Mike Woodson and Isiah Thomas delight the Hoosier Hysteria crowd

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BLOOMINGTON – Isiah Thomas started to cry.

He had just started his speech with a story about Mike Woodson. How he remembered the final defeat in 1980, the last game of Woodson’s career. He remembers seeing Woodson take off his IU jersey for the last time – how that motivated Thomas to win the national title the following year.

His voice began to break as he spoke to fans gathered inside the boardroom for Saturday’s Hoosier Hysteria. Thomas told the same story to the IU men’s basketball team in the morning, freshman guard Tamar Bates said. Bates said Woodson cried then. Thomas was proud to be home. It was a word he used a lot. He was proud to see Woodson in charge of the program he loves.

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The return home is not for two weeks. Then there will be a parade and football. Thousands of alumni will return.

This however, was the homecoming of IU basketball. It was the day that UI fans got to welcome Mike Woodson again. Dane Fife returned as Hoosier. They also welcomed Thomas, along with other alumni like Ted Kitchel in the stands. It was the day that, after years of demand, former UI players had one of their own as their head coach, and on Saturday it was unveiled to fans.

“It’s good to be home,” said Woodson.

He was the last to exit, entering the north end of the Assembly Hall to a standing ovation. Woodson walked slowly, waving to the crowd and enjoying the moment. As Thomas excited the crowd, Woodson looked up from the stands and applauded. He raised his hand and raised his fist. And he smiled radiantly.

He was at home, in front of fans who already loved him no matter what he did.

Woodson spoke of all the hard work to be done for IU to achieve his own goals, when he held up the Big Ten Championship banners as a player. He referred to Bob Knight. He spoke to fans, asking for their help throughout the rebuilding process. But he made them a promise.

IU coach Mike Woodson waves to Assembly Hall worshipers during Saturday's Hoosier hysteria.

“We’re going to come back to the top,” Woodson said. “We want to give you something to be proud of. “

Fife was in the Assembly Hall on the bench opposite working with the State of Michigan. But Fife was also at home. He wore the candy striped pants and warm-up jacket he wore when playing – all coaches wore them. “Right Where I Belong” by local country music artist Clayton Anderson performed as he dated his daughters.

In some ways, the day resembled the 1980 team reunion in February 2020 where Knight returned to Assembly Hall. Woodson was there that day, so was Thomas. That day they were cheered on by fans who loved them unconditionally, fans who dreamed of the banners they raised all those decades ago. On Saturday, they did the same.

Woodson and Thomas talked about these banners. On Monday, on IU Media Day, Woodson said the team closed each practice by looking at the National Championship banners on one side of the arena and the Big Ten Championship banners on the other. Guard Xavier Johnson seemed amazed to hear Thomas and Woodson talk about their successes. He called Thomas the GOAT – the greatest of all time.

“It inspired the whole team when he spoke,” Johnson said of Thomas. “It was kind of like ‘Wow, he’s sitting across the road talking, giving us advice.'”

It was also a homecoming for fans – their first time IU has had fans in Assembly Hall since March 7, 2020. Save, of course, for the handful of March Madness games hosted in the building. The lower level wasn’t full, but they were loud as they cheered on stories of past greatness and promises of a bright future ahead.

They didn’t have a full show. There was no scrum, Woodson told the crowd, as the team was “short-staffed.” Khristian Lander, Miller Kopp, Trey Galloway and Michael Durr have not all participated in the team’s events. Lander had a boot on his left foot. All were out for precautionary reasons, an IU spokesperson said.

But fans saw Parker Stewart dominate the 3-point contest and Trayce Jackson-Davis win the dunk contest. And perhaps more importantly, they revisited the icons of the past. Fans trusted their words, another banner might one day arrive.

“There will be ups and downs along the way,” Thomas told the students and the team. “But what you’re going to be a special part of is saying you were in school when the journey started.”

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