A Tale of Friendship and Backstabbing

Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas

Let me say this up front.  I grew up a huge fan of both of these guys.  The first NBA game I watched on TV was the Lakers vs. the Sixers in the 1980 Finals.  It was then that I fell in love with Magic and the Lakers organization.  I was an instant fan of team LA and as many of you know who read this blog regularly, I speak in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’ when I refer to the Lakers. 

Since Magic left the team, my loyalty hasn’t changed towards him nor the Lakers.  I loved them when they were horrible, and I’ve celebrated with the championships as if they were my own.

As a player Isaiah Thomas is a well deserved member of the Hall of Fame.  I loved his game and for the most part his attitude.  I appreciated the way he competed even against my Lakers, especially during the Finals when he played the most incredible injury ridden third quarter you will ever see from anyone.  Thomas was the little man with the heart of a fierce lion.  Some may have been fooled by his infectious smile, but he didn’t take no shorts from no nobody as he took his team from nothing to two-time world champions.

Magic and Thomas were not only fierce rivals, but very close friends as well.  They greeted one another with a kiss before each Finals game before trying to rip each other’s hearts apart on the court.  Fitting.

Like Magic, I always wanted to meet Thomas and talk to him about life and basketball.  One of my favorite authentic jerseys is his #11 that I probably wear less than once a year.  It’s flat-out classic!

Thomas’ fall from grace for me however, started when he walked off the court during the Eastern Conference Finals when Michael Jordan’s Bulls finally got over on them.  The Bulls were the Piston’s bitch for years as they laughed at MJ when he would try to beat the team that invented the “Jordan Rules.”  Jordan would spend all of his energy in one on one battles while the better Pistons team dismissed the Bulls year after year.  When Michael got a better team around him and treated them like a team, they beat the Pistons fair and square, even at the Piston’s own game.  But instead of congratulating the Bulls and shaking their hands, Isaiah and several of his teammates walked off the court with well over a minute left in the final game.  It was the ultimate “F You!” moment. 

Thomas can say what he wants about that.  But I remember when the Pistons were the Celtic’s bitch.  When they finally beat Boston and advanced to the Finals it was Kevin McHale, (a proud champion in his own right) who I distinctively remember talking to Thomas after the game exhorting him to finish the job and beat the Lakers to get his own championship.  Isaiah is a gamer, a real sportsman who appreciates the best of competition and that gesture by McHale meant a lot to him.  In this way Thomas was a hypocritical not to give Jordan that same respect.

Since the two have retired from basketball the paths of these two basketball icons have taken on different altogether.  For Magic, he tried coaching but was unsuccessful and eventually kept to the owners box when it came to the NBA.  He dabbled in show business and in the long run became one of the most successful entrepreneurs certainly in modern times.  Some know him more for his business associations than his NBA legacy.  In spite of being diagnosed with HIV in 1991, Magic totally reinvented himself and has contributed more to the world than most any athlete I could think of save Jim Brown.  Today, when you see Magic’s face, you see the success of a brand that took a life time to achieve.

Thomas’ life is quite the contrast.  He ruined the CBA, the former minor league of the NBA.  He was a successful coach with the Indiana Pacers and those teams were always playoff contenders.  When Larry Bird was hired as team president, he quickly released Thomas, (years of bad blood there) and Thomas was forced to move on.  His tenure with the New York Knicks was a disaster.  He was in charge of everything and he pretty much wrecked the entire organization.  The players he drafted and hand-picked were bad, the play was bad, the results were bad.   Thomas, like Michael Jordan seemed to be one of those players who played like a champion most of the time but was horrible at team management. 

Then there was the sexual harassment case against him, and the sleeping pill incident where he overdosed and needed medical attention but allowed his daughter’s name and reputation to be sullied by saying publically it was her who took the pills.

Thomas’ life seemed in pieces since he left the Knicks.  Finally something good happened as he was hired as head coach of Florida International.  Even that started as a joke when he was introduced as ‘Isaiah Thompson’ at the school’s press conference.’  He raised a stink about having to play North Carolina in an early season game where the proceeds benefit cancer research.  I thought to myself, ‘Boy was this guy going to say or do anything right?’

Comparing the post NBA lives of  Magic and Isaiah seemed like a contrast of success and tragedy.  Well not quite.  Isaiah isn’t broke by any means.  He’s not in jail and it seems like in spite of his spoiled attitude he still has the good sense his mother Mary instilled in him.  I think Thomas, while making mistakes is a decent man, a loyal man who has made some bad decisions like the rest of us.  The difference in he and Magic is that Magic’s mistakes were not made so public with the exception of his HIV confessions in the midst of legendary extramarital sexual escapades.

Which brings me to the story that broke on SI.com regarding  the new book Magic wrote as part of a collaboration with Larry Bird. 

In this book Magic buries his old buddy by confessing that he got him blackballed from the 1992 Olympic team.  According to the book Magic said,

“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.”

Other accusations include that Thomas questioned Johnson’s sexuality when he retired following his HIV announcement.  And that he spread rumors to people in the league that Johnson was gay or bi-sexual.  Johnson also claims that it was he who got Thomas hired with the Knicks, as if he convinced owner James Dolan to do Magic a solid by giving Thomas an opportunity.

Thomas makes a pretty good case regarding his feelings for Magic and the past in the SI article.  For his part denies such accusations and expressed being ‘hurt’ and ‘blindsided’ by Johnson’s claims.  He claims he stood up for Magic when no one else did during those early HIV days.   In the early 90s Thomas was the head of the players association and he said he fought prejudice among players who were misinformed about HIV.  He pushed for Magic’s participation in the All Star Game in Orlando which lead to Magic making a brief come-back with the Lakers.    

Putting all that aside what bothers me the most is what was Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson thinking about when writing this book?   Isaiah is simultaneously a hero and a pariah all at the same time.   He will always have his fans and detractors.  Magic’s reputation is all but flawless.  In the game of life he seems to have won over his former friend and rival.  What does he get out of this?  Am I supposed to appreciate Johnson more and value Thomas less?  If anything I feel the opposite.  I think Johnson should have left that dirty laundry out of the book and talked about something more productive.  I think if he had a problem he should have manned up and talked to Thomas about these things years ago and been a bigger man if he thought he was slighted.  I actually see Johnson, my childhood basketball hero as a petty and self promoting giant sticking it to a little man when he’s down.  Thomas is an easy target. 

I say this in light of my own friendships with men whom I respect yet have had hard disagreements with.  There were hard feelings because we were close.  Words were exchanged,  even some conversations among common friends where each heard our sides of the stories.  Eventually understanding and reconciliation was reinstated.  Respect and friendship was restored.  And even if it were not, no way am I burying even an ex-close friend in such a public fashion for the sake of a book.  Even if I didn’t have Magic’s status and reputation.

I never saw Magic Johnson as a celebrity snitch.  Never thought of him as a Jon and Kate plus 8 side story clammoring for a spot on Larry King and TMZ.  I never saw him as petty.  I thought he was ‘Magic.’  Now he seems more like a trick.

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LeBron, Liars and Sportsman

I remember when Magic Johnson used to talk about the competition between himself and other NBA superstars in the league.  Not merely the in-game competition when they were competing against one another; but just other games around the league as the season goes on.  For guys like Magic, it wasn’t an individual ego thing but a motivation to elevate his game to the highest level.  When you are already better than 98% of the people you play against on any given night you have to tell yourself things to keep you from being bored.  Such was the case with Magic, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, etc. 

During a normal game time interview they would never admit it.  But get Magic on a couch and he would readily admit that he would search the newspapers every day to see what Larry or Dominique Wilkins did the night before.  “I’ll looked at the stats sheet and say, “Oh Larry got 35 last night?  That means I’ll have to get 38 or 40.” 

Jordan of course was the same way.  He would tell himself that the other opponents didn’t respect his game and through that anger will himself to another spectacular performance.  I’ll never forget the time the Bulls played a home and home against the then Washington Bullets.  The first game in Chicago saw LaBradford Smith a kid who wanted to be Jordan score 35 against his hero.  Jordan had a so-so game and afterwards they asked Smith about his performance in “stopping” MJ.  Smith no dummy said, (paraphrasing) “Oh no!  Nobody stops Michael.  I just had a good game.  I was fortunate that my shots went in.  Michael is Michael.  He’s the best.” 

Still that didn’t stop Jordan.  Just because the question was asked… the next night he torched Smith for 40 something fouling him out the game.   He played with an angry scowl the entire game.  He knew he was better than Smith so that wasn’t the point.  He wanted to make sure everyone else knew it too.

These memories all came to me upon seeing Kobe Bryant put 61 on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden the other night.  It was the most points scored by any Knicks opponent in The Garden’s history.  The Knicks, blessed or not so blessed with a home schedule that called for the Lakers, the Cavaliers and the Celtics to come visit during the same week had to face the wrath of LeBron James a couple nights later.  Of course James down played the situation saying he was not interested in records.  I knew he was a damn lie.  Every hoops junkie knows. 

Magic had newspapers.  Today’s generation has SportsCenter and Blackberry’s where their peeps text them with, “Man did you see what Kobe did?”

What does James do last night?  He scored 52 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assist… making the first time in over 30 years since a guy had 50 points in a triple double.  He scored 20 in the first quarter.  Of course he was looking to match Kobe and even surpass his effort earlier in the week.  Kobe and LeBron have been friends since James was in high school.  They bonded even closer during the Summer Olympics in Beijing.  Both understand the significance of performing well in the basketball Mecca that is MSG.  No doubt James texted Kobe who was busy putting up 36 in a win in Toronto last night something like, “I’ll see your 61 and raise you 52 and a fu*&% triple double beeeeaach!  How ya like me now?”

Kobe has enough problems, they have the Celtics tonight in Boston.  And speaking of the Celtics… don’t think that Paul Pierce ain’t looking to put up mad numbers on the Knicks on Friday.  Of course, he wont’ admit it.