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Isiah Thomas, Magic mend fences in emotional reunion

Terry Foster
Special to The Detroit News
Former NBA greats Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Isiah Thomas shared a long friendship that deteriorated at some point during their back-to-back showdowns in the NBA Finals in 1988 and 1989.

Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson lightly kissed each other on the check before every game of the 1988 NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers.

That was a big storyline on TV broadcasts and in newspaper reports because no NBA competitors had kissed in the Finals to that point, and we haven't seen it since.

Thomas and Johnson were like brothers because they both understood the pressure of being an NBA superstar, and both were determined to win as many NBA champions as possible. Johnson wanted to hang onto the throne — he led the Lakers to five NBA championships from 1980-88 — while the Pistons struggled to get out of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics.

Thomas wanted what Johnson had and Magic was not willing to let go.

But the love for one another was still there when they met in the 1988 NBA Finals. But both were out for blood, which led to a love/hate relationship on the court.

Both were highly competitive men who valued championship rings much more than money, and that hatred of losing might have fostered a testy relationship. That animosity festered for years before the two NBA legends made amends during a “Players Only” special that appeared on NBA TV.

It was vintage Magic and Isiah. Johnson, taking the role as big brother, apologized to Thomas. The men had a tearful embrace, and they talked about their careers and the pain of losing and the joy of winning.

“I would say to you, this has been a tremendous day,” Johnson said during the show. “My wife, my mother, my father have been saying, ‘You all need to get back together.’

“So, when everyone called I said, ‘No question, we're going to do this.’ And just to sit across from you and have those ... relive the 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 doing it.”

Thomas did not immediately respond to messages on Wednesday night. But over the years Thomas and I would talk and he said then he wanted the relationship with Magic mended like it was back in the day when former Maverick and Piston Mark Aguirre, Thomas and Johnson were hanging out buddies in Detroit, Los Angeles, Lansing and even Alaska.

Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas, right, and the Los Angeles Lakers star Ervin “Magic” Johnson exchange their usual pregame kiss before the start of a game in the 1988 NBA Finals.

Something happened to the relationship. Johnson said he was hurt that Thomas spread rumors about Johnson’s sexual preferences after Johnson reveled in 1991 that he was HIV positive.

Another dagger in the relationship occurred when Johnson played a role in keeping Thomas off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team because he knew Michael Jordan did not want Thomas on the team. Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammate, Scottie Pippen, were against having Thomas on the team. But there is another part to this story. By then the Pistons were two-time NBA champions and Olympic and Pistons coach Chuck Daly wanted to keep the peace in the Pistons dressing room.

The logical choice was for Thomas to represent the Pistons, who at the time were one of the best teams in basketball. However, Daly knew that Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars wanted a spot on the team, as well, and the coach believed it was best to keep everyone off the team for the betterment of the Pistons.

Fueled by their relentless competitive juices, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas were two of the greatest players in NBA history.

That they are great friends again is something we can all smile about.

Terry Foster, a former Detroit News sports reporter, covered the Pistons for the News from 1988-94.