Born: February 8, 1956
Position: Small Forward
Milwaukee Bucks (NBA): 1977-’84
Los Angeles Clippers (NBA): 1984-’86
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 1989
From the Bruins to the Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks were a perennial contender during the late 1970s and 1980s. The Bucks possessed one of the league’s best and most versatile lineups that largely grew from the presence of three men: coach Don Nelson who found creative ways to mix and match talent, guard Sidney Moncrief, and the slinky forward Marques Johnson.
Johnson joined the Bucks in the 1977-78 season as a rookie out of UCLA and was an instant sensation. At 6’7″, Johnson had a great height for a small forward but was also incredibly quick on the go. He didn’t possess a tremendous range on his jump shot, but from about 18 feet in he was a marksman.
Perhaps most disheartening for opponents though was Marques’ ability to crash the offensive glass. After playing a possession of good defense and forcing a missed shot, Bucks opponents would be crushed by Johnson getting second-chance points. He was also a beast in the post, although not on post ups. Johnson was a master at spinning off his defender, catching lob passes and finishing with a dunk or layup.
Being a small forward, Marques didn’t neglect other skills. He was a superb passer, could rise up to challenge shots, and was a very good defender. In his rookie season, Marques led the Bucks to the playoffs and carried them to the semi-finals where they lost to the Denver Nuggets in seven games. Johnson was magnificent averaging 24 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2 blocks on 55% shooting. As the Bucks assembled a better-balanced squad over the ensuing seasons, Marques wouldn’t be required to unleash that kind of titanic performance time and time again.
Requirements aside, Marques generally maintained his super 1978 playoff performance for the duration of the 1979 regular season: 25.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.2 BPG and a white hot 55% shooting from the field. For his spectacular efforts, Johnson was named to the All-NBA 1st Team that season, but the Bucks finished with just 38 wins. Two moves would soon help improve and stabilize the Bucks: drafting Sidney Moncrief and trading for Bob Lanier.
With other able players like Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, and Quinn Buckner, Marques’s Bucks were looking up.
Phase 2: Bucks Boogaloo
Spurred on by their acquisitions, the Milwaukee Bucks soared to 49 wins in the 1979-80 season. The trade for Lanier in February particularly was an instant success. Milwaukee went 20-6 after acquiring the big man. And in the playoffs, Moncrief finally emerged as a force to compliment Lanier and Marques. Their postseason adventure was ended, however, by the defending champion Seattle SuperSonics. Game 6 in particular was a heart-breaking experience. Up 3-2 in the series, Johnson delivered 22 points for the Bucks, who nonetheless lost the game 86-85 at home. Game 7 in Seattle was a close affair that the Sonics pulled out 98-94.
Unfortunately, the dye was cast for Marques, Moncrief, Lanier and the Bucks. They would rumble through the regular season and then lose, usually in close fashion, to another powerhouse in the playoffs. In 1981, the Bucks won 60 games in the regular season, but lost 99-98 to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Marques was a monster in the series averaging 25 points (including 36 in Game 7), 9.5 rebounds, 5 assists and 55.6% shooting. It was his finest playoff series as he crushed the 76ers for six… SIX!… offensive rebounds a game in the series.
Perhaps the big performance, and his third straight All-Star selection, convinced Marques he was being underpaid by the Bucks. So as the 1981-82 season geared up, Marques was a hold out demanding a new contract from Milwaukee. The stand off with management lasted through training camp, the preseason, and the first 18 games of the 1981-82 season. Johnson did ultimately receive the raise he wanted, but the lost time meant a relatively lackluster season.
It also led to suspicions that more than money was irking Marques in Milwaukee:
“Despite Johnson’s attempts to portray money as the primary issue of his holdout, there is growing suspicion that the city of Milwaukee is an equally strong – or stronger – factor… some of Johnson’s closest friends feel strongly that Johnson’s main gripe is having to play and live in Milwaukee for another two seasons.”
With the contract issue settled, Marques was rejuvenated for the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Over the course of those campaigns, he averaged 21 points, 7 rebound and 4.5 assists per game. And both seasons the Bucks reached the Eastern Conference Finals. However, each time they’d lose to the eventual NBA champ: the 76ers in 1983 and the Celtics in 1984.
In the summer of 1984, Marques welcomed a trade from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. The move fit better with Johnson’s off-court acting interests, but unfortunately for him he was traded to LA’s Clippers, not the Lakers. As many other players would learn in the future, playing for Donald Sterling’s Clippers was an unmitigated pain in the ass.
A broken hand limited Johnson’s effectiveness in his first Clipper season. But he rebounded tremendously in 1986 snagging his fifth and final All-Star appearance. Behind Marques, the Clips finished with 32 wins. That would be their highest win total between the 1981 and 1992 seasons. The superb – by Clippers standards – season came despite an attempt by Sterling to void the trade that brought Marques to the Clippers a year earlier.
The real source of Sterling’s move appeared being a cheapskate, but the Clippers official reasoning harkened back to a minor drug problem Marques experienced years earlier:
“No, Marques and I haven’t sat down and talked,” [ Clippers team President Alan] Rothenberg said. “But I think he realizes it is a business decision, something the club felt it had to do. It’s nothing personal at all, really.”
A Times story last Feb. 9 reported that Johnson had undergone treatment at St. Mary’s Drug Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis in the summer of 1983. The story also quoted Rothenberg as saying that the club would have “thought twice” about making the trade had it known about Johnson’s previous drug problem.
Marques carried himself with dignity through the sordid ordeal and spoke positively of his drug rehab experience: “I didn’t think I had a problem before, but I went through that program, and they showed me I did. I came out a better person for it.”
The Clippers obviously lost their bid, but Marques’s career was just about finished unknown to everyone. Just 10 games into the next season (1986-87), Johnson collided with teammate Benoit Benjamin. The resulting spinal cord and neck injury effectively ended his career much too soon.
The despicable nature of Sterling’s ownership continued to harass Johnson, though, refusing to pay the rest of his salary. Marques recalled the galling nature of the situation:
“A quick story — in 1986, I had what was really a career-ending neck injury and in 1987, I lost a son in a drowning accident. An intermediary told me to call Donald because he wanted to reach out and talk to me about a contract dispute [after the season]. I called Donald up and he told me he was going to ruin me, that he was going to crush me financially, and that I needed to go ahead and settle on his terms if I wanted to have any money left. He talked to me to me like I was a piece of just bat guano.”
Worn down by the emotional and physical toll of events, Johnson settled with Sterling. He played 10 more games in a comeback attempt with the Golden State Warriors in the 1989-90 season, but it was uneventful.
Despite the brevity of his career, Johnson presaged many of the tall ball-handling small forwards we’ve become accustomed to over the years from Scottie Pippen to LeBron James. His utility made Don Nelson’s anarchic Bucks offense work sublimely. Meanwhile his tenacious offensive-rebounding and second-chance scoring was reincarnated a generation later by the slithering small forward Cedric Ceballos. Add on to that his smooth jump shot and quick anticipation for stealing the ball and you got yourself one hell of a ball player.
Marques Johnson is proof that few things are ever truly new. Usually we just refine and progress what’s come before us. Many of today’s small forwards owe that progressive, refined debt to Johnson, even if they don’t realize it. He was a fine and exquisite baller through and through.
All-NBA 1st Team (1979)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1980-’81)
5x All-Star (1979-’81, 1983, 1986)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1978)
Regular Season Career Averages (691 games):
Playoff Career Averages (54 games):