As a rabid fan of 1980s NBA basketball, I was saddened to read last week that the friendship between Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas has evaporated and that Johnson has devoted a portion of his latest book “When the Game was Ours,” written with Larry Bird, to trash Thomas.
Once he learned about the book, Thomas simply said he had no idea that Johnson felt that way. However, even though Thomas has taken the high road, it’s still being reported as him “feuding” with Johnson. I can’t help but feel that Thomas’ fate was sealed in 1987, when he made the comment that Larry Bird “is a very, very good basketball player. He’s an exceptional talent…” before adding, “but I have to agree with [Dennis] Rodman. If he were black, he’d be just another good guy”.
That was 1987, the era of Reagonomics. For a black athlete to call America’s racial double standard into question back then took a degree of courage. Prior to that statement, Thomas was viewed as a golden boy in the same way that Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were. After that statement, however, he was never seen in the same light again.
Yet through it all, at a time when violence between black men was escalating, and the crack epidemic plagued our communities, his friendship with Magic Johnson was a source of pride to black men throughout the country.
Back in the 80s I remember reading about how Thomas, Johnson, Mark Aguirre, and Herb Williams – none of them over 25 – pooled their money to buy a radio station. It was an example I’ll never forget. When it came to that deal, Johnson said, “Like a lot of my teammates I did promotions for a Los Angeles radio station, but I also bought into two radio stations in Colorado. This was a great deal because there were special incentives for minorities to get into broadcast ownership. I went around to several of the Lakers players, trying to get them to invest with me, but none of them would. The one friend who immediately jumped at the opportunity was Isiah Thomas, who shared my interest in business ownership. Then we convinced our friends Mark Aguirre and Herb Williams to invest too. We bought the first radio station for a low seven figures, and it turned out to be a lucrative deal.”
You had two young black men acting like pied pipers for black athletes to pool their resources to form businesses. This is one of those long forgotten moments in history. People see Magic Johnson today as a successful businessman, but for a time it was he and Thomas going shoulder to shoulder in the world of business.
Both men were equally successful on the basketball court. The NBA in the 80s was much different from today’s league. Larry Bird, great as he was, was viewed as a “great white hope.” Both Magic and Isiah, however, were able to beat Bird’s Celtics. That seems like nothing now, but back then, black people rooted against Bird and the Celtics with a passion, and seeing Johnson and then Thomas beat him made us puff out our chests a bit more.
By the time both men competed for the first time against one another in the 1988 NBA Finals, it was a tossup over who you would show your allegiance to. I remember waiting with baited breath for the tip off of game one. What did Thomas and Johnson do? They kissed each other at midcourt. At first brothers said, “Yo! those dudes are on some ole gay stuff!,” but we grew accustomed to them kissing at the beginning of each game. As the series grew fiercer, the conversations in the barbershops went from homosexuality to asking how could those guys go at it so hard on the court and still kiss each other. The conclusion was that they must really have been good friends.
Ironically, it is accusations and innuendos about Johnson’s sexuality that are at the heart of this rift. According to Johnson, Thomas spread rumors that he was having sex with men. Thomas, however, claims that he didn’t spread those rumors. I’m inclined to believe Thomas. If he was kissing Johnson, why would he then say that Magic was gay?
I’m disappointed in Magic. When he announced that he was HIV positive, and was retiring from basketball, he handled it like a man, with dignity. Still for all of his courage, it was Thomas who manned up for Magic to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star game. That’s true friendship. How did Magic repay him? According to his book, he refused to advocate for Isiah to play on the 1992 Olympic team. Magic summed it up by saying that “nobody wanted to play with Isiah.”
The shameful part was that Isiah made the Olympic team in 1980. However, since the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics, he didn’t play. If Magic was truly a friend, he would have stood up. The fact that he didn’t, and Isiah gave him a pass for that action, showed to some degree how highly Isiah thought of Magic. Magic should be ashamed of himself for not going to bat for his friend.
The truth is, I could care less if Magic was gay. His impact on the black community and the HIV community has been powerful; his reaction to such a petty rumor is beneath him.
Thomas has had his fair share of problems since the Bird incident including a sexual harassment suit, NY Knicks flameout and a possible suicide attempt. However, even if Magic is right to no longer be “feeling” Isiah, they had a history and a friendship that inspired millions of us. To spit on that history to sell books is worse than anything Isiah Thomas could ever have said.