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Monday, December 25, 2017

Magic and Isiah Reminisce and Reconcile

NBA TV's recent Players Only Monthly "Isiah and Magic" episode featured a heartfelt conversation between two of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Unless you are at least 40 years old and/or a student of basketball history, you probably do not understand either the impact that both Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas had as players or the full nature of their deep friendship that suffered a very public feud.

Johnson won five championships while capturing three Finals MVPs and three regular season MVPs before retiring as pro basketball's all-time assists leader (he now ranks fifth on that list); Thomas won two championships and one Finals MVP and he ranked third all-time in assists when he retired (he is now seventh on that list). Johnson mentored Thomas and Thomas' childhood friend Mark Aguirre. Thomas and Aguirre, as young NBA players, went to the NBA Finals and observed Johnson win titles and the three of them also worked basketball camps together.

Johnson may be better known to younger NBA fans than Thomas is but--as Johnson noted in his words and as highlight footage shown during the episode confirms--long before Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving or even Tim Hardaway were breaking ankles Isiah Thomas was a magician who had the basketball on a string and who could finish in traffic during an era when driving to the basket inevitably meant encountering heavy physical contact.

The Johnson-Thomas friendship initially became a bit strained during the 1988 NBA Finals, the first time that the two players faced each other with a championship directly on the line. Johnson's L.A. Lakers won that title--Johnson's last championship--and then Thomas' Detroit Pistons won the next two titles, beating Johnson's Lakers in the 1989 Finals and then defeating a strong Portland team in the 1990 Finals. Aguirre played a key role for both Detroit championship teams.

The rift widened in the early 1990s, after Johnson announced that he had contracted HIV. Johnson later publicly stated that he believed that Thomas had spread rumors that Johnson is homosexual or bisexual. Thomas has always denied that assertion and Johnson never offered any proof that Thomas had done this. The final blow came when Thomas was left off of the 1992 Dream Team and Johnson later rubbed salt in that wound by stating that Thomas had alienated so many people that no one wanted him on the squad. Thomas' on-court accomplishments should have made him a lock for the team and Thomas was hurt by his omission and further wounded by Johnson's harsh words.

Johnson and Thomas never publicly talked about these matters with each other until the filming of the NBA TV show, during which Thomas (an NBA TV commentator) ostensibly interviewed Johnson but--as the two joked--they in fact interviewed each other. The show charted the arc of their friendship and their Hall of Fame careers, focusing on how Johnson mentored Thomas (and Aguirre) and on how battling for championships forced Johnson to choose between the Lakers and that friendship. Johnson now freely admits that he chose the Lakers, something that Thomas says that he understands but that he found very hurtful at the time.

Johnson and Thomas studied winning--both as basketball players and as businessmen--in a way that should be a model for the NBA stars who came after them. Johnson recalled that the 1984 Finals--when he made several key mistakes as the Lakers lost to their hated rivals the Boston Celtics--was the first time that he failed as an athlete in the sense that he was a major reason that his team lost. "Self evaluation is the hardest thing," Johnson told Thomas.

Johnson realized he was not as good as he had thought he was and thus during the 1984 offseason he devoted himself to improving his game. Thomas and Aguirre were right alongside Johnson both as consoling friends and as sparring partners. Johnson and Thomas recalled a time that Johnson and Aguirre almost came to blows during a pickup game, with Thomas noting that Johnson acted like that was game seven in the Boston Garden.

Johnson's Lakers won the 1985 championship and thus exorcised not only the demons from the 1984 Finals but also decades of frustration that the Lakers had faced versus the Boston Celtics.

By 1987, Thomas' Pistons had emerged as legitimate championship contenders and they likely would have faced Johnson's Lakers in the Finals if not for Thomas' costly turnover versus Boston in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. Just as Thomas had been there for Johnson after Johnson's 1984 miscues, Johnson was there for Thomas three years later.

In 1988, the Pistons toppled the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and Boston's Hall of Fame power forward Kevin McHale--as he left the court near the end of the last game of the series--exhorted Thomas to not be happy just reaching the Finals but to do everything necessary to win the title.

Thomas admitted to Johnson during the NBA TV show that he heard McHale's message but in the moment he did not really understand it. Johnson certainly understood; he told Thomas that at the time he realized that the Pistons posed a different challenge to the Lakers than the Celtics because of the Pistons' youth/athleticism, their deep bench and their physicality. It became apparent to Johnson that he had to choose between his friendship with Thomas and his loyalty to the Lakers. Thomas noted that he was still learning "the formula" to win a championship while Johnson already knew that formula. The 1988 Finals started with a pre-game kiss between Johnson and Thomas but in game three Johnson delivered a forearm shiver to a driving Thomas, who came up swinging. The Pistons built a 3-2 series lead and looked poised to win the championship as Thomas scored a Finals record 25 points in the third quarter of game six--despite playing on a badly sprained ankle--but the Lakers won 103-102 and then won game seven 108-105.

Much like the 1984 failure fueled Johnson, Thomas was motivated by the painful losses to Boston in 1987 and L.A. in 1988. He led the Pistons to the league's best record in 1989 (63-19) and Detroit won the championship by sweeping the Lakers. Johnson went to the winners' locker room to congratulate Thomas. During the NBA TV show, Johnson stated that he was happy that Thomas had won a title because Thomas and the Pistons had earned it.

No NBA team had won three championships in a row since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics won eight straight (1959-66). Johnson's Lakers were the first NBA team to win back to back titles since Russell's Celtics, so in 1990-91 Thomas and the Pistons were on a mission to distinguish themselves from Johnson's Lakers and from Larry Bird's Celtics, who had won three championships in the 1980s but had never won two in a row, let alone three.

Thomas told Johnson that he became "possessed" with the goal of winning "three-peat" titles and, consequently, practiced so hard during the 1990 offseason that he suffered a wrist injury that required surgery. Thomas missed 34 games during the 1990-91 regular season and he was not the same player when he returned for the postseason, scoring just 13.5 ppg on .403 field goal shooting (both playoff career-lows at that time). Thomas' Pistons were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Chicago Bulls, who went on to win three straight titles with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the way.

Johnson said to Thomas, "You learn from other teams to win," meaning that the Bulls learned from the Pistons much like the Pistons had learned from the Lakers and Celtics.

After reminiscing about the "joy and pain" of competing for championships while also making their marks individually as basketball players, businessmen and philanthropists, Johnson and Thomas focused on how their friendship had frayed and why this is important not just to them but also on a larger scale. As Thomas put it, "Our relationship is important to our community." Johnson added, "We helped change the All-Star Weekend. We helped change a lot of different things within the league." 

While All-Star Weekend is far from the most important subject touched upon during the show, I cannot let this moment pass without noting how different the NBA All-Star Game was in its golden years (the 1980s) compared to now, a subject that I spoke with Johnson about during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend. In 2005, when the All-Star Game had deteriorated but not yet become the farce that it is now, Johnson told me that the current players "have to understand that there is a fine line. We wanted to put on a show for the fans--let Dr. J be Dr. J, let Dominique be Dominique, Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan, so there were some pretty dunks and pretty moves that they created. But I'm going to tell you something: at the end of the day, both teams were serious about winning. That's what we're all about, especially when that second half started--we were at each other's throats. Shots were being blocked and both teams were trying to win the game."

Johnson reiterated that point to Thomas, recalling how as point guards they set the tone in the All-Star Game by bringing the fans out of their seats with great passes while also maintaining a standard for competing to win the game.

Other than the tensions that occurred on the court during the NBA Finals, Johnson and Thomas did not directly address the controversies from the past; not one word was said about Johnson's HIV status/rumors about his sexuality or about Johnson's comments regarding Thomas' omission from the 1992 Dream Team. Both men seem to understand that the importance and enduring nature of their friendship transcends an analysis of who said what and who was right/who was wrong.

The show concluded with some heartfelt words from Johnson to Thomas: "You are my brother. Let my apologize to you if I hurt you, that we haven't been together. And God is good to bring us back together." The two men then embraced and cried, their friendship publicly renewed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 AM

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At Thursday, January 18, 2018 12:38:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

I finally got around to watching this tonight and it was an incredibly moving. I had known Isiah and Magic were friends but I wasn't alive when they were both playing, so I didn't fully grasp how deep their friendship was until their break in the early 90s. I like Isiah a lot and enjoy his commentary as an analyst on NBA TV and it's been nice to see his reputation as an NBA boogeyman has been getting something of a reprieve since the 30 for 30 Bad Boys documentary came out.

 

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