Commentary

Verbal battle: Isiah takes on Magic

Originally Published: October 23, 2009
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Isiah Thomas and Magic JohnsonAndrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesIsiah Thomas felt the need to respond to Magic's upcoming book "When the Game Was Ours."
The icons of the NBA's golden era aren't making a smooth transition to their golden years, causing the quality of our memories to deteriorate just like the VHS tapes we used to record their games.

Last it was Michael Jordan offending many with his poorly received induction speech at the Hall of Fame. Now it's Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson rehashing nearly 20-year-old incidents that ruined their once close relationship. The game's greatest players can't be content with letting their glory days stand on their own; they're still battling the blemishes. It's as if you handed them the box scores from their signature games and they tried to erase the turnovers.

Stories that Magic felt Isiah spread rumors about his sexuality after Johnson announced he was HIV positive have been around for years. I'm not sure why Johnson waited until now to address them in the upcoming book "When the Game Was Ours," or why Isiah felt the need to fire back with both barrels in SI.com. The stuff they're talking about went down three presidents ago.

The irony is that the book details how Magic and Larry Bird grew closer after starting their careers as cross-country rivals, yet the initial buzz comes from the dissolution of Magic and Isiah's friendship.

Stories such as the fallout between Magic and Isiah are actually commonplace in pro sports. Guys get traded, they get married, they find all kinds of reasons to spend less time hanging with their boys. I've seen players who were inseparable as rookies reduced to getting updates on their former pals through reporters as their lives diverged. But when the profiles are as large as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, it stings.

Now Generation X basketball fans know how their Baby Boomer parents must have felt to hear all the behind-the-scenes stories of the Kennedy Administration and learn things weren't so Camelot after all. It's particularly troublesome to see yet another negative story attached to Thomas, who really hasn't been involved in any good news since his first Toronto Raptors draft pick, Damon Stoudamire, won the Rookie of the Year award in 1996. Since then, Thomas has presided over the collapse of a league, assembled an expensive and ineffective roster in New York, then was the centerpiece of a sexual harassment lawsuit.

Getting into a verbal battle with one of the game's legends doesn't help anyone except the book publishers. That's not to say he has no reason to be angry. His omission from the Olympic Dream Team in 1992 is impossible to defend on the basis of his play. Hearing Johnson say he was on board with the banishment that has always been attributed to Jordan must have felt like someone taking a whack to a surgically repaired knee. We all know Isiah deserved to be on that team. We also know the political nature of the roster. Giving the lone spot slotted for a collegiate player to Christian Laettner instead of Shaquille O'Neal was equally absurd. But Laettner had participated in more USA Basketball events, so he had all the goodwill points.

One thing Thomas has never reconciled is the failure of coach Chuck Daly to get him on the squad. If Daly, Thomas' coach with the Pistons, didn't think he was worth lobbying until the end for, what did that say about their relationship? See … is this really an area Thomas wants to spend time revisiting?

Fighting over the past doesn't undo the damage, it only diminishes the things that actually went well. I'm sad that we can no longer simply appreciate Thomas for his greatness on the basketball court. I wonder how those who didn't see him play could possibly understand just how good he really is now that their perception of him has been shaped by the past 10 years.

A good portion of the players he coaches at Florida International weren't even born when Thomas won his last championship with the Detroit Pistons in 1990. For the sake of everyone under 25, ESPN Classic or NBA TV should run a Thomas marathon.

At the very least, you should watch his 25-point third quarter in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals, (here in Parts I, II and III). Or check out his furious finish to Game 5 of a 1984 playoff series with the Knicks that started here.

If you've never seen it before, you'll be amazed at how a man who was often the smallest on the court could take over the game. If you remember it well, you'll struggle to reconcile that Thomas with the version we've seen for the past decade, and you'll start to realize maybe it's not the players who have changed, it's the immediacy and intimacy of the modern media -- something to ponder as you link to the YouTube videos on your Twitter feed.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.