Isiah blasts Magic Johnson over criticisms in forthcoming book
In a new book, Magic Johnson accuses Isiah Thomas of questioning his sexuality
Thomas strongly denied that he had gossiped about Magic, who is HIV-positive
The two Hall of Famers were once good friends, but that's no longer the case
When he heard the criticisms from his former friend Magic Johnson in a soon-to-be-released book, Isiah Thomas said he'd had enough. And so he began to fight back.
"I'm really hurt, and I really feel taken advantage of for all these years,'' said Thomas, the Hall of Fame point guard and former NBA coach and executive, most recently with the Knicks. "I'm totally blindsided by this. 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 [to the locker room] with me. He and [Knicks assistant coach] Herb [Williams] and I, we would go out to dinner in New York. I didn't know he felt this way.''
The criticisms are made by Johnson in When the Game Was Ours, which he co-wrote with Larry Bird and author Jackie MacMullan. The book, to be released on Nov. 4, tells the inside story of the most important rivalry in basketball history.
Much of their story involves Thomas, who as captain of the Detroit Pistons served as a primary threat to the championship ambitions of Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers. The book offers revelations that have stunned Thomas. Magic addresses years of rumors by finally accusing Thomas of questioning his sexuality after Johnson was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Magic also admits that he joined with Michael Jordan and other players in blackballing Thomas from the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, saying, "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.''
"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 responded during one of several interviews he gave to SI.com on Wednesday. "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.''
Thomas, who is the first-year coach at Florida International in Miami, confirmed that MacMullan attempted to reach him for comment six months ago, but he declined through his publicist to speak with her.
Magic's most shocking accusation, however, is that Thomas was responsible for spreading rumors that Johnson was gay or bisexual after Johnson tested positive for HIV, forcing his retirement at age 32. "Isiah kept questioning people about it,'' Magic says. "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 vehemently denied that he had gossiped behind Magic's back, pointing out that he knew better than to engage in such hurtful talk.
"What most people don't know is, before Magic had HIV, my brother had HIV,'' Thomas said. "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.''
His brother, Gregory Thomas, died five years ago, Isiah said.
"Magic acted and responded off some really bad information that he got,'' Thomas went on. "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.''
The book's main source for this allegation is Magic's longtime agent, Lon Rosen, who says Thomas told him in 1991, "I keep hearing Magic is gay.''
"C'mon, Isiah, you know Earvin better than anyone,'' Rosen replies.
"I know,'' Thomas answers, "but I don't know what he's doing when he's out there in L.A.''
On Wednesday, Thomas denied that conversation. "I don't know Lon like that,'' he said, adding that he reached out to Johnson at the time. "I remember calling Magic and saying [of the allegations that he was rumor-mongering], 'You know that's some bulls---.' ''
Magic declined to be interviewed for this story. Rosen, speaking on behalf of his client, said he and Magic stand by everything attributed to them in the book.
Thomas insisted he felt too much sympathy for Magic to be spreading rumors about him.
"I felt awful for him; I felt awful for everybody,'' Thomas said. "But I knew enough at that time that he didn't have to retire. The 'blood' thing we do in the NBA -- where we stop the game because of blood on somebody's shirt and all that ceremonious stuff -- we're not stopping HIV/AIDS that way. We still do it out of some insane fear that came about when Karl Malone and everybody was saying they weren't playing if Magic was playing.''
Instead, Thomas said he helped make it possible for Magic to return in 1992 to the All-Star Game.
"They weren't going to let Magic play in the All-Star Game; all the players were coming out [against him],'' Thomas said. "You know how that all got turned around? I had a meeting with all of the players -- because I was president of the players' association -- 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.
"And you can go back and check at the players' association. 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.''
When the Game Was Ours credits NBA commissioner David Stern with inviting Johnson to play in the All-Star Game, despite objections from some players and owners. The book does acknowledge, however, that Thomas was the first player to embrace Johnson on the court before the game.
"I don't discriminate," Thomas said. "I don't believe any race or ethnic group or social group should be discriminated against, because I have been discrimated against, and I know it would be wrong for me to discriminate.
"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. And I think you can go back and look in that era and see who his 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.''
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