One of the closest, most enduring friendships in professional sports is that between All-Star guards Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. But that's on the back burner now, of course, as for the first time they find themselves facing each other in the National Basketball Association finals. ``Our friendship will always be there, but when the game starts we are both going to play as hard as we can,'' Johnson explained midway through the best-of-seven series, which Los Angeles leads 2-1 going into tonight's critical fourth game in Detroit.
``We both understand how much each of us wants to win,'' Thomas concurred. ``We wouldn't have it any other way.''
Isiah certainly understood how much Magic wanted to win a few years ago when the Lakers lost an emotionally draining seven-game final to Boston in which several uncharacteristic mistakes by Johnson played crucial roles; he and another close friend, Mark Aguirre, stayed up all that night in a hotel room with Magic trying to console him and take his mind off it all.
But that's the sort of thing friends are for - and it would be hard to find better friends than Johnson and Thomas. They have known each other for a long time, appreciate each other's exceptional skills, and frequently spend time together during the off-season. They've even gone in together on several joint business ventures, once owning a Denver radio station, some apartment houses, and a number of condominiums together, though they have since sold all three properties.
Johnson and Thomas both starred for Big Ten Conference schools in their college days, Magic leading Michigan State to the NCAA championship in 1979 and Isiah doing the same at Indiana two years later. And both have continued to play leading roles for their respective NBA teams, Johnson for nine seasons and Thomas for seven.
Johnson has played on four NBA champions, is one of only four guards ever to be named the league's Most Valuable Player, and attracts publicity like a magnet. But Thomas has some impressive credentials of his own.
Isiah is one of pro basketball's best pure shooters. Offensively there isn't much he can't do. His rainbow, pull-up jumpers hardly ripple the net when they pass through the hoop, and he is an intelligent playmaker.
Thomas doesn't run down a basketball court so much as he flows across it. When he dribbles, the ball becomes an extension of either hand. He invents as he goes along. Opponents who go up in the air with him to try to block his shot usually come down first. If Isiah took as many shots per game as Chicago's Michael Jordan, he would probably score as many baskets.
Off the court, Thomas writes poetry - and doesn't mind if people know it. He also has a college degree in criminal justice.
In explaining why he was drawn to this field of study, he told me, ``I grew up in a heavily populated area in which there was considerable street crime. I saw a lot of poor people go to jail who I didn't think belonged there. Too often the punishment outweighed the crime, and only made things worse for the individual involved.
``Most of the people I knew who got into trouble were kids who stole to survive. They stole because their parents weren't providing for them. I'm not saying crime is right. We all know it isn't. But often conditions have everything to do with why a young person gets into trouble. Once my basketball career is over, I'd like to help prevent that.''
The only way to truly appreciate the flexible talents of Johnson is to follow him through a full season, including the playoffs.
Despite nine years of meaningful statistics (and he's still only 28), half of what Johnson accomplishes never appears in a box score. Magic's influence in the locker room, his patience with rookies, and the way he has absorbed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's leadership role (without disturbing Kareem's ego), are nothing short of amazing.
That is the part about Johnson that the public doesn't see and isn't really in a position to evaluate. But it is a remarkable gift that is always there, that never allows any wind to escape from the Lakers' confidence balloon, and that makes it the life of Riley for a coach named Pat.
What you have to remember is that the 6 ft., 9 in. Johnson isn't really a guard or a forward or a center in the conventional sense of those basketball terms. Instead this is a one-size-fits-all player who is a playmaker first and a scorer second, who picks his spots to go hard on defense, and who gets everyone around him involved in what is happening.
``Because Magic is so visible on top of the wagon, throwing roses to everyone and having such a good time, his actions are sometimes misunderstood,'' Riley says.``But don't let anyone kid you that Magic doesn't also pull the wagon. He handles game pressure about as well as anyone I've ever seen, and he doesn't have to score a lot of points to beat you, either.''
Away from the court, Johnson drives a Rolls-Royce (he also has two other vehicles) and lives in a two-story, six-bedroom, Tudor-style mansion in Bel Air, Calif., that is tucked into a rustic canyon. It has everything you'd expect a house like this to feature, including a swimming pool, a sunken bathtub that might be mistaken for a swimming pool, and a large disco room with all those crazy lights that pop out of the ceiling.
So far in this series, just as everyone knew they would, both of these stellar guards have played major roles. Thomas scored 19 points and handed off 12 assists as the Pistons stunned the Lakers 105-93 in the opening game, while Johnson was valiant in defeat, keeping his team in the game with a 28-point performance. Magic took over in Game 2, collecting 23 points and 11 assists as the Lakers evened the series with a 108-96 decision. Then as the series moved to Detroit for Sunday's critical Game 3, both players were in top form - Johnson playing an immense overall game in which he hit 7 of his 8 field goal attempts, scored 18 points, and had 14 assists to lead L.A. to a 99-86 victory, while Thomas kept the Pistons in the game as long as he could and wound up leading all scorers with 28 points.
And undoubtedly these same two good friends will continue sparking their respective teams throughout the rest of the series, which continues with Games 4 and 5 at the Silverdome tonight and Thursday, then returns to Los Angeles for any further games that are needed.