Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas have ended one of basketball’s longest-running feuds after years of animosity stemming from two NBA Finals meetings and Johnson’s effort to keep Thomas off the 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team.
One of the captains of the gold medal-winning ‘Dream Team,’ Johnson admittedly froze the Detroit Pistons star out of the Olympics because he believed Thomas deliberately spread rumors that he was a homosexual following the Los Angeles Lakers legend’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV positive.
‘Let me apologize to you if I hurt you,’ Johnson said to a crying Thomas on NBA TV. ‘That we haven’t been together.’
In the 2009 book ‘When the Game Was Ours,’ which Johnson wrote with Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird and longtime NBA reporter Jackie MacMullan, the three-time MVP accused Thomas of spreading the rumor he was a homosexual or bisexual.
‘Isiah kept questioning people about it,’ Magic said. ‘I couldn’t believe that. The one guy I thought I could count on had all these doubts. It was like he kicked me in the stomach.’
Thomas has denied that he spread those rumors.
The two were the faces of their respective franchises in 1988, when Johnson’s Lakers beat Thomas’s upstart Pistons in seven games to win their fifth title of the decade, and in 1989, when Detroit swept Los Angeles to win the first of two consecutive titles.
Oddly enough, the two were close friends during their rivalry, even after they nearly got into a fight in Game 3 of the 1988 NBA Finals.
These days it’s not unusual for opposing NBA stars to be close friends, but in the 1980s – a decade in which Boston’s Larry Bird and Philadelphia’s Julius Erving choked each other on the Boston Garden floor – Johnson and Thomas’s friendship stood out.
‘I would say to you this has been a tremendous day,’ Johnson said. ‘My wife, my mother, my father have been saying, “Y’all need to get back together.” So when everybody called I said no question we’re going to do this.
‘And just to sit across from you and have relieve those moments of fun, excellence, working hard, dreaming big, because we were dreaming … and now here we are doing it. But you are my brother.’
The two embraced and cried.
Johnson said ‘It’s all good baby. OK? It’s all good.’
Thomas replied saying he’ll ‘always be here.’
And in the middle of the embrace, Thomas added, ‘I’m still mad that you beat me.’
Laughing, Johnson said ‘we’re both going to be mad.’
Thomas could not be heard apologizing, but was clearly moved to have Johnson back in his life.
He’s also never admitted to spreading rumors that Johnson was a homosexual.
‘What most people don’t know is, before Magic had HIV, my brother had HIV,” Thomas told Sports Illustrated in 2009. ‘My brother died of HIV, AIDS, drug abuse. So I knew way more about the disease, because I was living with it in my house.”
Thomas’s brother Gregory died five years before his interview with SI.
‘Magic acted and responded off some really bad information that he got,” Thomas continued. ‘Whatever friendship we had, I thought it was bulls*** that he believed that. Let me put it to you this way: If he and I were such close friends, if I was questioning his sexuality, then I was questioning mine too. That’s how idiotic it is.’
Prior to Johnson’s 2009 book, the predominant belief in basketball circles was that Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan had prevented Thomas from joining ‘The Dream Team,’ which easily took gold in Barcelona that summer – the first time NBA players were allowed to compete in the Olympics.
‘I’m glad that he’s finally had the nerve and the courage to stand up and say it was him, as opposed to letting Michael Jordan take the blame for it all these years,’ Thomas told SI. ‘I wish he would have had the courage to say this stuff to me face to face, as opposed to writing it in some damn book to sell and he can make money off it.’
Johnson and Thomas have both become executives in retirement, although with varying degrees of success.
After a failed stint as the Lakers coach in 1994, Johnson briefly made a comeback as a player in 1996 before focusing on his business ventures. In addition to owning a chain of movie theaters, Johnson is part of group that owns the reigning National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and was recently named the Lakers’ president of basketball operations.
Thomas, meanwhile, had a failed stint as executive vice president of the expansion Toronto Raptors in 1994, before a difficult tenure as president of the now-defunct CBA, and three mediocre years as coach of the Indiana Pacers.
Thomas’s post-playing career will mostly be remembered for his time with the New York Knicks, which began when he was hired as president in 2003.
After firing coach Larry Brown in 2006, Thomas took over and things only deteriorated. That same year, he was named in a sexual harassment lawsuit by Anucha Brown Sanders, an executive at the Knicks’ parent company, Madison Square Garden.
He was replaced as president and coach in 2008. The Knicks reached the playoffs only once in his tenure as president – 2003-04 – and that was before he was named coach.