Johnson, left, and Thomas exchanging kisses before a game during the 1989 NBA Finals (Andrew Bernstein/Getty Images)
Those of us who lament the current incarnation of the NBA despite Lebron James’ and Chris Paul’s (he’s soooo cute — no hetero) greatness do so because we remember the golden age of the league. (Are you looking for Kobe love? You won’t get that here. Move along.) Those of us born in the 80s were raised on the good and nutritiously entertaining similac of dope hip hop and an NBA that was absolutely faaaaaantastic. Part of what made the mid-80s professional basketball such a renaissance was the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, a contentious pairing that began during the championship game of the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where Magic’s Michigan State Spartans beat Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores. Thirty years after the Bird or Magic debate began, the former adversaries, now friends, have co-written a book with the help of former Boston Globe sports columnist Jackie Macmullan. Though the book won’t be on shelves until November 4, last week the sports world took a brief break from obsessing over football to report on some of the juicier content.
According to reports, in When the Game Was Ours Johnson makes two startling allegations about former Detroit Pistons point guard, Isiah Thomas who was, by all accounts, Johnson’s closest friend in the league, until an on the court fight eventually led to the two buddies becoming estranged. The first allegation concerns Thomas being left off the roster of the 1992 Dream Team. However, what’s most interesting–and what commentators have spent most of their time exploring–is Johnson’s claim that Thomas questioned and spread rumors about his sexuality after his HIV diagnosis was made public.
From the Sports Illustrated article about the story:
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.”
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—.’ ”
Now, I have no love for Isiah Thomas. In fact, circa 1989, I loathed him. I was a Johnson fan; The Lake Show or Showtime starring Magic, Big Game James, and G.Q. Pat (as my mother called him) was pure excitement for a young basketball lover like me. More than that, I worshiped at the sneakers Michael Jordan, and took it personally when the Pistons beat up on him. Thomas’ somewhat recent sexual harassment suit didn’t help, either. Thomas has just been kind of, I dunno, icky to me. I understand why Arthur Agee and William Gates idolized him, but I just can’t–no matter how much I love basketball or how long I’ve lived in Chicago–muster any respect for the guy.
I’m not interested in what Thomas might (not) have said about his former friend. What concerns me, what bothers me about these assertions isn’t whether or not Thomas made them, but why Johnson was/is so upset, what makes him feel so betrayed. Was it that Thomas allegedly spread rumors or the content of the gossip? The way the story has been framed, it seems to be the latter.
*Let’s press pause on those Magic doesn’t have HIV theories for a moment.*
The level of Johnson’s HIV activism has been and should continue to be debated. Though I think many of us forget it, Johnson remains one of most visible HIV-positive black persons on the planet. By resurrecting this moment in his discussion of Thomas’ apparent response and describing it as a “kick in the stomach,” Johnson implicitly connotes shame and embarrassment in being associated with bi- and/or homosexuality. That Johnson expresses “disbelief” that Thomas doubted the way he contracted the disease reads more like that typical sphincter-tightening, counterproductive “I ain’t gay (and I’m mad you think so)” response I’ve grown absolutely sick of. It’s difficult for me to translate Johnson’s response as “How could my friend talk about me behind my back?” How dare Thomas question Johnson’s manliness, his virility!? Well, given (black) public opinion of the disease circa 1991–and even now–Thomas’ alleged questioning of what Magic was doing “out there in L.A.” isn’t thoroughly illegitimate. But really, almost 18 years later, should Magic still be that upset about Thomas’ alleged “doubts”? It wasn’t as if Thomas was unsure of Johnson’s ability to garner yet another triple-double. Why is he still buggin’ about gay rumors? Nobody’s really all that famous until there’s at least one gay rumor about him or her. Take it as a badge of honor.
Though I suppose I can appreciate Johnson’s “HIV can happen to anybody” approach on some level, I’m troubled–but not surprised–by the very real possibility that such rhetoric was (yet again) inspired by anxiety about being associated with what is still deemed as sexually deviant behavior. That reality compels one to consider the way in which Johnson’s strategy for activism was an effort to distance himself from such acts. One does not have to argue that HIV affects everybody by (re)articulating homophobic attitudes while simultaneously refashioning one’s self as a traditional family man, a traditional businessman who will give black folks access to capital. (And Cookie Johnson wasn’t much help with her “there’s no HIV in Earvin’s blood” interview.) It’s unnecessary and damaging. If I recall correctly his autobiography, My Life, which I read circa 1992, had no juicy details, but a bit of that “I had unprotected sex with women in my former life” flavor. What a disappointment. But I get it. No one’s giving black male basketball players endorsement deals if their sexual excess involved other men. This is a family show.
The need to have frank discussions about sex and sexuality is imperative to the process of responsibly protecting one’s self. And honest conversations become even more difficult when the most visible and privileged of us express anger and shame when we are said to be engaging in acts that aren’t conventional–whether or not such rumors are true. And even if Johnson expressed his honest, gut reaction upon hearing such news, it seems a bit dangerous to go on writing about it in such a way. How empowering might it have been to have read something like, The fact that Isiah was spreading rumors about me really hurt. I felt betrayed by his acts(–not by what he was saying).
I suppose hoping for folks to examine the way in which their words affect so many things beyond their image might be a bit too much. I’d sooner catch one of Magic’s patented no-look passes. Loved his courtside vision. The other way he seems to see things? Not so much. The comeback game was awesome, though.