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Friday, October 23, 2009

Magic-Isiah Feud is Just Sad

It 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 has discernible motives/reasons to lie:

1) Rosen would 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:52 PM



At Monday, October 26, 2009 5:10:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Had you been a bit older, you might have known that the questions were everywhere shortly after the announcement was made. A lot of Laker fans hadn't gotten over the open affection displayed on the court between Magic and Isiah only a few years earlier.

The players and the league were all in a tizzy, in part because at that time HIV+ meant AIDS and certain death to most people (maybe me, I don't recall much beyond shock when learning that Magic was retiring). The blood rules in the NBA (which are a good precaution) came about because of his tragic situation.

I'd bet that a LOT of players asked, and for some reason, Johnson remembers his trusted friend Isiah Thomas was among them, and holds this against him. Earvin should have gotten past this, Isiah really needs some friends these days.

At Monday, October 26, 2009 11:06:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

A terrible situation that is very sad. Growing up watching the Pistons/Celts/Lakers rivalry in the 80s was and still is the best basketball ever played. I wish they could have discussed this by phone instead of in a book. Very disappointing.

I dont know why the book is stated for the 4th when its been on Amazon for a few weeks.

At Monday, October 26, 2009 11:16:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Isiah definitely should of been on that Dream Team instead of Stockton. Whatever the reason is a digrace and it shows you that no matter how old you are men still can act like little boys. If there is a problem, why cant they discuss it like men. Ill never forget game 7 in the Lakers repeat year when the crowd was coming on the court and Isiah had the ball and Magic just knocked him down and took the ball. The series was over but that moment was very telling. Do you remember it? Its very quick but a moment I dont forget since everyone says their relationship was a little rocky after Magic chin checked Isiah in game 5.

At Monday, October 26, 2009 6:24:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't understand why you think that my age is relevant but for your information I am certainly old enough to remember when Magic and Isiah faced each other in the NBA Finals. The issue in question has nothing to do with their famous pre-game kisses--or how people reacted to them in 1988 and 1989--but rather whether or not Isiah spread rumors suggesting that Magic is gay/bisexual. Also--as I point out in this post--even if Isiah spread such rumors in the wake of Magic's HIV announcement, the purported conversation with Lon Rosen took place weeks after the Dream Team roster was chosen and thus could not have had anything to do with Isiah being left off of the team.

At Monday, October 26, 2009 6:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I'm not sure about Amazon--which may have just been accepting pre-orders that were not shipped until later--but the book has actually been available in stores for quite some time, contrary to the information provided by both ESPN and SI.

At Monday, October 26, 2009 6:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Isiah not only deserved to be selected ahead of Stockton but he (and many others) obviously deserved to be selected ahead of Laettner, the token college player.

I do remember the chaotic ending to game seven. It really was not right to let the fans storm the court when there was still time on the clock, even if the Pistons needed to make a miracle shot to have any chance to win--but there have been other NBA games that ended in similar fashion.

At Friday, October 30, 2009 9:49:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

no nique or isiah on the dream team is a disgrace.

At Thursday, November 05, 2009 4:09:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Wow. This whole story somehow slipped my notice when it first broke.

It's very sad. Magic and Isiah are two of my favorite players of all time. It's also pretty strange since Isiah's alleged questioning of Magic's sexuality was reported around 1991-92. You'd think the two would have addressed the situation between themselves and reached an understanding years ago. I wonder why it's lingered so long.

I don't think Thomsen's article directly implies that Thomas' alleged comments were what led to Johnson declining to support Thomas' inclusion on the Dream Team. He wrote:

Much of their story involves Thomas, who as captain of the Detroit Pistons served as a primary threat to the championship ambitions of Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers. The book offers revelations that have stunned Thomas. Magic addresses years of rumors by finally accusing Thomas of questioning his sexuality after Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Magic also admits that he joined with Michael Jordan and other players in blackballing Thomas from the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, saying, "Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. ... Michael didn't want to play with him. Scottie [Pippen] wanted no part of him. Bird wasn't pushing for him. Karl Malone didn't want him. Who was saying, 'We need this guy?' Nobody.''

Thomas' comments are mentioned, as is Johnson's role in blackballing Thomas from the Dream Team. It doesn't say one led to the other. Based on Magic's quote, maybe he just went along with the popular sentiment. We know Jordan, Pippen, and Bird weren't fond of Thomas (due to the physical play, "just another good player" comment, leaving the court before congratulating the Bulls, etc.). Maybe that is what "killed his chances".

Maybe I overlooked something, or maybe the full text of the book indicates that Johnson's blackballing of Thomas was based on Thomas' alleged comments.

At Thursday, November 05, 2009 6:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The strong implication--in the book and in the article--is that Magic did not support Isiah for the Dream Team because of Isiah's alleged comments. However, as I noted, the problem with this story is that it does not match the timeline of events, because the Dream Team was chosen before Magic revealed that he is HIV positive. Magic has provided no reason for him to turn against Isiah other than Isiah's alleged comments, so why should Magic have been opposed to Isiah being on the Dream Team, even if other players did not like Isiah? After all, Magic's story is that he and Isiah were good friends until Isiah made the alleged comments; the only other change in the relationship that Magic mentions in the book is that they were not quite as close after facing each other in the Finals as they had been previously but Magic insists that the real break came as a result of Isiah's alleged comments. I find that story fishy, as does Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times. In an October 24 column, Heisler wrote:

Insiders have known the story for years. I heard it off the record from all the principals, except Magic. I never believed it as presented, and still don't.

I can easily imagine Thomas asking about rumors Johnson was gay, then denying he had forever.

What I'll never believe is that Thomas intended to harm Johnson.

The whole world cried the day Johnson made his HIV announcement. If Thomas has a Napoleon complex Bonaparte himself would have envied, I can't imagine his then turning on his friend, whatever they'd gone through.

Whatever Johnson believes, the fact is Thomas, as union president, subsequently pushed for him to play in the 1992 All-Star game. (Stern made it happen only after suggesting Magic come off the bench to mollify leery sponsors and owners.) Thomas led players over to hug Johnson before the game, wiping away weeks of tension in one warm moment.

By then, Thomas had become isolated within the game for one overriding reason, his enmity with Jordan.

Leaving Thomas off the Dream Team had nothing to do with Pippen, Bird or Malone and everything to do with Jordan. He hated Thomas, whose Bad Boy Pistons had beaten him up and eliminated his team in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

With Jordan looking for a way not to go to the Olympics, his sensitivities were paramount. His joking "I don't play on no teams with Isiah Thomas," to someone on the selection committee, according to Sam Smith's "The Jordan Rules", meant Thomas, the 11-time All-Star with two titles, wasn't going.

I find it odd that nearly 20 years later Magic is trying to take "credit" for something--Isiah being left off of the Dream Team--that Magic probably had little to do with and should not be proud of anyway.

At Monday, October 04, 2010 7:43:00 AM, Blogger Coach Stinson said...

Here lies the great, and also tragic, irony:
Magic and Isiah decided to kiss before games because they wanted to send a message to African American men that it was ok to care about, and even be openly affectionate towards, each other.
And what was the outcome of those well-intentioned gestures?
1. Riley questions Magic, causing Magic to intentionally foul Isiah and then to not show up at the hospital when Isiah's first child was born.
2. People have been calling both of them gay for 20 years, with Isiah getting the worst of it by far.
3. Magic ignores the obvious two times - First, the rumors about Thomas spreading rumors was started by an agent...ALL agents hated Isiah b/c Isiah reduced agents take on contracts by 6% (seems like a pretty damn good reason for Rosen to lie if you ask me, Jackie M) - Second, Isiah lobbied to get Magic into the All Star game and then led the charge to hug him before the game - a pretty good indication that he loves Magic and doesnt have a Napoleon complex.

Its pretty sad how a well-intentioned gesture (the kissing) ended up hurting Isiah in so many ways


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