This is the story of Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers. Its a story of a friendship that was once close and then broke down. Johnson believed that Thomas spread rumors that he was bi-sexual or gay in the wake of his HIV diagnoses. For over 20 years they had a major falling out. This all changed in December of 2017 when they met and Johnson apologized and expressed his love for his old friend. Its another story of how reconciliation and forgiveness can help people heal.
“I’m really hurt, and I really feel taken advantage of for all these years. 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.”
Isiah Thomas when Magic Johnson published his book in 2009
“We had an incredible relationship. We used to do everything together back in the day, and then that kind of faded.”
Magic Johnson on his friendship with Isiah Thomas
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
Isiah 11:6 NKJV
Image from Steve Lipofsky at Wikipedia.
This is a story a friend of mine (Scott Van Swernigan) shared with me and its been on my list of topics to write about and discuss. I have written a number of articles about forgiveness and reconciliation and quite often how many Christians fail to do the basics which make the faith shine. Before I get into the tension and issues that developed between Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson let’s respectfully look at both men.
An Overview of Isiah Thomas…
Isiah Thomas was born on April 30, 1961 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the youngest of nine children. He grew up on the west side of Chicago and attended St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, Illinois. Thomas had a 90 minute commute to high school. It was at St. Joseph where he thrived and led the school to the state finals in his junior year and became one of the top recruited college prospects in the United States. Controversial Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight successfully recruited Isiah Thomas. Thomas was warned about Knight’s abusive behavior and other issues. In Bloomington, Indiana Thomas had to adjust to Knight’s authorterian style. In the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico Knight became so mad that he threatened to put Thomas on the next plane home. He yelled, bullied and screamed at him that he should have played for DePaul. Despite this Isiah excelled and became a favorite with Knight and the University of Indiana. Fans in Bloomington displayed bedsheets from Isiah 11:6 that said, “and a little child shall lead them.” In 1980 Isiah Thomas and Mike Woodson led the Hoosiers to the Big Ten championship and advanced to the 1980 Sweet Sixteen. In the 1980-1981 basketball season at Indiana Bobby Knight made Thomas captain. Knight came to defend Thomas during controversial situations in his basketball career. For example when a Purdue basketball player took a cheap shot Knight called a press conference and defended Thomas. Shortly afterward when Thomas was ejected from a game after hitting an Iowa player, Knight refused to criticize him. In 1981 Thomas won the conference title as well as the 1981 NCAA tournament. Thomas was recognized as the tournament’s most outstanding player, and he became eligible for the NBA draft while still a sophomore.
In the 1981 NBA draft the Detroit Pistons chose Thomas and signed him to a four-year $1.6 million contract. For Thomas it was the start of a long career playing for the Pistons, and even though a native of Chicago, Thomas felt loyal to the city of Detroit. It was during this time that Isiah in a series of NBA playoffs sparred with the legendary Larry Bird from the Boston Celtics. In 1988 the Pistons made their first trip to the Finals and faced the Los Angeles Lakers. It was during this event that Magic Johnson exchanged a courtside kiss on the check prior to tip-off as a sign of their deep friendship. In game six Thomas played despite having a serious sprained ankle and scored 25 points in a single quarter, which became a NBA Finals record. Despite that the Lakers ended up winning and clinched their second consecutive title in game 7. In the 90’s Thomas had to deal with the Chicago Bulls dynasty which blocked the Detroit Pistons from advancing to the NBA Finals from 1991 through 1993. In the NBA Isiah Thomas became a dangerous scorer and thrived as a point guard. His passing skills were often a marvel. And he became ranked as the seventh person in NBA history in assists, and 15th in steals. In honor of a career in playing for the Detroit Pistons the basketball team retired his jersey. In 1992 Isiah Thomas was kept off the Dream Team which played in the summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. More will be said about that later.
After retiring from playing basketball Isiah Thomas also became a businessman. In 2000 he was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. He then started coaching. From 2000 until 2003 he coached the Indiana Pacers. He also had a career at the New York Knicks from 2003 until 2009. He became the head coach at Florida International University in Miami. Thomas also worked for the Women’s National Basketball League with the New York Liberty. Thomas has not been without controversy. That included a paternity lawsuit in 1986, and there has also been a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Magic Johnson’s HIV Announcement
And a Look at Magic Johnson.
Magic Johnson was born on August 14, 1959 in Lansing, Michigan. His parents had a strong work ethic with his mother being a janitor and his father working for General Motors. Johnson had grown up liking the sport of basketball and started to play competitively in junior high school. In high school due to desegregation he was bused to Everett High School. At Everett Johnson had to deal with racism which was a major issue as desegregation was deeply unpopular. Johnson joined the basketball team and that is where he earned his nickname as “Magic.” At the time Johnson was a 15 year old sophomore. In his high school career Johnson would become a leader at Everett and led his team to an overtime victory in the Michigan state championship game. After winning the game he dedicated the championship victory to his best friend Reggie Chastine who was killed in a car accident. The loss of Reggie was hard for Magic to deal with. At the end of his high school career Magic Johnson was considered to be the best high school basketball player to come out of Michigan. Although he was recruited by such schools as Bobby Knight’s Indiana and UCLA. (John Wooden according to my research stopped coaching at UCLA in March of 1975.) Despite those opportunities Magic Johnson selected Michigan State University when he was guaranteed the point guard position. In college he focused on his academics and played simultaneously. In 1978 The Spartans reached the Elite Eight but lost to powerhouse Kentucky. In the 1978-1979 Michigan State qualified for the NCAA Tournament where they advanced to the championship game and played Indiana State. In the most watched college basketball game ever Magic Johnson played Larry Bird who was a senior at Indiana State. This would actually be a foreshadow of what was to come in the mid to late 1980’s. For his playing Johnson was selected the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, plus he was also selected for the 1978-1979 All-American team that season for his performance. In 1979 Johnson was eligible for the NBA draft.
Johnson was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. He was selected it appears to help play alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and help the Lakers win a championship. While at the NBA franchise in Los Angeles Magic Johnson averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assets per game for the season. He was selected for the NBA All-Rookie Team and the NBA All-Star Game starter. In the 1980 NBA Finals the Lakers played the Philadelphia 76ers which were led by Julius Erving. When Abdul Jabbar sprained his ankle in game 6 Magic Johnson was placed at the center. At the end of the game Johnson recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a 123-107 win. He had played guard, forward and center at different times during the game. He won the NBA Finals MVP Award and became distinct for being the only rookie to do so. He became one of the four players to win NCAA and NBA championships in consecutive years. From 1983 until 1987 the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves facing the Boston Celtics, with Johnson spurring with Larry Bird. In the 1988-1989 Finals the Los Angeles Lakers faced off the Detroit Pistons. As I said above this is the game that Johnson kissed Thomas on the check as a sign of their friendship.
After having a physical prior to the 1991 -1992 NBA season Magic Johnson discovered that he had tested positive for HIV. On November 7, 1991 Magic Johnson in Los Angeles went public with his HIV and how he was retiring from basketball. He contracted the disease through multiple sexual partners. At the time HIV was thought to be found exclusively in the gay community. Johnson helped place a public face on the HIV crisis at the time. There is more about this that will be said in the next section as I detail the relationship between Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson. The announcement brought out sympathy and even got the attention of the White House with President George HW Bush responding at the time. Even though he retired he was voted by fans as a starter in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. Former Lakers came out and stated that due to HIV Johnson should not play. Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz stated that they were all at risk if Johnson cut himself or had an open wound on the court. Despite that Johnson led the West All Star Team to a 153 and 113 win. Johnson also played on the 1992 DreamTeam in the Barcelona Olympics with fellow Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird. He received a standing ovation and Johnson playing with HIV helped inspire others who lived with an HIV positive status. Johnson became a spokesman for HIV awareness and safe sex. After the Olympics he tried to return to the NBA but faced controversy and he retired again. He founded the Magic Johnson Foundation in 1991. That organization deals with community based programs, education and HIV/AIDS awareness. In the mid and late 1990’s he returned to the Lakers as a player and a coach. In the late 90’s he worked as a motivational speaker did commentary and became a minority owner of the Lakers. In 2017 he became the head of basketball operations for the Lakers franchise.
The History of the Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson Friendship and a Massive Falling Out
In the 1980’s friendships and fraternization amongst opposing teams was not something that happened. In that era of basketball is was about rivalries and star players that dominated and built their own teams. After all in the 1980’s players like Charles Barkley, James Worthy, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird dominated the sport. The one exception to this rule was the friendship of Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson. Their relationship went back into the 1980’s and they are deeply remembered for their kiss on the check during the 1989 Finals. Their friendship started to crack in the 1988 finals. But what created the problems were the allegations that Isiah Thomas allegedly fueled after Magic Johnson was diagnosed with HIV. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there was a lot of fear about HIV and AIDS. It was often thought to be a disease inside the gay community. It was called the “gay cancer.” Isiah Thomas allegedly speculated that Magic Johnson was gay or bisexual and kept the rumors alive. This was confirmed by Magic’s longtime agent Lon Rosen who recalled how Thomas said that he is hearing rumors that Magic Johnson is gay in 1991. Isiah Thomas went to bat for Magic Johnson and helped him get on the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympics. But there was another development that also happened. Due to the rumors that Isiah Thomas allegedly spread, Magic Johnson worked with Michael Jordan to keep Isiah Thomas off the team. To Isiah’s shock this information all came out in a book that was published in 2009 called, “When the Game was Ours.” Much of this came as a surprise. According to Sports Illustrated this is how Isiah Thomas reacted to the book. “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.” Going forward their friendship was strained.
The Reconciliation of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas
In the last couple of years people close to Magic Johnson including family tried to speak with him about his estrangement with Isiah Thomas. They pointed out how close they were, and how much they cherished their friendship. Regularly Magic Johnson was encouraged to reach out to Isiah Thomas. This past December that actually happened on NBA TV. Johnson and Thomas met face to face and Magic Johnson publicly apologized for hurting Isiah Thomas. To a crying Isiah Thomas Johnson said, ‘Let me apologize to you if I hurt you, That we haven’t been together.’ Here is how it was recorded in the London Daily Mail.
‘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.
After years of anger, estrangement, retaliation, and hurt they sat down and worked things out. And while Isiah Thomas did not apologize he was happy to have Magic Johnson back in his life and was moved by his effort to reconcile. If you want to read more about this I put in some other news stories below.
- Michigan Live, “Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson shed tears in emotional reconciliation.”
- St. Louis American, “Christmas Magic: Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson rekindle friendship after 20+ years of beef.”
- Washington Post, “Magic Johnson hugs it out on TV with Isiah Thomas after longtime feud.”
- Detroit News, “Isiah Thomas, Magic mend fences in emotional reunion.”
- Sporting News, “Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas embrace in reconciliation on NBA TV.“
- New York Daily News, “SEE IT: Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas emotionally reconcile after decades of beef.“
The Story of Reconciliation and Forgiveness Is Forgotten by Much of Evangelical Christianity
This topic of reconciliation and forgiveness keeps coming up especially outside the evangelical church. What makes much of evangelical Christianity toxic in my view is that evangelical Christians do not own mistakes, repent, or work to help those that they hurt. When you see it happen its impressive, stunning and speaks to the Christian faith. Now please note I am not including in this situations where people are forced to reconcile. Forcing a child to forgive her molester, as C.J. Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace has done just does not cut it. Its especially sad when it comes from a group of people who hang on to every word John Piper or Matt Chandler says and throw around terms such as “Gospel saturated”,”Gospel Centered” or “committed to sound doctrine.” I wrote about this topic and asked why don’t evangelical Christians own their mistakes and say there are sorry? You can read more in, “How Mistakes are Opportunities…Why Don’t Evangelical Christians Say they are Sorry? Why Don’t Evangelicals Repent and Own their Mistakes Today?” After all I think of my own mess from Eric Simmons Redeemer Arlington and how I am psychologically stuck. Christians don’t understand forgiveness I have seen this first hand.
These are some of the many examples of forgiveness, healing and restoration that I have found in reading, researching and writing. Please note that some of these come from outside evangelical Christianity which is amazing in its own way.
- You have the story of Brenda Tracy. She was allegedly gang raped in Oregon by at least two Oregon State University football players. In her quest to find peace years later she traveled from Corvallis, Oregon to Lincoln, Nebraska to meet with the head football coach Mike Riley, who formerly coached at Oregon State University. You can read that story in, “The Necessity of Finding Closure: What the Evangelical Church can Learn from a Meeting Between Brenda Tracy and Nebraska Football Coach Mike Riley.”
- Then you have the story of Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs. Bartman who interfered with a play was held responsible for keeping the Cubs from reaching the World Series. While there are also other factors in play(i.e. the Cubs playing badly) that is how Bartman is remembered. He was despised, and even received death threats which is sad. After the Chicago Cubs won the World Series the team sought him out, tried to restore him and even gave him a Cubs World Series ring. You can read about that in, “How About Them Cubbies! The Reconciliation of Steve Bartman and the Chicago Cubs, and What the Evangelical Christian Church Can Learn.”
- You have an incredible story out of Minneapolis, Minnesota that involves Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel. Mary Johnson forgave the man her murdered her son, and in time became close. They travel around Minnesota and elsewhere and speak about reconciliation and forgiveness. You can read that in, “Forgiveness & Reconciliation: The Story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel in Minneapolis….“
- Down on Florida you have the amazing story of Eric Smallridge and Renee Napier. Eric Smallridge killed Renee’s daughter and best friend in a drunk driving accident. He repented profusely from prison and softened the heart of the Napier and Dickson family. Eric and Renee travel around Florida and the United States to speak about drunk driving and forgiveness and reconciliation. You can read more in, “Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge: An Incredible Story of Grace, Forgiveness and Repentance in Florida.”
- Then there is the story of Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida. One led the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the other participated in the Doolittle Raid on Japan in April of 1942. Both events happened during World War II. After the war they became deep friends and forgave each other for their actions in the war. Jacob DeShazer preached at Mitsuo Fuchida’s funeral. You can read more in, “The Story of Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida: Forgiveness Amidst the Ashes of World War II.”
As those stories stand out, can you imagine if those stories above were the norm and not the exception? Would evangelical Christianity be viewed as arrogant, conceited, and fraudulent if those were practiced? I would propose that no, they would not. That is it for the day guys, please know that I love you.