Thirty years ago, they were the NBA’s most popular best-friend tandem.
The reigning league MVP playing for the defending champions who transcended the sport and was as much a celebrity as a sports star. Coupled with the best small guy in basketball who was trying to crash the party in the NBA and reach the heights of his pal.
They are basketball royalty, and inarguably the two biggest names in the state of Michigan’s basketball history.
Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. The legendary Michigan State product out of Lansing Everett and the greatest of all the Detroit Pistons.
At 11 p.m. Tuesday, NBATV will show a one-hour, sit-down between the once inseparable pair. But this is less an interview and more a public hash out of how their relationship grew, deteriorated and then was rebuilt.
The show is the first in an extension of the Players Only franchise first debuted last season on TNT, where former NBA players-turned-analysts lead the coverage for one night a week.
Last Tuesday, a trailer for the show aired on NBA TV, followed by reaction from host Ernie Johnson, Thomas and fellow Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.
“We’ve been on the public stage since we were 18, 19 years old,” Thomas said. “People got to see our journey, our ups and downs, our competitiveness. The break up, the get back together … And for the Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, for the Kevin Durant and (Russell) Westbrook right now, what Magic and I have to show for all people in terms of relationships is that you can have some bad times, you can have some good times, and the love that you have for each other, as men, as human beings, in the relationship, that can sustain and that can come back together."
In the public eye is where much of their relationship played out. In fact, how else would we have known they were buddies if we didn’t see Thomas at the NBA Finals, watching Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers? Or how there was an Isiah Room in Johnson’s house since they practically spent summers together?
It even seemed to still be cool between the two during the 1992 NBA All-Star Game – where Johnson returned after announcing his HIV-positive status and retirement just a few months earlier – when the two had a playful one-on-one moment on the court.
The one-on-one sit-down gives the impression that the 1988 NBA Finals was the beginning of the breakdown. In a series remembered most for Thomas’ tremendous performance with a sprained ankle in Game 6 and the phantom foul that helped the Lakers clinch in Game 7 and repeat as champions, it was more than league supremacy that was up for grabs that June.
“You had to make a choice between your Lakers and our friendship,” Thomas said in the show.
That choice was made when Johnson delivered a forearm to Thomas’ throat during a Pistons possession in Game 3 of that series at the Pontiac Silverdome. Thomas retaliated with a less-than-friendly shove for his mentor.
And as the good times were for public consumption, so too, were the bad. Like in 2009, when word emerged from a book about Johnson and Larry Bird that the former MSU star helped keep the captain of the Bad Boys off the 1992 Dream Team. In that same book, “When the Game Was Ours,” Johnson said Thomas questioned his sexuality when Johnson went public with his HIV diagnosis, a claim Thomas has denied.
During this one-hour show, both men exchanged their familiar smiles and displayed the chemistry that made them friends decades ago. They were brought to tears as they faced the emotion of what tore them apart.
In 2013, Johnson tweeted that he had a private conversation with Thomas and wrote “glad we can be friends again.”
The on-screen confirmation came last season when Johnson was hired as president of basketball operations with the Lakers. He was interviewed on NBA TV by Thomas, anchor Matt Winer and Steve Smith, the Detroit native and former MSU star who grew up idolizing both Basketball Hall of Famers.
“I have loved and admired you for a long time, brother,” Johnson said after answering a question about the rebuild in L.A. “We’re gonna always support each other. I miss our friendship and it’s coming back, brother.”