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Posted: Thursday October 22, 2009 11:53AM; Updated: Thursday October 22, 2009 9:14PM
Ian Thomsen Ian Thomsen >
INSIDE THE NBA

Isiah blasts Magic over criticisms in new book (cont.)

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Magic Johnson, shown here with Isiah Thomas in 2004, says in a new book that he once considered Thomas to be his closest friend in the NBA.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
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According to the book, Magic at one time considered Thomas to be his closest friend in the league. Magic says their relationship changed during the 1988 Finals when -- in retaliation for the physical play of Isiah's Pistons teammates -- he clobbered Thomas as Detroit's captain was driving through the lane.

"When we got to the ['88] Finals, our relationship became very different,'' Thomas acknowledged. "It was OK for us to be friends when we weren't competing with the Lakers, but when we started competing with the Lakers, our friendship changed. I remember my son was born in '88 during the NBA Finals and Magic wouldn't even come to the hospital.

"So who kicked who? I'm sick and tired of being punched and people spinning stuff. You remember in Game 5 when Magic gave me a forearm shiver while I was in the air? I got up and pushed him, and what everybody wrote was that Isiah pushed Magic [to start the incident].''

After Thomas suffered a severe ankle sprain in Game 6 of that series -- he set an NBA Finals record with 25 points in the third quarter despite the injury -- the Lakers refused to let him use their training facilities, he said. "I tried calling Magic on the phone and he wouldn't take my phone calls,'' said Thomas, who got help from an unlikely source, the Los Angeles Raiders.

"Al [Davis, the Raiders' owner] called Chuck [Daly, the Pistons' coach] because they were close, and he said, 'Screw the Lakers, you can come and use our facilities.' I had to get treatment at the Raiders' facility because Magic and the Lakers wouldn't let me use their ultrasound, hot tubs and whirlpools. I tried calling him to see if he could talk to the trainer, and he wouldn't pick up the phone.''

Magic admits in the book that his relationship with Jordan was permanently chilled by allegations that he was involved in a plan to keep the ball away from Jordan and freeze him out as a rookie in the 1985 All-Star Game at Indianapolis. But Magic is adamant that he had nothing to do it, which effectively leaves Thomas stranded as the engineer of the alleged plot.

Thomas has long denied that he had anything to do with the anti-Jordan conspiracy while doubting that it ever happened.

"The whole thing is so absurd,'' Thomas said. "If Sports Illustrated would just review the game -- get a tape and watch that game and tell me where I was supposed to be freezing out Michael Jordan.''

If Jordan didn't receive a lot of passes -- he scored seven points while attempting nine shots in 22 minutes -- then it was because the team had other priorities, according to Thomas.

"I know people think that Michael Jordan is the best player now, but at that time, he wasn't the best player,'' Thomas said. "At that time, we were better than he was. It's not like he got the rookie treatment. Somebody is going to tell me I'm not going to [pass to] Bird and Moses [Malone] and Dr. J [Julius Erving]? It was a big thing, me playing an All-Star Game in Indiana. I went to school there. Larry Bird went to school there; he was from there. I'm sorry David Falk [Jordan's agent] didn't like that.''

Interestingly, Bird has nothing bad to say about Isiah in the book, even though at one time Thomas was accused of saying that Bird was overrated because he was white. Bird, who is now president of the Indiana Pacers, fired Thomas as coach in 2003.

"Let's be real. I'm not going to say the things Magic said in private about Larry, but I do know the public stance he's taken [in becoming Bird's friend]," Thomas said. "I know that's not how he felt about Larry Bird. Magic hated Larry, and he tried to make other people hate Larry. Magic was no friend of Larry Bird's during that time. And his Laker teammates will tell you that. And I'm sure they've got to be disgusted with the way he's carried on with this whole me-and-Larry bull.''

But that's another twist, as reported in detail in When the Game Was Ours: that the sport's most famous rivals -- Magic and Bird, who once considered each other enemies -- have grown to be friends, while the opposite has become of the relationship between Magic and Thomas, who famously greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek before each game of the '88 Finals, even as their friendship was souring.

The book tells the story of how Thomas and Mark Aguirre consoled Magic in his Boston hotel room as he stared out the window watching fans celebrating in the street after the Celtics beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals. Three years later in the same city, Thomas threw away Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when Bird intercepted his inbounds pass and converted the steal to Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup. When told that Magic now recalls engaging in an hours-long soul-searching conversation with him after that horrible loss, Thomas sounded skeptical. After a long pause, he said, "Sure. That could have been possible.

"The guy who reached out to me after that play was a Celtic and it was Bill Russell,'' added Thomas, who took the call from Russell the day after the game. "I was down dead on my knees after that play. He just called me up and said, 'Hey, we all make the mistakes, you've got to keep playing.' And he said it the way only he could say it. You know who else reached out to me? M.L. Carr [a former Boston teammate of Bird's]. For as hard as we played against the Celtics, I think we had a very personal relationship with them. They admired that we were trying to be like them. And we all said, to this day, they were the team that taught us, and everything the Pistons were, we took from their playbook.''

Thomas also disagreed with Magic's assertion that he helped persuade Madison Square Garden Sports president Steve Mills to hire Thomas to run the Knicks in 2003.

"It's so hypocritical,'' said Thomas, who was replaced by current Knicks president Donnie Walsh in 2008. "There's this public person and then there's this b.s. person. There's Earvin and then there's Magic. OK, I understand you've got to sell a book. But if this is how you sell it, then who's kicking who in the stomach? And it's just like the line he perpetuated that he got me the Knicks' job. Oh, yeah? Ask [Knicks owner] Jim Dolan. Call Barry Watkins [the Knicks' senior VP]. That's a lie.

"You're talking about being two-faced? Magic says he put me up for the job, that he was showing up in hard times and telling me everything was OK. And I come to find out he's been the one stabbing me in the back. ... I'm really hurt and disappointed, particularly with the Olympic team, if he was doing that stuff.''

Thomas said Magic has never confronted him about the HIV rumors or his true feelings about their relationship. As recently as August, Thomas attended a charity event in Beverly Hills, Calif., honoring Magic, where he said they greeted each other warmly.

"If he was feeling this way, why was he shaking my hand and kissing me and acting like he and I were such buddies?'' Thomas said. "Why do you do that?

"People who know me and my family and what I stand for will laugh at Magic and his beliefs. I'm tired of getting punched and people using me because they think I'm not going to say anything. Those days are over. Game on.''

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