Bird gets the love, Isiah the kiss-off From Magic

  • By Mark Heisler Los Angeles Times
  • Saturday, October 24, 2009 10:39pm
  • SportsSports

Magic Johnson’s relationship with Larry Bird, like so much else about Johnson, was one of the best things the NBA ever saw.

They started out hating each other as rivals in the 1979 Michigan State-Indiana State NCAA final, the highest-rated basketball game of all time; re-floated the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, then, in an unexpected inspiring turn, became lifelong friends, showing themselves and everyone else how much of themselves an urban African American and a self-described “hick from French Lick” could see in each other.

Each inspired the other’s best and awakened his darkest fear. After one Celtics win in the Forum, Bird, sitting on the team bus, saw a distraught Johnson walk by.

Said Bird later, laughing: “I thought, ‘Suffer, $%$ !’”

Johnson’s relationship with Isiah Thomas was Magic &Larry backward, a close-as-brothers bond gone wrong, which Johnson acknowledged in a new book he and Bird co-wrote with Jackie MacMullan, “When the Game was Ours”.

Johnson acknowledges knowing that Thomas participated in the 1985 All-Star freeze-out of Michael Jordan, and didn’t object when Isiah was left off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team: “Nobody on that team wanted to play with him,” writes Johnson, et al. “… 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.”

Worst of all, Johnson writes, he was told Thomas spread rumors he was gay after Johnson’s 1991 announcement he was HIV-positive. Some men, like Johnson, are born to be icons. Some, like Thomas, who’s no more a saint or a sinner than Johnson or Jordan, are born to be lightning rods.

(The modern-day version is Kobe Bryant, until recently the NBA’s most shunned superstar ever. Some prodigies, like LeBron James, who Commissioner David Stern just told “Sports Professor” Rick Horrow, “may be the best player who ever lived,” are beloved, with or without titles. Some, like Bryant, have four titles and are only beginning to get their due.)

Magic, whose personality was a greater gift even than his game, has led a charmed life. When he messed up, it slid into the mist of history.

Thomas was every bit as engaging. If it wasn’t a good idea to be between Thomas and something he wanted, he wasn’t just charitable but messianic. At 25, he promoted No Crime in Detroit Day, going into lawless neighborhoods to make personal pleas to gang leaders. As NBA Players Association president, Thomas was the last of the stars to run the union for the little guys in the tradition of Oscar Robertson.

Thomas made enemies by the hundred, calling out the biggest he could find, slicing the agents’ cut of contracts from 10 percent to 4 percent, infuriating them all. Super-agent David Falk then took over the union with his fancy client list and undid everything Thomas had done in a campaign for superstar rights that led to the 1999 lockout.

With the Lakers and Pistons going head-to-head in the 1988 and 1989 Finals, Johnson and Thomas became enemies on the floor … and off, for Lakers coach Pat Riley, who raged privately when Johnson exchanged kisses on the cheek with Thomas before games.

Perhaps fearing Riley would go into a coma if he heard Johnson had gone to the hospital in the middle of the night when Thomas’ son was born during the 1988 Finals, Magic took a pass on that one, stinging Isiah. In Game 5 of that series, they shoved each other and had to be held apart.

Johnson’s friends thought Thomas was envious. Isiah lived for the day he could be Magic II, or Isiah I … just as Bird and Magic lived for the day they were up and the other wasn’t. If superstar friendships are often equal parts love and hate, Johnson started one way and went the other with both Thomas and Bird.

What remained of the friendship was shattered in 1991, when Johnson was told Thomas was spreading the rumor Johnson was gay.

Insiders have known the story for years. I heard it off the record from all the principals, except Magic. I never believed it as presented, and still don’t.

I can easily imagine Thomas asking about rumors Johnson was gay, then denying he had forever.

What I’ll never believe is that Thomas intended to harm Johnson.

The whole world cried the day Johnson made his HIV announcement. If Thomas has a Napoleon complex Bonaparte himself would have envied, I can’t imagine him then turning on his friend, whatever they’d gone through.

Whatever Johnson believes, the fact is Thomas, as union president, subsequently pushed for him to play in the 1992 All-Star game. (Stern made it happen only after suggesting Magic come off the bench to mollify leery sponsors and owners.) Thomas led players over to hug Johnson before the game, wiping away weeks of tension in one warm moment.

By then, Thomas had become isolated within the game for one overriding reason, his enmity with Jordan.

Leaving Thomas off the Dream Team had nothing to do with Pippen, Bird or Malone and everything to do with Jordan. He hated Thomas, whose Bad Boy Pistons had beaten him up and eliminated his team in 1988, 1989 and 1990.

With Jordan looking for a way not to go to the Olympics, his sensitivities were paramount. His joking “I don’t play on no teams with Isiah Thomas,” to someone on the selection committee, according to Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules”, meant Thomas, the 11-time All-Star with two titles, wasn’t going.

When the game was theirs, it really were a golden age. Unhappily, nothing lasts forever, or comes close.

Talk to us

More in Sports

Marysville Pilchuck’s Christian Van Natta lifts the ball in the air to celebrate a turnover during the game against Marysville Getchell on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Prep football roundup for Friday, Sept. 29

Prep football roundup for Friday, Sept. 29: (Note for coaches/scorekeepers: To report… Continue reading

Who’s that frog? A local high school tennis player, that’s who

Arlington tennis player Robbie Balderas worked as AquaSox mascot Webbly this season, and the busy junior also runs a landscaping business.

Mountlake Terrace’s Zaveon Jones is pulled to the ground by a diving Nicholas Mouser of Monroe on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023, at Monroe High School in Monroe, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Swarming Monroe defense keys win over Terrace in Wesco 3A South showdown

The Bearcats slow down the Hawks’ potent ground game, and quarterback Blake Springer tosses three TDs in a 35-10 victory.

Arlington players lift the Stilly Cup in the air after beating Stanwood on Friday, Sept. 29, 2023 in Stanwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Arlington reclaims Stilly Cup after short hiatus, routs Stanwood 42-7

Leyton Martin registers 277 yards, 4 TDs as Eagles notch fifth straight game with at least six TDs.

Fall prep sports roundup.
Prep results for Saturday, Sept. 30

Prep results for Saturday, Sept. 30: (Note for coaches/scorekeepers: To report results… Continue reading

Marysville Pilchuck’s Dominik Kendrick (9) runs with the ball during a football game between Marysville Pilchuck and Stanwood at Marysville Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. Marysville Pilchuck takes the win, 36-7. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Marysville Pilchuck proud of 4-0 start, but has loftier goals

The Tomahawks aren’t listening to the outside noise, including a No. 1 WIAA RPI ranking, as a tough stretch lies ahead.

Houston Astros relief pitcher Hector Neris (50) gestures to Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodríguez (44) after striking Rodríguez out to end the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)
MLB investigating Astros pitcher’s alleged use of homophobic slur

The incident occurred during a heated exchange between Houston’s Hector Neris and M’s star Julio Rodriguez on Wednesday night.

Prep roundup for Friday, Sept. 29

Prep roundup for Friday, Sept. 29: (Note for coaches/scorekeepers: To report results… Continue reading

Stanwood players react to their coach bringing them the Stilly Cup on Sept. 30, 2022 in Arlington. The Spartans snapped a 12-game losing streak in the rivalry matchup last year. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
4 games to watch in Week 5 of the prep football season

An in-depth look at the best games the area has to offer, plus a full schedule of the local action in Week 5.

Most Read