The images of only a handful of former IU basketball players have been cast in bronze and put on display at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
One of them will be at Hoosier Hysteria on Saturday afternoon.
IU basketball head coach Mike Woodson will be reunited with his former teammate and fellow 1980 Big Ten champion when Isiah Thomas comes to Bloomington for the event. Thomas is expected to address the crowd inside the building where he once played for coach Bob Knight and led the 1981 Hoosiers to a national title.
The underappreciated 1980 season was the bridge that connected Woodson and Thomas at IU after Woodson played a significant role in recruiting Thomas to come to Bloomington. Woodson missed most of the 1980 season after having back surgery, but he returned just in time to lead the preseason No. 1 Hoosiers on a six-game winning streak that was just enough to deliver the conference crown.
“The 1980 team was better than the ’81 team that won the national championship, without a question,” Thomas and Woodson’s 1980 teammate Randy Wittman said back in February 2020. “Without a question. And because of injuries and him (Woodson) going down with back surgery, we weren’t able to be the team that I think we could have been.”
The statue of Thomas in Assembly Hall’s south lobby is modeled on one of the most identifiable photographs in IU basketball history. The image of his layup during Indiana’s win over North Carolina in the 1981 national championship game was featured in the April 6, 1981, issue of Sports Illustrated. The Hoosiers were dominant that March, winning their tournament games by an average of 22.6 points.
Thomas averaged 15.4 points and 5.7 assists per game over two seasons at Indiana. After winning an NCAA title as a sophomore in 1981, Thomas turned pro. The Pistons made him the second pick of the draft, and he led Detroit to consecutive championships in 1989 and 1990.
Thomas retired in 1994 with averages of 19.2 points and 9.3 assists. In 13 years with Detroit, he became the franchise’s all-time leader in points, assists, steals and games played. He made the All-Star Team in all but his final year and was named NBA Finals MVP in 1990. Thomas became the fourth player in NBA history to amass more than 9,000 assists. His 13.9 assists per game in 1984-85 set an NBA record for the highest single-season average ever. Thomas is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The return of Thomas to Bloomington this weekend is part of an outreach effort by Woodson to reunite the former players with the program.
While he has continued to be quietly involved with the IU basketball program over the last 40 years, the new head coach got a sense for the weight of what he now leads at a former player reunion in French Lick, Ind. this summer.
“It kind of touched home, man. I mean, after sitting up here accepting the job and going through a few months of work on the job, I mean, it just hadn’t set in,” Woodson said.
“When all the players came back (at French Lick) that we brought back, I believe it was about 150 players, it kind of touched home, man. A lot of those guys have paved the way before I was even thought of. Some of the younger guys after me probably looked at me as a guy who paved the way for them. It was one big family reunion, man.”
The event at French Lick included Knight, the man who coached both Woodson and Thomas at IU.
“To see everybody back and see the main man (Knight) who made it all happen sit there and then get up and speak that night, it was perfect.
“Those kind of settings we can’t stop. That’s just the beginning of who I am and what I’m about because I think ex-players have to be a part of this ride as well because they were a big part of it when they played here.”
Thomas hasn’t said much publicly about the hiring of Woodson. He took to his social media account and simply wrote “Let it be known @IUHoosiers” when Woodson was announced as the new IU head coach in March.
Indiana fans will hear much more from the program legend on Saturday.
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