Magic-Isiah Feud is Just SadIt is indisputable that Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas--two of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players--used to be as close as brothers; it is also indisputable that their relationship has suffered a rift that is likely irreparable. Determining who is to blame for causing that rift has suddenly become a very public controversy and the sad reality is that we will likely never know the full truth.
When Thomas and his childhood friend Mark Aguirre were young NBA players they spent a lot of time with Johnson and frequently went to the NBA Finals when Johnson's L.A. Lakers battled Bird's Boston Celtics; Thomas and Aguirre wanted to see up close exactly what the Finals were all about and they learned their lessons well, eventually leading the Detroit Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, beating both the Celtics and the Lakers during that first championship run. I have always respected the studious--and relentless--approach that Thomas took when guiding the Pistons from being a laughingstock to a contender to a repeat champion during one of the NBA's most competitive eras, a period when he and the Pistons had to fight for supremacy not only against Bird's Celtics and Johnson's Lakers but Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, Clyde Drexler's Portland Trail Blazers and several other deep, strong teams.
In Jackie MacMullan's new book When the Game Was Ours, a biography of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson written with the cooperation of both subjects, Johnson asserts that Thomas spread rumors that Johnson is gay and/or bisexual after Johnson retired from the NBA in 1991 due to his HIV positive status. Johnson also declares that Thomas alienated most of the players in the NBA and that no one on the 1992 Dream Team wanted Thomas to be a member of that squad.
Thomas feels completely blindsided by Johnson's comments and, in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, vehemently denies Johnson's accusations, adding, "I'm really hurt, and I really feel taken advantage of for all these years. I'm totally blindsided by this. Every time that I've seen Magic, he has been friendly with me. Whenever he came to a Knick game, he was standing in the tunnel (to the locker room) with me. He and (Knicks assistant coach) Herb (Williams) and I, we would go out to dinner in New York. I didn't know he felt this way."
MacMullan is a solid reporter and I believe that she accurately quoted Johnson--but the key source for the allegation that Thomas questioned Johnson's sexuality is not Johnson but rather Lon Rosen, Johnson's longtime agent, who claims that Thomas asked Rosen if Johnson is gay. Rosen says that after he denied that Johnson is gay Thomas replied, "I don't know what he's doing when he's out there in L.A." Thomas told Thomsen that the alleged conversation with Rosen never took place. When Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon recently interviewed MacMullan on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," MacMullan said that Rosen has no reason or motive to lie and that she has "two or three" anonymous sources who also say that Thomas questioned Johnson's sexuality and/or spread rumors about Johnson in that regard. Interestingly, Bird--who faced Thomas in several contentious playoff series and who fired Thomas as Pacers' coach in 2003--apparently did not say anything negative about Thomas to MacMullan.
ESPN's on air coverage of this situation has clearly been slanted in Johnson's favor--which is understandable (though hardly excusable) considering that MacMullan is a member of the ESPN family; during Friday afternoon's SportsCenter, ESPN quoted Johnson's accusations against Thomas at length while giving short shrift to Thomas' refutations, so you really must read Thomsen's article to get the complete picture. Oddly, both ESPN and Thomsen erroneously said that MacMullan's book will be published on November 4 when in fact the book has already been in stores since at least mid-October (I saw copies of the book in the Highland Park, Illinois Borders on October 12).
Most people understand from personal experience that in "he said, he said" situations there usually is some truth--and some falsehood (or at least distorted memories)--in what both sides say. Of course, some times one side is simply lying while the other side is telling the complete truth. In this particular case, only Johnson, Rosen and Thomas know the truth but I am disappointed with MacMullan's comments to Kornheiser and Wilbon. Contrary to what she said, Rosen certainly has discernible motives/reasons to lie:
1) Rosen would certainly want to keep his story in line with whatever Johnson says or else Rosen could lose a valuable client.
2) Many agents did not like some of the actions that Thomas took when Thomas was the President of the NBA Players Association.
I am not accusing Rosen of lying--but I also do not see any reason to say that he should be considered more credible than Thomas. Think about it this way--if your best friend announced that he is HIV positive and that he contracted the virus via heterosexual sex would your first move be to ask your friend's agent/lawyer if your friend is gay? Wouldn't you feel like you know your friend better than his agent/lawyer does?
With all due respect to MacMullan, I am not impressed by her "anonymous sources," who could very well be people who have axes to grind against Thomas. I have long respected Al Neuharth's refusal to use anonymous sources when he ran USA TODAY; Neuharth explained, "There's not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism--the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate--where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can't overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them."
Although it is impossible to prove whether Thomas or Rosen is telling the truth, it is worth noting that the timeline of events does not support Johnson's claim that Thomas' comments led to Johnson not supporting Thomas' inclusion on the Dream Team; the Dream Team roster was announced on September 21, 1991, six weeks before Johnson made his announcement about being HIV positive (and thus long before the Thomas-Rosen conversation supposedly happened).
It also must be said that when the Dream Team roster was chosen four players should have been absolute, mortal locks: Johnson (winner of five championships), Bird (winner of three championships), Thomas (winner of two championships) and Michael Jordan (who at that time had just won the first of his six NBA titles). You could argue about the merits of various other players but those four guys simply had to be on the team--but Thomas was left off. Whatever the real reasons are for that decision, it was a disgrace to deny Thomas an honor that he had earned by literally leaving his blood, sweat and tears on the court, particularly since he had previously missed an opportunity to play in the Olympics due to the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games.
We may never know the truth about Johnson's accusations and Thomas' refutations but Thomas should have been on the Dream Team--and no one who played a role in keeping Thomas off of that roster should be proud of that dubious achievement.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM