Published February 8, 2017
The two combatants met at center court. At stake was the championship of the NBA.
Two point guards, both of them superstars on their respective teams. One of them had what the other one craved.
So they met at center court and…gave each other a peck on the cheek?
The bromance between Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Isiah Thomas was widely known when Magic’s Lakers and Isiah’s Pistons faced off for the 1988 NBA Championship.
Magic had been to the NBA’s mountaintop—four times. Isiah badly wanted to get there. His thirst for championship champagne was insatiable. The Pistons were steadily rising in the standings and making deeper runs in the playoffs since Thomas was drafted in 1981 and the Pistons began making the postseason every year, starting in 1984.
The affection ended, of course, as soon as the basketball was tipped off.
Early in the series in 1988, Isiah drove the lane. A Lakers player clobbered him with a forearm—a so-called “hard” foul. Isiah tumbled to the hardwood, wincing in pain. The same Lakers player who clobbered him offered a hand as Isiah struggled to his feet.
The Lakers player was Magic Johnson.
It was good, clean but tough basketball. The kind of basketball that Isiah and his “Bad Boys” teammates thrived on.
When Isiah saw that it was Magic who fouled him hard, the cherubic Pistons point guard smiled.
The series went on, for a full seven games. It was a fascinating, almost iconic Finals series.
Before each game, Magic and Isiah swapped pecks on the cheek.
Magic’s Lakers survived, but not before Isiah thrilled the basketball world by scoring a Finals-record 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 at the Forum—on a badly sprained ankle.
Seven pecks on the cheek but seven games of heavy, at times brutal competition.
The next year, the Lakers and Pistons reconvened in the Finals. Magic went down early with a hamstring injury and missed most of the series, which Isiah’s Pistons won in a four-game sweep.
Yes, there was more kissing in 1989, too.
The relationship between Magic and Isiah has always been strong.
The same can’t be said of their relationship with their respective teams, however.
It’s appropriate to talk about now, because tonight the Pistons will be recognizing Isiah’s memories of the Palace at halftime of what will be the Lakers’ last visit to the building. It’s quite possible that Magic Johnson will be somewhere in the house.
It’s quite possible because not only was Magic a huge part of the Pistons-Lakers rivalry of the late-1980s, he has also just been hired as a special adviser by the Lakers.
It’s unclear yet what Magic’s new role will entail. What’s not unclear is the criticism that Johnson has levied at the Lakers in the past.
It probably started when Magic was an ill-advised choice to coach the Lakers toward the end of the 1993-94 season, following his first retirement as a player. He went 5-11 as coach before realizing that his institutional knowledge and natural ability didn’t necessarily translate well to coaching. The hiring of Magic as coach tarnished his legacy a tad in Southern California.
Magic played again two years later before retiring for good. And since then he’s been, at times, a harsh critic of his old team—particularly the front office.
In the past, Magic has called for Lakers co-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss to relinquish power, has criticized Buss’ decisions to hire Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni as coaches, and has ripped Buss for failing to land marquee superstars.
But apparently that’s all forgiven, now that Johnson has been hired by Buss as a special adviser.
“I’m taking Magic at face value, that he’s here to help,” Jim Buss told ESPN. “He’s one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Who wouldn’t value his opinion? I’m excited to work with Magic for years to come.”
Magic and the Lakers have appeared to “kiss” (sorry) and make up.
Isiah’s relationship with the Pistons,while strong now, wasn’t always that way.
The rancor began when Isiah retired after the 1993-94 season. He jumped the gun and all but announced that he would be joining the Pistons’ front office after his playing days.
The trouble was that he hadn’t run that by owner Bill Davidson, who was miffed at the corner into which Isiah painted him.
Davidson didn’t hire Thomas, because there were personal changes the owner wanted Isiah to make, which weren’t made at the time of Thomas’ post-retirement declaration. Of all the owners who’ve run franchises in Detroit, Bill Davidson was the one you never dared cross.
Isiah never returned to the Pistons in any official capacity, and he still hasn’t, though his relationship with the current administration is fine and dandy, as exemplified by tonight’s festivities.
Since Isiah retired he’s had a strange, uneven career in NBA upper management and on the sidelines.
Isiah was a failure in Toronto, even more so with the Knicks and he had an underachieving team with the Pacers as coach until new executive Larry Bird, who was another fierce on-court competitor of Thomas’, relieved him of his duties in 2003.
There was also the time that Isiah ran the Continental Basketball Association into the ground.
Maybe Davidson was smart not to hire Isiah as an executive, after all.
But all that will be a thing of the distant past—as it should be—as the Pistons recognize Thomas (and, to a degree, Magic and the Lakers) tonight.
The clashes between Isiah and Magic will never be forgotten in these parts—nor will they in Los Angeles, I declare.
They were superstars and friends who battled hard on the court but who, at times, battled their respective franchises almost as hard.
Magic is back with the Lakers. Will Isiah ever return to the Pistons in an official capacity?
Not likely, but that’s water under the bridge.
I bet Magic and Isiah, if the former shows up, exchange pecks on the cheek again tonight.
Just like old times.