In an emotional interview for NBA TV’s “Players Only: Monthly” special that aired on Tuesday, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas reconciled nearly three decades after a feud claimed their friendship.
Sometime between the Hall of Famers kissing each other on the cheek before the 1988 NBA Finals and the rematch between the Los Angeles Lakers and Detroit Pistons a year later, the friendship flopped. Now, during a lengthy conversation about their rapport and rivalry on national TV, Magic apologized:
“This has been a tremendous day. 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 relive those moments of fun, excellence, working hard, dreaming big, because we were dreaming of moments before we were even — who sits up at 19, 20, 21, dreaming of stuff we wanted to do, and now here we are here doing it? But, you are my brother. Let me apologize to you if I hurt you, that we haven’t been together, and God is good to bring us back together.”
Thomas broke down crying, and the two shared a long embrace.
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“I’ll always be here,” Thomas said through tears. Then, laughter: “But I’m still mad that you beat me.”
The Lakers and Pistons split their two meetings in the 1988 and 1989 Finals. The rift began when Johnson leveled Thomas in Game 3 of the ’88 series, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen.
Thomas told Thomsen that Johnson did not come to see his son when he was born during that series, and later, when he sprained his ankle in Game 6, Magic refused to answer his phone calls as he pleaded to use the Lakers training facilities. Instead, Thomas had to turn to the Los Angeles Raiders.
Johnson later admitted in the 2009 book, “When the Game Was Ours,” which he wrote with Larry Bird and Hall of Fame writer Jackie MacMullan, that he participated in the effort to keep Thomas off the 1992 Dream Team, believing Isiah spread rumors about his sexuality in the wake of his HIV diagnosis.
“Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics,” said Johnson. “Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. … Michael [Jordan] 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.”
Thomas denied those allegations in an interview with Sports Illustrated shortly after excerpts of the book became public, citing his own effort as president of the players’ association to allow Magic to participate in the 1992 All-Star Game, when he hugged and kissed Johnson as a show of acceptance:
“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 also criticized Magic’s friendship with Bird and questioned Johnson’s assertion that he helped Isiah get the president of basketball operations job with the New York Knicks in 2003. “There’s this public person and then there’s this b.s. person,” he added. “There’s Earvin and then there’s Magic.”
Johnson and Thomas had countless encounters in the decades since their friendship dissolved, but the two reportedly never confronted these issues. They seemed to put it all behind them on Tuesday.
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