the NCAA, he is suffering more from those mistakes than the rest of us would ever have to.

And Ferguson did make some really bad choices. He was recruited by Arizona, Duke, Indiana and a host of other major programs, but opted to sign with Billy Gillispie at Kentucky, then left the program when Gillispie—one of the most universally disliked men in college basketball, for some reasonable enough reasons—was fired. The Calipari administration was eager to keep Ferguson in Lexington, but he had found a new and equally suspect authority figure in which to put his trust. That was Isiah Thomas, who snagged Ferguson as his biggest recruit after taking over as head coach at Florida International University. Zeke won 19 games over his last two seasons at the school, while conducting a very public and very poorly concealed job search; his prize recruit put up a 11.9 PER as a freshman, and a 12.0 PER as a sophomore.

Ferguson averaged 8.7 points with a .433 eFG% last season in the Sun Belt, a sprawling shitshow of a conference best classified as Lower Mid-Major. When Thomas was fired at the end of this season—"I've never been fired before for basketball reasons," Zeke said. "This is the first time."—Ferguson sought a release from his scholarship and an opportunity to transfer to a school closer to his home in Indianapolis; he told the Associated Press that he'd seen his family just five times in the last three years. Florida International, as is its (appalling) right under NCAA rules, denied Ferguson the right to talk to other schools about a transfer; he and numerous other players were incensed when Thomas was fired, and walked out of the school's athletic banquet in protest, and the school is aiming to keep as much of that dubious core in place for new coach Richard Pitino. Three members of FIU's board reviewed Ferguson's request and ruled that it would be more beneficial, presumably for him, if he were to remain with the team. Ferguson disagreed, and declared for the draft.

"They've given schools way too much power to tell another human being what they can and can't do," Ferguson told Yahoo's Jeff Eisenberg. "They sent an email telling me they thought it would be more beneficial for me to stay here. They've never met me before. They don't know me from the next athlete. For them to tell me it would be more beneficial to stay here, it's kind of a slap in the face." Ferguson is not the first player to absorb this particular slap over the last month, but the particular players in this drama make for a uniquely pointed and poignant ugliness. Ferguson, with all the anti-wisdom that comes with his age, has entrusted his future first to Billy Clyde Gillispie, a pioneer in the field of Coach As Seriously Troubled Car Salesman Performance Studies and then to Isiah Thomas, one of the strangest and most defective svengalis in the basketball business. When he tried to make a choice that any other student would be able to make with ease, Ferguson ran up against the chilly, paternalistic cynicism of a school with the queasy audacity to employ an Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment instead of an Athletic Director. Ferguson will certainly not be drafted. He may wind up playing in Europe, and he may not. It is not a good situation for him, but not only for him.

Of course, FIU will survive this. The people who denied Ferguson's transfer will continue to pour taxpayer dollars into their basketball program in hopes that they may someday be mentioned in the same breath as the University of South Florida, and they will do all the other things—things like denying kids the right to transfer, or bumping underperforming players off their scholarships—that a "vibrant, student-centered public research university" must do to reach that level. They'll entrust their team and the teenagers on it to someone like Isiah Thomas, unless he doesn't win, at which point they'll bring someone else in.

"Dude...why?," ESPN's Eamonn Brennan writes. "Why did you want to play for Isiah Thomas?... If Ferguson isn't obviously getting better at FIU, and Thomas wasn't using his NBA mojo to prepare Ferguson for the league, why is Ferguson so upset with the firing of his coach that he's rashly deciding to leave for the NBA?" Well, because Ferguson is a teenager. Because he thought, and his parents evidently also thought, that he could trust an adult and an institution that promised to be worthy of his trust.

He and they were obviously wrong about all that: wrong in the way that teenagers are often wrong about things, and for the reasons that allow con artists to con people, and punished in the way that rotten institutions are harder on powerless victims than powerful wrongdoers. That would be why. It's difficult to see why he—or anyone—would or should want to remain at a school like Florida International, or why he—or anyone—would choose to be at the mercy of a point-missing rule-writing organization like the NCAA. But of course he doesn't really have a choice.

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Comments

Terrence Jones is the embodiment of what a bully looks like.

Specifically, Nelson Muntz.

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