[Last February, former NBA great Marques Johnson celebrated the big 6-5. As with birthday’s past, Johnson slipped into his old basketball gear and headed to his backyard hoop. It was time for a birthday dunk, a chance to show the roiling world of social media that he’s still got it. If you haven’t watched this brief video, do yourself a favor and click:
It’s no accident that Johnson, at age 65, is still dunking on his own outdoor court. He honed his skills as a kid plugging away at all hours on own backyard court in Los Angeles. Many of those hours were spent going one-on-one with his father, a long-time high school basketball coach. This newspaper column, from the outstanding Dwight Chapin of the Los Angeles Times, co-author of the classic sports book The Wizard of Westwood, tells the story in a syndicated column that ran in newspapers across America in March 1977.]
Marques Johnson isn’t just a good basketball player, he’s a super athlete. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a kid with that kind of ability—the way he moves, like a cat; his quickness, how well he jumps. I definitely think he’ll be picked one-two-three in the draft and his salary will somewhere in six figures. Needless to say, we’d love to have him.” – Bill Sharman, Los Angeles Lakers general manager.
Jeff Johnson was sitting on his living room sofa, wife Baasha at his side. He was asked when he realized his son Marques was going to be a very special basketball player.
“When I found out he was a boy,” Jeff Johnson said.
Baasha Johnson smiled, more a grin at first, then widening. She looked at her husband and said, “He has a lot of faith.”
Enough faith to give his son a basketball name—Marques, after Marques Haynes, the Harlem Globetrotter who used to dribble the ball sitting down. “To me,” Jeff Johnson said, “Marques Haynes was the best ballplayer I’d ever seen, the most complete.”
There were signs Marques Johnson—the UCLA forward who was named Monday as Associated Press Collegiate Player of the Year—was going to be a little different. He was 22 inches long at birth, and the delivering physician calculated that as an adult Marques would stand 6-foot-6.
Jeff Johnson liked that. He was a high school basketball coach for 11 years at Natchitoches, La. Marques was born there in 1956, the only boy among the five Johnson children. From the time Marques could hold a basketball, he had one. “When he was big enough,” Jeff Johnson said, “he’d roll it through the house. When he was about two, he started dribbling.”
He couldn’t say the word—he called it “dibbling”—but at four he was entertaining crowds at his dad’s games, “dibbling” the length of the court and back without losing control of the ball.
By the time Marques was seven, the family had moved to Los Angeles, and Jeff Johnson put him in a league for nine- and 10-year-olds. “He was tall enough,” Johnson said. “They didn’t question his age. And he made the All-Star team every year, right from the start.”
Marques doesn’t live with his parents at their comfortable home anymore. But his bedroom is intact. It has a huge waterbed surrounded by trophies of every size, shape and issue. Out back is where the formal basketball education of Marques Johnson began.
Baasha Johnson switches on a couple of floodlights as Jeff Johnson leads a guided tour. It’s a backyard dominated by a weathered backboard, a basket, and a cracked concrete court that must have been hit a million times by bouncing balls.
“I’d do each of the things Pa taught me until I got them right,” Marques said. “He gave me different drills to do. He put a series of chairs in the driveway and have me dribble around and between them, sometimes changing hands. To make me jump high on my layups, he put a chair in front of the basket. I would have to jump over the chair.’
Often, Marques practiced alone.
“When he went off to UCLA,“ said Baasha Johnson. “I thought all the neighbors would be relieved he wasn’t out there making noise anymore. But they said they missed hearing the ball bouncing, bouncing, even at 11 or 12 at night. It had got so they kind of listened for it.
“Now when they hear the noise, they say, ‘Marques is home,’ and they stand at their windows watching.”
Usually, though, Marques Johnson was not alone on that backyard court. Jeff Johnson was there, too, playing him one-on-one, challenging, teaching, and competing. Almost every day, for six or seven years.
“They’re so alike,” Baasha Johnson said of her husband and her son. “Neither one likes to lose. And they work so hard and are so intense.
“I remember when we were in college (at Southern University), Jeff used to get up at 4 a.m. to study. He does that now when he works on his roll book (he’s an industrial arts teacher; she’s a librarian) because he wants it perfect. When he was a coach, he always got up early to work out plays. When he lost, he’d replay the game all night.
Father Knew Best
He didn’t lose the one-on-one to Marques. Not for years.
“We played hundreds of games,” Marques said. “My dad is 6-feet-1 and 190 pounds and very strong. We played to 26 points, and the winner had to win by four. Once I got to high school, it always seemed to be tied 32-32, and then he’d spurt and beat me.”
“When Marques came inside, I’d ask who won,” Baasha Johnson said. “He wouldn’t say anything. My husband, he’d be smiling.”
“Sometimes,” Marques said, “I’d be so angry I wouldn’t answer. I’d feel like crying. I couldn’t talk for a couple of hours. He wouldn’t rub it in, though. He wouldn’t say much of anything, in fact, just go over a fine point or two about the game.”
Both father and son estimate they played a thousand games before Marques, in high school, finally won. “You better believe,” his mother said, “he came in the house slapping hands that day and telling everybody.”
“We still play occasionally,” Jeff Johnson said. “I win 1 of 100 now. I just play for exercise. I guess I lose because I got lazy.”
Jeff Johnson didn’t play college athletics because of a bad knee. But his life has been athletics, and there’s little question he’s been a major influence on Marques’ development. He’s been teacher, critic, concerned parent, coach.
They have shared things and learned things, such as how to handle defeat. “If that’s all Marques has learned from basketball,” Baasha Johnson said, “it’s a great lesson.”