Marques Johnson: Wanting into the Dream Showcase, 1984

[The Dream Showcase translates here to the NBA Finals. Marques Johnson and the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t quite get there in the 1984 NBA playoffs, slowed by another unlucky rash of late-season injuries and falling to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, during the Boston series, Johnson had to take over Milwaukee’s playmaking duties when the Bucks came up short on healthy guards to run the offense. Johnson called himself a “point forward,” and the term lives on today.

But during the regular season, the first-place Bucks (50-32) ruled the Central Division, thanks in no small measure to the stellar all-around play of Johnson tearing through the NBA in his prime. He averaged 20.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game in what would be his final campaign in Milwaukee. Though popular in Milwaukee, he wasn’t necessarily beloved in the front office for his two earlier contract holdouts. And so, before the start of the next season, the Bucks traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers. 

In this short article, published in the February 1984 issue of Basketball Digest, journalist Gery Woelfel captures Johnson and his hard-driving quest as a Buck for NBA success. Woelfel is recognized today as a Wisconsin sportswriting great for his outstanding body of work at the Racine Journal Times. But Woelfel was just a youngster when he wrote this piece, and nearly 40 years post-publication, it still reads well. It’s also kind of fun to read about this newfangled thing in the 1980s called game film study. 

Most of all, it’s just a pleasure to remember Johnson’s game and, if only in print, tap into the intense energy and drive that makes him one of the all-time greats. He’s still dunking at 66 years young!] 

**** 

The Milwaukee Arena was virtually empty—with the exception of a couple of security guards casually strolling through the upper levels—and the structure took on an eerie quality. The stillness didn’t last long, though. It was shattered by the sound of a bouncing basketball . . . then another . . . and another. The Milwaukee Bucks were ready to partake in a practice session.

On their agenda for this evening was the matter of working on some new wrinkles in which to break the Philadelphia 76ers’ full-court press, a press that has given the Bucks problems in the past.

Before they delved into that, however, the Bucks went through a series of drills. One such drill involved a center—in this case, Alton Lister—setting an imaginary pick at the free-throw line, while another player came around him to take a jump shot.

After several Bucks went through the drill, it was No. 8 Marques Johnson’s turn. Standing 15 feet away from Lister, Johnson took two high, pronounced dribbles, gave a strong head fake, drove hard toward Lister, threw in a quick shoulder fake, cut sharply behind Lister’s pick, came to a sudden halt, and launched a soft shot that did a two-step on the rim before falling through the twines. 

Yes, it was only a practice play, one of thousands a team goes through in a season. But it was one a visitor at the practice couldn’t help but notice. On that drill, with a demonic look on his face, Johnson looked like he was possessed. It was as though he was trying to shake off Dan Roundfield or a Terry Cummings, as though this was a real game, with the clock ticking down to its final seconds, with a jam-packed, delirious crowd on its feet.

It’s plays like that that have left Mike Schuler, the Bucks’ newly appointed assistant coach, a Marques Johnson admirer. “He’s such a great practice player,” Schuler raved. “He practices so hard for a superstar. He’s really something.”

Indeed, whenever Johnson steps on the court, he becomes all business. For that matter, Johnson seems to have a purpose for whatever he does, whether it’s on a basketball court or off it. 

Take, for example, two summers ago, when he decided at the last minute to play in an exhibition game. For many pro players, an exhibition game is a time to renew acquaintances for an opportunity to stay in shape.

For Johnson, this rather meaningless exhibition game was meaningful. He had heard Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta’s budding star forward, was going to play in the game. Johnson thought it would be the ideal time to get “the book” on Wilkins.

“I really wasn’t going to play, but when I found out [Wilkins] was going to play, it made it more appealing to me,” said Johnson with a slight smile. “I thought I could get a firsthand look at him. I could get to see what his tendencies were, what were his strengths and weaknesses. 

“I found some of those [weaknesses]. I can’t reveal them now . . . not for a long time,” Johnson said, his smile fully expanded now. “But that [game] was my own personal scouting report.”

Studying and preparing for opponents is a habit Johnson says he adopted from Bucks coach Don Nelson and John Killilea, a former Bucks assistant. Nelson and Klllilea also made it a practice to videotape their opponent’s games, and it has been particularly beneficial to them at playoff time, when they’ll spend countless hours dissecting and analyzing the film in order to obtain tidbits of information to help them win.

Johnson, however, doesn’t wait until the playoffs to try to find a slight advantage. He has his own video recorder in his seasonal home in Fox Point, Wisc., a picturesque locale on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Johnson says he tapes as many of the televised games as possible and then reviews them in his “free time.” He’ll then make mental notes and try to incorporate what he’s learned into his game the next time he encounters that opponent.

Johnson’s preparation for a game doesn’t end there. He prepares himself mentally as well using a technique similar to transcendental meditation. “About two and a half years ago, I heard a public speaker talk at UCLA on relaxing. He talked about breathing exercises, where you lay flat down, close your eyes, and concentrate on certain parts of your body, like your legs, then your thigh muscles, and so on. You go through your whole body.

“It’s helped. It gets me relaxed. I’ll probably do this before half of our games during the season.”

Such preparation for a game isn’t a burden for Johnson as it might be for some players. He learned how to properly prepare at an early age from his parents. His father, Jeff, taught mathematics and English at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles (which Marques attended), and his mother, Baasha, was the head librarian at Los Angeles High School.

“I was exposed to a lot of things early on, especially books,” said Johnson. “My mother, as head librarian, would always bring home books for us to critique, and she would ask us how we liked them before she placed an order.

“The discipline factor I got from them carried over into classes and basketball for me,” said Johnson, who was selected to the College Sports Information Directors of America All-America first team as a senior at UCLA.

“I know it takes hard work to succeed in anything. That’s why I have no qualms about putting in extra hours practicing.”

Johnson’s work habits have paid dividends. He takes a backseat to no one at the small forward position, including the “Doctor,” Julius Erving.

Former great forward Rick Barry, asked to compare Johnson and Erving, replied, “That’s difficult. It’s like comparing Mantle to Mays.”

The Bucks’ 6-feet-7 superstar is a complete player in the truest sense. Undoubtedly, he could be one of the league’s top scorers, as he was during the 1978-79 season when he averaged 25.6 points a game, the third-best scoring clip in the NBA.

Johnson is also an excellent passer and team player, as shown by his team-leading 4.5 assists per game last season, and he’s as good a rebounder for a small forward as you’ll find in the NBA.

However, after a half-dozen seasons in the NBA, Johnson says he is no longer caught up in statistics. He admits he’s changed his goals since his baptismal season with the Bucks. “The last time I made some specific goals was my rookie year. I had about seven or eight goals then. I wanted to average 18 to 20 points, 10 to 12 rebounds, 2 to 3 assists a game. I accomplished all of those goals except one, and that was free throws.

“This year, I really haven’t set any specific goals. I know I should average 20 points or more a game. I think that’s something that’s expected of me, not only by myself but by the team, too. For our team to be successful, Sidney [Moncrief] and I have to have 20 to 22 points a game.

“I know in my rookie year, I had to do a lot of rebounding. This year, Alton has improved so much in rebounding that I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that too much. This year, I’m just going to let things develop and see where help is needed.”

So, does this mean Johnson has abandoned setting goals?

“Well, I think I have reached a stage where I’m not so much worried about personal goals. I want to get a shot at playing for the title—that’s the ultimate goal. That’s the one I find myself shooting for now.

“I’ve accomplished basically what I thought I could accomplish as a pro: being All-Pro, playing in an all-star game [actually four times], those types of things. Now, it’s taking it a step further, playing in a championship game.”

Johnson believes the Bucks have the talent and chemistry for reaching that championship game. “I think we can. We’ve always been circumvented in the semifinal round or whatever. One year, we didn’t have Quinn Buckner, one year Junior [Bridgeman], Sidney getting banged up last year and still playing and people not knowing to what extent.

“It just seems something has always impeded our progress. It’s not like we’ve been beaten with our best. It’s been with patchwork lineups.

“The key will be everybody staying healthy. Just having a full squad. If we do that, I like our chances. The Dobber [Bob Lanier] has had his knee surgery, so hopefully that’ll help his knees and us.

“My goal is to reach the championship. I want to get into the Dream Showcase.”

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