Thus far, the most compelling thing about this book (and what everyone’s talking about so far) are Magic’s comments about his “friend” and fellow NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Before I get into that, however, I’ll provide the backstory (word of warning, there’s a lot of it), do my best to identify all the different players (no pun intended) in this drama, and try to identify what could have possibly led to Magic’s very curious allegations against Thomas.
Magic and Isiah traveled many of the same roads. Just two years apart in age, the two grew up in the same area of the country -- Magic’s roots are in Lansing, Michigan, Isiah’s in Chicago. Both are point guards that led their college teams to NCAA titles as sophomores, and each turned pro immediately after. The future superstars signed with the same sneaker company and shot TV commercials together. But even as the two struck up a friendship and rose to become the best point guards in their conferences, their professional careers, personalities and reputations were quite different. Isiah wound up staying in the Midwest with the Detroit Pistons and endured several miserable seasons on losing teams. Detroit was then, as it is now, a blue collar town -- harsh, gritty, tough. Beginning with Isiah, Pistons owner Bill Davidson, GM Jack McCloskey, and head coach Chuck Daly slowly set about building a winning franchise by assembling parts (Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Joe Dumars) and developing an extremely physical style of play the rest of the teams in the league would come to hate but wouldn't be able to match.
Magic, meanwhile, joined the Lakers, already a winning franchise with All-Star players Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson flourished in glamorous Los Angeles and enjoyed immediate success as an NBA champion and Finals MVP and quickly became L.A.'s media darling with the brilliant smile.
Throughout the early 80s, Magic and his Lakers versus Bird and the Celtics was one of the premiere rivalries in the NBA. But by 1987, the Pistons were also a legitimate power, losing the conference championship to the Celtics in seven games. The following year, Detroit made it to the championship against the Lakers and a good part of the story revolved around the two good friends and All-Stars (Magic and Isiah) finally facing each other for the crown. In a move that seemed strange to most, the pair actually kissed (European style) before every game. The Lakers wound up winning the series in seven and it looked like a new rivalry was born.
By this time, Magic and Isiah were like brothers. Johnson often let Thomas stay at his home and drive his cars whenever the Pistons came to town. Once, after the NBA Finals, the two took a suite at the Helmsley Palace and spent the weekend in New York. But things started to unravel after Magic’s announcement in November 1991 that he was HIV positive. Magic’s startling revelation and subsequent departure from the game stunned the sports world and soon after speculation began as to how Magic got HIV, as well as who might have given it him. (One popular rumor identified porn star Heather Hunter as the source.) In any case, Magic was barely gone two months, when he was given special permission to play in the 1992 All-Star game. Isiah, then president of the NBA Players’ Association, played a major part in getting this done when he petitioned Commissioner David Stern’s office for Magic’s inclusion even though sponsors were skittish, and many players had concerns about playing with Magic. (Karl Malone, for instance, then one of the leagues’s biggest stars, expressed his inner paranoia publicly when he questioned the idea of Magic’s full-time return to NBA and worried what would happen if Magic suffered an on-court cut.) Thomas’ recollections of defending Magic during this time are crystal clear:
"They weren't going to let Magic play in the All-Star Game; all the players were coming out [against him]. You know how that all got turned around? I had a meeting with all of the players -- and I told them not only was he going to play, but we were going to shake his hand and give him a hug. And I was the first to shake his hand and hug him and give him a kiss, to let people know that's not how the virus is spread. Call Charlie Grantham [the former union
executive director and COO] and ask him how Magic got to play in the All-Star Game. Ask him who called the meeting."
It was immediately after these events that another rumor about Magic’s HIV began circulating, albeit in a much less public fashion than the speculation about Heather Hunter. This rumor claimed that Magic had gotten HIV because he was gay or bisexual. Few then (or now) believed it, particularly not Magic’s teammates or his other close friends.
Which brings us to Magic’s assertions in MacMullan’s book. He claims that it was Thomas who spread this rumor, that he (Magic) was tremendously hurt by this, that it led to the complete dissolution of his and Thomas’ friendship, and that this failed relationship has been, in MacMullan’s words, “the biggest personal disappointment of his life.”
Isiah, for his part, says "Magic acted and responded off some really bad information that he got… I think Magic has been misled on a lot of things, and unfortunately this has been another one of them. I am hurt and disappointed that he has chosen to believe others as opposed to his closest friends.”
Thomas doesn't stop there. In his own defense, he's called Magic out and questioned his character and forthrightness by claiming, “There is this public person and then there is this b.s. person. There's Earvin and then there's Magic.”
Second, as Thomas himself has pointed out, he was Magic’s closest friend and the two men had engaged in very unusual public displays of affection. This being the case, Thomas is 100% right when he says, “if I was questioning [Magic’s] sexuality, then I was questioning mine too. That's how idiotic this is.”
And why not? Isiah’s an easy target -- someone the public is willing to believe the worst about. But Isiah also happens to be someone people (including Magic’s inner circle of old NBA buddies and associates) might want to lay this rumor-starting thing off on. Could Magic’s allegation be part of a larger conspiracy against Isiah that’s been going on for years? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Let’s face it, Isiah’s track record during his playing career certainly made him more than his share of enemies. Among other things:
When Detroit was on the verge of a championship, Thomas ran Adrian Dantley out of town by getting management to trade him for Dallas’ Mark Aguirre, Thomas’ old friend from back in Chicago.
At the end of the Game 4 of the ‘91 Eastern Conference Finals, just as Chicago was about to complete a sweep, Thomas led his teammates off the floor and right past the Bulls bench with time still left on the clock.
And perhaps most famously, Thomas allegedly masterminded a “freeze-out” of Jordan during the 1985 All-Star Game.
Certainly these aren’t the only reasons why Thomas seems to be so intensely disliked now. He did, after all, run the CBA, the NBA’s beloved farm system, into the ground. He also dreadfully mismanaged the New York Knicks, one of the league’s crown jewel franchises, setting the team back for years to come. But does any of this mean Isiah is a traitor or a false friend? If being a bad front office exec means you're a bad person, than Elgin Baylor is Lex Luthor, Hannibal Lechter and Vlad the Impaler all rolled into one.
For sure, Thomas had the ear of both GM McCloskey and owner Davidson, and often pulled strings to get his way. And yes, Thomas engineered the Dantley for Aguirre trade. But how is this any different than Kobe Bryant running Shaq out of L.A.? Or his attempt to force an Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd deal a few years later? Individual star players in the NBA (moreso than in any other professional sport) can have a great deal of influence on management decisions. The smart ones sometimes use this influence to make power moves or even hold their teams hostage. Look at what the Cavs have done over the last two years in efforts to appease LeBron. But no one holds this against King James. He just wants to win. One can argue that if the Dantley/Aguirre deal doesn’t get done, the Pistons never get over the hump and claim their two titles. And at least Isiah was never responsible for getting his championship-winning head coach fired the way Magic did Paul Westhead. (It’s interesting how history seems to have forgotten this dirty little detail about the beloved Magic’s career.)
The Pistons walkout at the end of game four in ’91 was completely classless and maybe the worst display of bad sportsmanship ever (not counting that New Mexico soccer chick.) But you know what? The Pistons did it as a team, and it was completely in character. It was the end of a long and very fierce rivalry that took place back in the days when NBA rivals (particularly in the Eastern Conference) were often bitter enemies. There was animosity between the Sixers and Celtics (Bird and Dr. J threw punches during a playoff game) and Detroit HATED Boston because they had what the Pistons wanted -- conference titles and championships. The Celtics hated the Pistons right back (Robert Parrish clubbed Laimbeer in the face, for crying out loud.) Later in the decade, on their way to conference titles, Detroit eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs three straight seasons. The Bulls hated them for it and because the Pistons physical style made them a frustrating team to play. And while I’m not forgiving the ’91 walkout, for two teams that despised each other, hugs and warm handshakes at the end would have been disingenuous. At least give Isiah credit for not being two-faced.
And as for the infamous 85 All-Star Game freeze-out, the story goes this way: Some of the Eastern Conference All-Stars resented Michael Jordan’s rapid ascension into super-stardom and were jealous of his fat Nike contract and all his other endorsement deals. Jordan, it seems, was rising too high too fast and the East All-Stars, led by starting point guard Isiah, conspired to keep the ball out of Jordan’s hands and limit his scoring opportunities. Isiah, it’s said, had extra motivation to do this because the game was played at the Hoosier Dome. This was Isiah’s territory, conspiracy theorists would have you believe, and it was bad enough that Jordan was now the toast of Thomas’ home town of Chicago. He’d be damned if he was going to let Jordan grab any glory in Indiana. By game’s end, MJ was limited to 2 for 9 shooting and had only seven points.
But the reality is there was no freeze out. Jordan simply had an off night shooting and his playing time was limited by East coach K.C. Jones. Jones, in fact, gave Jordan’s backup, Sidney Moncrief, the same number of minutes as Michael (22).
And yet the idea of a villainous Thomas screwing Jordan over has endured, even though Jordan himself (most recently, at his Hall of Fame Induction) has dispelled the idea. (Let’s see, a claim of alleged backstabbing by Isiah that turned out to be false… Interesting.) But even as the freeze-out has now been revealed to be little more than NBA folklore, at the time, Jordan and everyone else was more than willing to believe it was real. Indeed, in Jordan’s eyes, it was real enough for him to use as a reason to keep Isiah off the Dream Team. When the IOC ruled that US pro athletes would be able to compete at the Barcelona Olympics, and USA Basketball set about building a team, Jordan kept everyone at bay with a host of non-committal assertions that he was "very interested" in playing. Jordan was at the absolute peak of his power during this time -- NBA champion, reigning MVP and the unquestioned face of the league. USA Basketball, the NBA, and Nike, among others, desperately wanted Michael to play, but Jordan couldn’t stand Isiah. Beyond the events of the ‘85 All Star Game, Jordan still resented Thomas for all that had taken place during their playoff battles, for the Pistons’ on-court thuggery, for the “Jordan Rules” that had frustrated him for years, and for other reasons that only Jordan himself could justify. (To be sure, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from Michael’s very bitter induction speech, it’s that the man can hold a grudge, and that he takes both real and imagined slights against him personally.)
So as it turns out, there was a plot involving Isiah and Jordan -- except Thomas was the one that got screwed. As a condition for Michael joining the Dream Team, Isiah would be left off. Magic, meanwhile, has his own take on this incident. “Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics,” he says. “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…”
Well we already know why Jordan and Magic were against him. Pippen was a Bull and Jordan’s wingman, so it’s no surprise that he’d also object to teaming with Isiah. And after years of Bad Boys-Celtics run-ins and the remarks from back in ’87, you can see where Bird would be opposed. But what could guys like Chris Mullin, David Robinson and Clyde Drexler (guys Isiah hardly knew and rarely played against) possibly have against him? Not that it really mattered. Jordan’s word was law and as soon as he made his feelings known, Isiah’s participation was no longer a consideration.
But it’s curious that in the MacMullan book, Magic would, on the one hand, accuse Thomas of stabbing him in the back by way of false innuendo, but then stop short of naming that as the reason he helped keep Thomas off the Dream Team. It’s as if one had nothing to do with the other. And maybe it didn’t. Maybe Thomas’ exclusion had more to do with the types of actions and behaviors Davidson was alluding to. Magic’s declaration that Isiah was almost universally disliked makes one ponder these comments by Pistons owner Bill Davidson:
"I was very, very close to Isiah, and there were times he was almost like a son. But, because of his background... I told him he had to change... I said, 'You've got it made now. Don't keep doing those things that you've been doing.'… But he couldn't change...We just come from different backgrounds. He had to fight his way up, and I didn't have the problems he had growing up. There's a lot of good things about Isiah, but when we had our parting, it was over something pretty substantial."
Even some of Thomas' former teammates, John Salley for instance, have mixed feelings about him. It’s puzzling given all the man’s positives. Over the years he has long been heavily involved in charitable and humanitarian causes, including personal outreaches to curb gang activity, organizing “No Crime in Detroit Day” and donating both his time and money to numerous causes. Indeed, Thomas was once awarded the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award as the most charitable player in the NBA.
Speaking of Rosen, Thomas had this to say about him:
“I think you can go back and look in that era and see who [Magic’s] closest friends were, and who his closest friends are now. At that time, I don't consider Lon Rosen to be one of his closest friends; he was one of his business advisers making money off him."
One thing about Magic’s issues with Isiah, however, seems fairly certain -- like everyone else, he isn’t really sure who started the rumor about him, particularly after so much time has passed. And in their rush to sell books via rash, reckless, headline-grabbing accusations, neither MacMullan nor Magic ever connect any dots or present any type of compelling evidence againstThomas.
And once again, why are we just hearing about this now? This all started close to 20 years ago. If Magic has known it was Isiah all these years, why did he continue to be friendly towards the guy? Thomas says, “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 with me. He and [Knicks assistant coach] Herb [Williams] and I, we would go out to dinner in New York.”
This all seems easy enough to confirm. Someone just needs to check with Williams. And if Isiah’s story is true, then the questions should shift back to Magic. Why would you be friendly and go out to dinner with someone that’s backstabbed you? Someone, according to MacMullan, “with whom your relationship was over many, many years ago.”
When you hold Magic’s version of events up to the light of day and consider what his reasons might be for calling out Isiah almost two decades after the fact, you come back to one incontrovertible fact -- Magic is hawking a book. He’s selling his story and every good story needs a villain. When the Game Was Ours is supposed to be about Magic and Bird. But that’s old hat… Michigan State-Indiana State, Lakers-Celtics, series clinching sky hooks, we’ve heard it all before. What the story needed was a villain...