In an upcoming book, basketball's Magic Johnson blames Isiah Thomas for rumors that Johnson was gay at the time Johnson stunned the world by announcing he was HIV-positive.
"Isiah kept questioning people about it," Magic says in the book "When the Game Was Ours," written by Johnson, Larry Bird and longtime NBA reporter by Jackie MacMullan. "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."
Johnson's announcement in 1991 while with the Los Angeles Lakers that he was HIV-positive made headlines around the world and led to intense speculation on how he got the virus. Johnson has always maintained he got it from sleeping with women, even though that was not a common route of transmission in the U.S.
A sports editor at the time, I had long heard rumors that Johnson engaged in man-to-man sex, something he has always denied. "I'm far from homosexual. Far from it," he told Sports Illustrated at the time.
But Johnson is blaming Thomas, then with the Detroit Pistons, for spreading rumors that he was gay. In the book, Johnson's agent Lon Rosen recalled this exchange he said he has with Thomas:
Thomas: "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 Thursday, Thomas told Sports Illustrated that he felt blindsided by the allegations, saying Johnson has never confronted him about them. He also denied what Rosen said.
"What most people don't know is, before Magic had HIV, my brother had HIV,'' Thomas said. "My brother died of HIV, AIDS, drug abuse. So I knew way more about the disease, because I was living with it in my house. ...
"Magic acted and responded off some really bad information that he got,'' Thomas went on. "Whatever friendship we had, I thought it was bulls--- that he believed that. Let me put it to you this way: If he and I were such close friends, if I was questioning his sexuality, then I was questioning mine too. That's how idiotic it is.''
What adds a twist to this was that Thomas was the one player most welcoming to Johnson when he returned to the NBA in 1992; the two had been longtime close friends. This was at a time, MacMullan said on ESPN, that players were afraid to even practice with Johnson lest they contract HIV from his sweat, and his return was initially very difficult.
Thomas was the first player to embrace Johnson at the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. Despite this, Johnson acknowledges in the book that he was among those who prevented Thomas from playing for the 1992 USA Dream Team at the Olympics.
"I don't discriminate," Thomas said. "I don't believe any race or ethnic group or social group should be discriminated against, because I have been discriminated against, and I know it would be wrong for me to discriminate. I think Magic has been misled on a lot of things, and unfortunately this has been another one of them."
It's sad to think that Johnson has held a grudge over Thomas because of this for nearly 20 years. The "Magic is gay" rumor was everywhere at the time, prurient curiosity when HIV/AIDS was still a mystery to most Americans. One didn't need Isiah Thomas to spread something that was already out there.
It was obviously an extremely painful time for Johnson (and his wife) to have to deal with the prejudice and discrimination that surrounded people with HIV. For a pro athlete, especially, being rumored as gay just increased the burden. But why not talk to Thomas, someone Johnson was so close with he built a room in his house just for when Thomas visited?