Phillip Gary’s athletic ability on the basketball court made him a sought after player.

Division I schools, like DePaul, Central Michigan, Providence and the University of Southern California scouted the Malcolm X College point guard. But the Oak Park native opted to play for a lesser known school, Florida International University, because of its big name coach.

“Isiah Thomas was one of the best point guards in the NBA ever,” Gary said of his choice to attend FIU this fall.

Gary called the opportunity to be coached by NBA great and Chicago native Thomas “amazing.” Hopefully, the chance would also allow Gary to make that leap to the NBA, a goal most urban youths aspire for. But for now, Gary has his sights set on playing Division I ball.

“I think every kid’s ultimate goal is to go to the NBA, but I wanted to go to college,” said Gary, 20, who’s finishing up summer classes at Malcolm X College. “I always wanted to win a national championship in college or at least make the NCAA tournament. I wanted that experience under my belt.”

Gary’s chance at being coached by Thomas came by fate. The former head coach of the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks was named head coach of FIU’s Golden Panthers in April. Thomas was looking to rebuild the team and put in a call to childhood friend Willie Scott, head basketball coach at Malcolm X College. Scott and Thomas grew up together on the West Side and played Biddy Basketball at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boys Club.

“When Isiah took the job at Florida International, I was his first call,” said Scott, who played professional ball overseas for nine years. “He asked me to … be his assistant. Once Isiah offered me the job … I told Isaiah I had the best point guard in the country and that I would bring him with me.”

Although contract negotiations fell through for Scott, he encouraged Gary to consider FIU. Scott said Gary was highly sought after by other schools and that was all Thomas needed to know. Gary was offered a scholarship to play at FIU without trying out for the team.

“We had a great talk, not about basketball, but about life, period,” Gary said of his meeting with Thomas. “He said you want to put your hands in somebody you can trust. Since he and my dad knew each other, there is nobody I’d rather trust right now as coach at a Division I level than Isiah Thomas.”

Gary already has high expectations. He plans to be a starting player and help Thomas build a championship team.

“I’m poised and ready and humbled for it,” added Gary, who plans to major in broadcasting.

But Gary’s dream of playing college ball almost didn’t happen. His decision to put sports over academics sidelined his childhood dream of playing for the University of Arizona. He said the school has a history of producing NBA point guards, but his grades weren’t up to par.

“I did enough to get by,” said the Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate. “It hurt a little when I found out that I wasn’t going to go to a big time university out of high school, but it made me work harder for my goals.”

To bring his grades up Gary opted to go to a junior college. He first attended Blackhawk College in Moline before being recruited by Scott, who also knew Gary’s father from their days of playing ball together.

But Gary credits his time at Malcolm X with improving both his athletics and his academic abilities.

“I worked on my game and on my books,” said Gary, who devoted equal time practicing basketball as on his studies. “I think, overall, I became more mature. If I wanted to go to a university, my grades and my basketball had to get better.”

Gary’s skills on the court should come as no surprise. His father, Phillip Gary II, played with the Kansas City Kings – now the Sacramento Kings – before a stint overseas playing professional ball in Europe.

Gary said his dad has taught him everything about the game from dribbling, passing, playing defense to even staying fit. That tutelage put Gary ahead of the curve. At age 13, he was already playing like most pros, doing spin moves behind the back and reverse lay-ups.

“My dad was like my coach, trainer, mentor all in one,” Gary said. “My dad taught me there is always somebody working harder than you so you still have to work harder whether you have skills or not.”

Phillip Gary II, a former Chicago State University basketball coach, is proud of his son’s accomplishments, and he said his son couldn’t be in better hands with Thomas.

“Going down there with Isiah … he is playing for the best,” said the elder Gary, who has known Thomas since grammar school. “If he displays that he is the leader not only in practice, but on and off the court, I think he will be successful.”