Media Magic: Is Isiah a Villain or Visionary?

(also published at SportsOnMyMind)

Isiah Kissing MagicThey are two of the greatest point guards in NBA history.


These Hall-of-Famers waged fierce battles against each other.

But only one of them would be selected to the 1992 Dream Team.

And only now would we learn about the real story of the friendship between Isiah Thomas…

and John Stockton.

Some folks were surprised last month when John chose Isiah to present him at his Hall-of-Fame induction speech – an honor Joe Dumars also once bestowed on Thomas a few years earlier.  Said Stockton,

“We’ve had some tough battles, but one thing I know for sure is that he has showed up many times in my life and made a major impact for me, and a lot of it is behind the scenes”.

Stockton – who also credits Thomas with having “changed my entire view of basketball” echoed the same off-court theme a few days earlier:

“He’s done some things behind the scenes that people don’t know about,… I’m certainly not going to talk about them now … but he’s shown a lot of class.”

Did he say, “A lot of class?” … was Stockton talking about THAT Isiah?

That the intensely private Stockton would not openly shed details of Isiah’s mentorship was not surprising. Neither was the mass media’s decision to ignore the intriguing off-court connection between the two greatest small point guards to ever play the game (not yet, Mr. Paul!).

Of course, the greatest point guard of any size is Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

In the upcoming book “When the Game Was Ours” (co-written with Larry Bird and author Jackie MacMullen) Johnson’s criticisms of Thomas have made headlines when Stockton’s praise didn’t make one line. Johnson writes that his friendship with Thomas deteriorated because he believes that Isiah was spreading rumors about his sexuality when he announced that he was HIV positive in 1991. Magic also goes on to admit that he joined with Michael Jordan and others 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.”

Whether true or not, if Magic sincerely believed that Thomas was spreading false rumors about his sexuality, one could understand the downturn in their friendship. That Johnson never expressed these feelings privately to Thomas is far more difficult to grasp. In an extended interview with Sports Illustrated’s Ian Thomsen, Isiah would answer back:

“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…. I didn’t know he felt this way.’…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.”

Magic – always the entrepreneur – violated more than a few ethical codes by using a book to air his grievances. Also, by stating that “nobody” on the Olympic Team wanted Isiah on it as opposed to speaking only for himself, he also put those 1992 teammates in a very precarious position.

What is less known is that Isiah Thomas has been an uncelebrated leader in educating the public around being HIV+. Before Magic’s historic announcement, Isiah’s own brother was diagnosed with HIV, and died of AIDS five years ago. Says Thomas:

“They weren’t going to let Magic play in the All-Star Game; all the players were coming out [against him]. 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.”

Not only did Thomas call the meeting, but he followed through with that deliberately demonstrative embrace.  In 2009, his gesture may not mean much, but in 1992 it was huge given the dangerous amount of myths surrounding HIV and AIDS. Isiah would let Karl Malone, all the other players, and America know that Magic and every other person who had contracted HIV+ is alright to show love.

Thomas has never received lasting media credit for his strong social leadership. When it comes to issues around homosexuality, Isiah turned up again. When former NBA player John Amaechi revealed that he was gay, many in the NBA were asked “if the NBA is ready for an openly-gay player”. While Tim Hardaway hated, and Lebron James fumbled, no one NBA player or executive answered the question better than Thomas:

“I can’t speak for somebody else’s locker room, but if it’s mine, we won’t have a problem.”

… “Sports have always been the testing ground for what society will or won’t accept.”

Thomas is historically correct. As a player, when Isiah publically embraced Magic, it was the HIV+ acceptance equivalent to Pee Wee Reese famously putting his hand on Jackie Robinson’s shoulder. As an executive, when Thomas took his hard-line stance on homosexuality, he was channeling Branch Rickey famously trading away the three Dodger players who refused to accept Robinson as an equal teammate in 1947.

But such details get in the way of cartoon narratives. And you know the story.

Magic Johnson is the hero.

And Isiah Thomas is the villain.

And once a media narrative is set, it takes an act of God to reverse the curse.

Not convinced?

Check out how ESPN’s Around The Horn crew would perceive Magic’s various breaches of etiquette:

– Woody Paige: “Isiah Thomas should have kept his mouth shut… Once again, Isiah Thomas, the one who has always made trouble is doing it again!”

– Tim Cowlishaw: “As Woody said, I’m sure Jackie [MacMullen] called him. I’m sure he didn’t return the call. He had the opportunity to do something about it… We’ve learned not to trust Isiah Thomas over the last 20 years”

– Jemele Hill: “I think that there might be a little bit of professional jealousy as well [on Isiah’s part]



So who wrote that book again?

Thomas – who was “blindsided” – obviously did not know the details of the book, but since he didn’t return calls to be interviewed, he – and not Magic – was the troublemaker!


Just wow.

I have written at length of Isiah’s unfair media treatment as a General Manager, but his treatment off-the-court  may be even more egregious (see article titles like “The Devil Wears Nikes). In each case, his biggest crime has been:

Isiah Thomas does not kiss media ass.

This is why 20 years can endure with bogus or overstated stories about MJ’s “all-star game freeze-out”, Larry Bird’s whiteness, and CBA collapses, while his behind-the-scenes stories remain well, behind the scenes.

Yet how many people knew before now that Thomas facilitated Magic’s 1992 return to the All-Star Game (not me!)? How many people knew that when Stephon Marbury launched his revolutionary $15 sneaker line, he gave great credit to Thomas for his off-the-court inspiration? How many knew before this article how much Thomas – the media image of arrogance – meant to John Stockton – the media image of humility.

Who knew?

Ironically, the Stockton-Isiah Hall-of-Fame pairing was hijacked by Michael Jordan’s “Speech Heard ‘Round the World”. For some MJ’s speech was petty, vindictive, and pulled the covers off “the real Michael Jordan”. For others, it simply revealed the expected off-court character flaws that are so often associated from such single-minded greatness. What was really exposed – once again – was the absurdity that is media-propped sports heroes where no flaws exist. Michael – like Brett Favre the last couple of years – went off the script. Their selfishness was put on display for all to see. But Michael and Brett – like Magic Johnson – will pay no long-term price.

Not when smiles can so easily replace substance.

Not when scripts have been seared into our brains for so long.

And not when you have eternal villains like Isiah Thomas to kick around.