Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas were electric NBA stars. As head of the Showtime Lakers, Johnson brought five championships to LA between 1980 and 1988. Meanwhile, Thomas led his Detroit Pistons to title wins in 1989 and 1990. Both Hall of Famers spent their entire careers with one team.
Up until a point, the two dynamic guards were also close friends — as close as sometime-rivals can be. Yet, at a certain point, their relationship turned toxic. At the heart of this conflict were rumors and lies about Johnson’s HIV diagnosis. Let’s break down how their friendship went sour and what the two have done to mend things.
Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson’s conflict
While Johnson and Thomas were long-time friends, they frequently clashed on the court. Things peaked during the 1988 finals when Johnsons’ Lakers overcame Thomas’s Pistons in seven games. At one point in the series, the two even clashed physically.
The on-court feud grew so intense that, according to Thomas, Johnson refused to visit the hospital when Thomas’s son was born. Despite all that, things might have still worked out between them. After all, plenty of fierce competitors go on to have positive relationships.
Yet Thomas and Johnson’s strife only grew more acrimonious as the years went on. Finally, in Johnson’s 2009 book When the Game Was Ours, co-authored with Larry Bird and ESPN writer Jackie MacMullan, he revealed the source of his beef with Thomas.
According to Johnson, Thomas spread ugly rumors about him following his 1991 announcement that he had HIV. Thomas allegedly told people Johnson had contracted the disease through gay or bisexual activities. Thomas, for his part, fiercely denied the allegations, saying he never engaged in speculation about this topic.
The 1992 Dream Team
Regardless of the truth, the perceived slight was enough to create a lasting rift between the two men. This only worsened after Thomas’s snub from the 1992 men’s Olympic basketball team. Dubbed the “Dream Team,” the collection of stars easily secured gold and cemented a legacy as perhaps the single greatest collection of NBA talent to ever play together.
So why was Thomas, in his prime, left off of the Dream Team? The answer has to do with his fractured relationships with many of the team’s players — not just Johnson. Thomas also had a longstanding beef with Karl Malone and Michael Jordan, among others. That said, many historians speculate that Johnson played a key role in agitating against Thomas’ inclusion.
At the time, a debate occurred about whether HIV-positive Johnson should be allowed to play on the Olympic team. Malone and many others voiced concern about his presence. Ironically, Thomas, then-president of the players’ association, spoke up as one of Johnson’s defenders.
Healing a broken friendship
Johnson’s 2009 book reexposed the wound between the two stars. Only recently, in a special joint appearance of Players Only Monthly in 2017, did Johnson and Thomas come together to heal the friendship. The two had a candid, heart-wrenching conversation about their past.
At the end of the video, the two embraced, with Johnson telling Thomas, “You are my brother. Let me apologize if I hurt you — that we haven’t been together and God is good to bring us back together.” With that, one of the oldest, most bitter NBA rivalries came to an end.