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 Whenthe 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.''
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.''