Sidney Moncrief’s Special Success Formula, 1984

[Sidney Moncrief was a GREAT player, and I’ve wanted to run an article about him for a long time. Here’s one from the prolific wire service reporter Bert Rosenthal that ran in the magazine All-Star Sports Basketball Issue, 1983-84. Like most of Rosenthal’s copy, this story is just the facts, nothing racy, drawn from Moncrief’s fourth season with the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s also a bit of a period piece with Rosenthal waxing on about the novelty of basketball players lifting weights. 

Moncrief would log 10 seasons in Milwaukee and tack on one more in Atlanta. He finished as a five-time NBA all-star (1982-86), a four-time member of the All-NBA Defensive Team (1983-86), a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1983, 1984), All-NBA First Team (1983, and a four-time All-NBA Second Team. If not for chronic foot and knee in]uries, he would have continued to ace the All-NBA teams through the 1980s.]

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When Sidney Moncrief was at the University of Arkansas and earning rave reviews as a basketball player, he was being called “Sid the Whiz Kid,” “Sidney the Incredible,” and one newspaper even went so far as to suggest that he was, “The player of the ages rather than of the decade.”

Now, as a National Basketball Association star with the Milwaukee Bucks, the modest Moncrief has no imaginative nickname, such as “Magic” or “Dr. J.,” and he prefers it that way. “I don’t really want one,” said the 6-feet-4 guard, who has led the Bucks in scoring each of the past two seasons (including a 22.5 average in the 1982-83 campaign) and helped Milwaukee win four Central Division titles in his four years in the NBA. “Sid’s fine.”

Although Moncrief has lost his flashy nicknames from his collegiate days, he still is drawing rave reviews. “In my opinion, Moncrief is the most valuable player in the league this year,” Atlanta coach Kevin Loughery said last season after the Bucks’ backcourt standout had burned the Hawks for 39 points. “I see a lot of games, but on overall ability and competitiveness, I’d choose him.”

“He’s fantastic,” said Philadelphia coach Billy Cunningham. “He has the ability to play both guard positions without hurting his defense or his outside game. He does everything well, and he does it every night.”

Philadelphia guard Clint Richardson, who often plays against Moncrief, also appreciates his magnificent skills. “I thank Sidney is underrated, really when you consider the publicity somebody like Magic Johnson gets,” said Richardson. “I can’t see any way for him to improve. When I cover him, I don’t try to stop him. That’s impossible. I just try to contain him and keep him from making big plays. You can’t play him any certain way.”

“He’s great because he does everything well,” said forward Marques Johnson, the other half of Milwaukee’s high-scoring tandem (21.4 average last season).

“In our league, there are hard players and soft players,” said Milwaukee assistant coach John Killilea. “Sidney is a hard player.”

Moncrief’s biggest booster is Don Nelson, the Bucks’ head coach. “Sidney is probably the best guard in the league on the defensive end,” said Nelson. “I believe that is the biggest difference between him and the NBA’s other top guards. Also, Sidney is versatile enough to play both guard positions and small forward if necessary.

“He’s better than he was last year,” Nelson said during the 1982-83 season. “I don’t know if that’s possible, but he is. The big improvement is his outside shot. It’s getting so I’m counting on it as soon as he shoots. He also has a better feel for the game, and he’s handling the ball better.

“The 76ers have an awfully good guard in Andrew Toney, and Magic Johnson isn’t bad,” said Nelson, “but we’re biased here. If I had to choose the guard I wanted, I’d take Sidney.”

Moncrief, a Bucks’ co-captain with guard Brian Winters, has become, in his quiet, efficient way, the team’s floor leader and the player Milwaukee goes to in pressure situations. “Sidney has come into his own,” said swingman Junior Bridgeman, the Bucks’ key sixth man. “We look to him primarily for leadership. He takes the toughest opponents on defense, and we go to him down the stretch on offense because he’s such a clutch performer.”

Moncrief showed what a great clutch performer he is during Milwaukee’s stunning four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinal playoffs last season. In the late stages of the games, when the Bucks, needed points to hold off the desperate Celtics, most often they went to Moncrief. “He plays both ends of the court, and his versatility makes him such a factor in a ballgame,” noted Bill Fitch, Boston’s disappointed coach.

“He’s the best all-around player I’ve ever coached,” said Nelson. “A great player has to do everything well and two or three things great. No part of his game can be average. It’s a very exclusive club, and Sidney’s a great player.”

“My game is so spread out,” said the graceful Moncrief, “that there is not one aspect that people can focus on. They can’t just look and say: ‘He had a great night scoring,’ or ‘He had a great rebounding night.’ And because of that, I don’t feel I get the recognition I deserve.”

There were a lot of observers—both at courtside and watching on national television—who thought that Moncrief deserved the MVP Award in last season’s NBA All-Star Game in Inglewood, Calif. But he didn’t get it, despite scoring 20 points, making six steals, grabbing five rebounds, and handing out four assists for the winning East team. Instead, the honor went to Julius Erving of Philadelphia.

Perhaps one of the reasons Moncrief doesn’t receive the recognition that he deserves is that he doesn’t play in one of the league’s big media centers, such as New York or Los Angeles. But the lack of publicity doesn’t bother Moncrief.

“In Milwaukee, my wife (Debra) can avoid excessive crime, traffic jams, and a lot of the other big city hassles,” explained Moncrief. “That peace of mind outweighs any loss of national media attention. Milwaukee’s small-town atmosphere is similar to Little Rock (where Moncrief was born and goes during the offseason).”

In Little Rock, Moncrief came from humble beginnings, and he has not lost that humbleness. At the age of 5, Moncrief was mopping floors and washing dishes. At age 7, his family was on welfare for four years until his mother remarried when he was 11.

That’s why Moncrief feels fortunate to be where he is today—one of the game’s highest-paid professionals in the highest-paying team sport in the country. “I didn’t come into the NBA thinking I could set the world on fire like a lot of guys do,” admitted Moncrief, who was named the Southwest Conference Player of the Year in his senior year at Arkansas after averaging more than 22 points per game and 9.6 rebounds. “I was apprehensive. I thought I could compete, but I wasn’t sure I could be a successful professional.”

If Moncrief had his doubts, the Bucks didn’t. They picked him on the first round of the 1979 draft—the fifth player chosen overall. Milwaukee knew that Moncrief had completed his collegiate career as the leading scorer and rebounder in Arkansas history, that he had been named to several All-American teams his senior year, that he had connected on more than 60 percent of his field-goal attempts during his four years with the Razorbacks, and that he had shot better than 85 percent from the free-throw line in his final year.

What the Bucks did not know, of course, was how well Moncrief would perform as a pro. Many first-round draft picks—several higher overall than Moncrief—have fizzled for various reasons. The draft is an annual crapshoot with high stakes for NBA teams. And, as in every game of craps, there are winners and there are losers.

In this case, the Bucks how come out ahead—way ahead. Although Moncrief was not an instant sensation—he averaged only 8.5 points per game in his rookie season—he was impressive in other areas, including rebounding and defense. He also proved to be a good student—absorbing the Bucks’ system and learning the intricacies and tricks of the brutal program. And he was willing to wait his turn to become a regular starter.

“When I first came to Milwaukee,” he explained, “I realized that I had good ballplayers ahead of me, and I wanted to gradually work my way into being a good ballplayer. I didn’t want to just come into the NBA, have a big impact, and start to kind of fade away. A lot of guys really burnout because they come in, make a big impression, but can’t maintain it. I just wanted to gradually work my way up.

“I figured that if you come in gradually and maybe not get the recognition, you will have a reason to continue to improve,” he added. “You will have a reason to continue to work hard.”

Moncrief worked very hard between his first and second seasons in the league, and it became evident during the 1980-81 campaign. After his unspectacular rookie year, he boosted his scoring average to 14.0 points per game, nearly doubled his assist total (133 to 264), became a far more accurate shooter (from .468 to .541 from the field and from .795 to .804 from the foul line) and increased his rebound total (from 338 to 406).

Then, in his third NBA season, 1981-82, he turned from a very good player into an extraordinary performer. That year, he performed a rare feat, leading his team in scoring (19.9 average), rebounding (6.7 average), and playmaking (4.8 assists). He was the first player to accomplish that rare “triple” since Boston’s Dave Cowens did it during the 1975-76 season.

And last season, he again was brilliant, soaring over the 20-point mark in scoring for the first time in his NBA career and being named to the Western Conference All-Star team for the second year in a row.

“I’ve taken what I learned my rookie year, my second and my third year—and over the summers—and I just worked very hard to continually develop my game to the point where I felt comfortable with my progress,” Moncrief said during the 1982-83 season.

Still, like all good, dedicated players, Moncrief believes there is room for improvement. “There are a lot of the parts of my game that I’m not completely satisfied with,” he said. “My outside shot is still not where I’d like it to be, say, three or four years down the road. It’s something I’ll have to continue to work on.

“My overall fullcourt game needs to be improved,” he continued. “I’m making too many turnovers—about 2.5 to 3 per ballgame. Even though I play quite a few minutes, I’m still not satisfied. I should be down to just one or two turnovers per game.”

Even if Moncrief is not completely satisfied with his overall game, his coach Don Nelson is—and that is extremely important. “Sid played super basketball all (last) season,” said the hard-driving Nelson. “He did everything you could ask of a player. And he was asked to do a lot of things the past two seasons because of our injuries.”

Numerous injuries forced Nelson to play Moncrief more than he had wanted in the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons, but the backcourt star thrived on the extra time. “When injuries do occur, you are asked to do a few more things to fill-in,” said Moncrief. “But I want to do anything I can to contribute to a win. I’ve been getting in a lot of minutes for the past two seasons, and I like it that way.”

During that time, Moncrief has played the playmaking and shooting guard positions, and the small forward position on occasion. The changes have not hindered his performances. Wherever Nelson has employed him, he has played well.

Despite his lack of outstanding height (he is only 6-feet-4) and his sleek frame (he weighs only 190 pounds), Moncrief has been able to battle—and outfight—much bigger and stronger players for rebounds. One reason is his outstanding leaping ability. Another is his deceptive strength.

That strength comes from lifting weights, a practice Moncrief started when he first joined the NBA. He lifts weights about once or twice a week, and would do it more frequently if the NBA schedule wasn’t so hectic and time-consuming because of all the travel involved. However, during a two-week period late last season, when the schedule had eased somewhat, Moncrief found time to lift weights on six occasions.

“That’s quite a few times, and I could really feel the difference,” he said. “I felt a lot stronger. And that’s a big part of my game—strength. If I’m not strong, I won’t play well inside and I won’t play good, long minutes. I’ll play minutes, but not productive minutes.”

Moncrief’s success with weights has had a great influence on his teammates. Virtually every player on the Bucks now lifts weights. “I think they realize that throughout the course of 82 games (an NBA season), that it’s very difficult to maintain your strength,” explained Moncrief. “One of the best ways to keep your strength up is to lift weights once or twice a week.”

Moncrief continues his weightlifting program over the summer. First, however, he takes six weeks off after the season “to clear my mind of basketball and heal any nagging injuries.” Then, he begins a lifting-and-running program, and six weeks before training camp, he begins playing basketball again to get ready for another season.

Moncrief not only works hard during the summer and during games, but also at practice . . . and after practice.

After practice, he shoots 25 free throws. Whereas most players can’t wait until practice ends, Moncrief spends those few extra minutes to sharpen a skill that already is one of the best in the NBA. He is well aware of the number of players who have become too complacent and deteriorated rapidly, from stardom to mediocrity, and quickly faded out of the league. He doesn’t want that to happen to him.

“You can’t really wait until you’ve made a mistake and then try to correct it,” explained Moncrief. “You try to look at other people’s development and their failures, and you try to compare your life to theirs. Then you just try to avoid making the same mistake. I don’t want to be complacent.”

He cannot afford to be complacent if he plans to fulfill his goal of playing in the NBA for 11 or 12 years. “People don’t realize the number of hours that you put into your profession,” said Moncrief. “There’s only so much that comes naturally, I mean, you hear people say, ‘Well, he’s got natural ability. He didn’t have to work at it.’ 

“But to keep up that ability, to refine it, and to improve, it takes a lot of time. The time and effort that it takes, people don’t always see it. The amount of abuse your body takes, people don’t see it. So, we are indeed the very last people to receive sympathy from the fans or anybody. We are, supposedly, living this glamorous life. Or so they say.”

While basketball may be difficult at times, as Moncrief says, he would not now trade it for another profession. It has provided him with satisfaction and security. And he says, “I enjoy it.”

“I’m just having fun,” he added. “There isn’t any real special reason, other than just hard work, confidence, and complete dedication to what I’m doing.”

What Moncrief has done is put himself among the top echelon of NBA players. He has done it quietly and without much fanfare, as befits his quiet, shy, unassuming personality.

“It may sound funny,” he said, “but I enjoy not being that well-known. I got a lot of publicity in college, and when it stopped in the pros, I was kind of glad. That’s not really my personality.”

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