AT THE TOP OF HIS PROFESSION - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Marques Johnson, who may well be the best forward in the NBA, performs high above the opposition, stopping time, defying gravity

Marques Johnson gathers himself on the left wing, impassively facing the basket, holding the ball lightly with both hands, which dangle between his thighs. His feet are flat on the floor. Boston's Larry Bird, the defender, watches the ball, at the same time keeping peripheral track of the moving Bucks and Celtics, waiting for something to happen. Then, at just below the speed of light, Johnson's head and hands flick right, toward the painted lane. Bird's eyes shift just so, and his left hand goes out to cut off Johnson's path. Bird has been snared. For Johnson, making a basket now will be like picking a spring flower. As if time has stopped for everyone but him, Johnson flicks the ball from his right hand to his left, takes one step and launches himself into his own space. He is almost left of the basket before Bird even notices he is gone. Still in the air as other Celtics close in, Johnson tucks the ball into his midriff, drawing his elbows in tight. A midcourse adjustment takes him behind the glass, and before his feet touch down on the right side of the basket, he has shoveled the ball, spinning, up and off the backboard, into the hoop. By the time the spectators' eyes have shifted from the quivering hoop to the spot where Johnson landed, he is no longer there, but halfway downcourt, ready to set up on defense.

If Marques Johnson is not generally conceded to be the best all-round basketball player in the game today, it is only because comparing players at different positions is as difficult as comparing pitchers with hitters, quarterbacks with linebackers or goalies with wingers. In the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands alone at center and Magic Johnson has no equal at guard. But at forward, the game's glamour position, two players stand out. One is Philadelphia's 6'7" Julius Erving and the other is Milwaukee's 6'7" Johnson.

Ask any NBA coach which of the two he'd rather have on his team and he will say "both." Each is a superb scorer—Erving averaging 26.6 points and Johnson 20.2 so far this year. But press a little bit, and the coach will say that Johnson is the superior defender; his 218 pounds provide more strength than Erving's 200. And then he might point out that Johnson is just 24 years old while Erving is 30.

Johnson himself believes there is little difference between himself and Doctor J. Johnson has idolized Erving ever since he watched him do amazing things with a multicolored ball in the 1972 ABA All-Star game while Marques was a student at Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School. "Doc is in a class by himself," says Johnson. "But...well, maybe he gives up a little on the defense. Put it this way: If you had a team I don't think you'd go wrong with either one of us."

False modesty is not among Johnson's failings. In fact, his bluntness has sometimes been mistaken for snobbishness, or indifference. But he has never caused a headache for a coach or a moment's jealousy on any team he's played for. If anyone ever was, he was born to play basketball. His father, Jeff, then a high school coach in Nachitoches, La. and now a math and science teacher and the coach at Crenshaw, named him after Marques Haynes of the Harlem Globetrotters. Why Haynes? "Because," says Jeff, "of all the players I'd ever seen, Marques Haynes was the one who could do the most things with a basketball." Jeff Johnson is 5'11" and his wife, Baasha, is 5'8". Yet the doctor who delivered Marques predicted that he would grow to be 6'6" or taller. His father says, "I always knew he would be a basketball player. Why? Because he was a boy."

Just as today's centers—even Abdul-Jabbar—are still measured against Bill Russell, forwards are compared to Elgin Baylor. "Elgin, Doc and Marques, in my opinion those three guys are the best forwards ever," says Wayne Embry, the former NBA center who is now a Bucks vice-president. "Marques is closer to Elgin than Doc because of his great strength and defense. He not only has the quickest first step of anyone I've ever seen, but once he makes it he's way up above everybody. Put those two things together and he can get anywhere he wants."

"Doc's the Doc," says Bucks Coach Don Nelson. "But Marques is the best all-round. We ask him to do more and he does do more. I never want to limit his abilities to one or two areas. There's no doubt I could get 30 points a night from him if I went to him more. But he's got to work his butt off on the D, so I limit him to 35 minutes or so. I could play him at guard if I wanted to, he's that versatile. Sometimes in practice I do."

"Playing forward in the NBA requires a wider repertoire of skills than any other position," says Johnson. "You have to be able to handle the ball, shoot from the outside, rebound, play defense against a variety of players. Like myself—I might have to guard Maurice Lucas one game, Walter Davis the next. That's like guarding a center and a guard, totally different types. I have to play against Larry Bird, a phenomenal offensive player, also rebound, then get out on the fast break and run."

As great a player as Johnson has become, his father thinks he should be even better. "He's too conservative," says Jeff Johnson. "He can do more things than he's doing."

Standing at the low post, right side, with Bird and the basket behind him, Johnson takes a bounce pass from Len Elmore. The upward bounce of the ball, which he catches at his belt, seems to lift him off the floor like a Minuteman missile. He blasts off, twisting toward the hoop, leans at a 60-degree angle and bangs the ball off the glass and through the cords. Again, the move was too quick for Bird to react to it.

"To me, the beauty of the game is in getting to the basket and avoiding contact," says Johnson. "If I go up in the air and someone's in the path, I can almost always find a way to contort my body so I can get around him. There is so much space around the basket. You know there are going to be little pockets, little black holes, places you can occupy and score from. Sometimes I'm going to one but they close it up before I get there. Well, that just opens up another one someplace else, so I just have to find it and get there fast."

Bill Bradley, the former Princeton All-America, New York Knick, and now U.S. Senator from New Jersey, had a favorite phrase, which he applied to his life on and off the basketball court: "A sense of where you are." Bradley is another of Johnson's heroes and in many ways their personalities are similar. But on the court Johnson does things with a basketball Bradley could only have dreamed about. And Johnson, too, has an abiding sense of where he is.

Johnson plays so high off the floor that he gives the impression of having the ability to walk on air, to stop time. "Often I take off from some spot, land 10 feet away and I'm not even sure of what I've done in between," he says. "I've always had an instinctive ability to get to the ball or to the basket. And I always know where I am and where I must get to. On a rebound, I can tell from the trajectory of the shot where it's going to bounce and how high I have to jump to get it. On a pass or a drive I know just how to get my body moving right. It's almost as though I can make my own physical laws."

Few people were prepared for what Johnson was going to do when he entered the NBA in 1977. In four years at UCLA he had been an outstanding performer, winning College Player of the Year honors in his senior year. But UCLA's highly disciplined system—Johnson played his first two years under John Wooden, his last two under Gene Bartow—didn't allow individual talents like Johnson's to manifest themselves as the professional game does. "I became a prisoner of that particular system," he says. "But really, that was the way I learned to play, and the way I played in high school. I learned efficiency, how to play without using up too much energy. My father used to call it 'playing the easy way.' "

What Johnson brought out of UCLA was a winning attitude. "Coach Wooden made you have it," he says. Embry recalls going to Pauley Pavilion in 1973 to scout a UCLA senior named Bill Walton. "I saw this freshman, Marques Johnson, and I said to the guy next to me, 'We're scouting the wrong kid.' "

Still, there were raps on Johnson's game. People said he couldn't shoot from the outside, that he couldn't dribble well, that he didn't have great speed. "I hadn't been sure about Marques before I went to see him in the Pizza Hut Classic in Las Vegas," says Nelson. "He had a poor game—one for seven or something—but I'd been to their practice a couple of days earlier and he was absolutely sensational. If I hadn't done that, I never would've fallen in love with him."

Milwaukee had the first choice in the 1977 draft, but the Bucks were set on using it to take Indiana Center Kent Benson. Nelson wanted Johnson, too, so he traded Center Swen Nater to Buffalo for the No. 3 pick. Nelson's mentor, Boston G.M. Red Auerbach, was aghast. "Red told me never to trade a seven-foot center for anything but another seven-foot center," says Nelson. "But I had a hunch Marques might be an exception."

Exceptional was what he was, from the first day of his first season. With a scoring average of 19.5 points and a rebounding average of 8.5—plus an ability to play defense uncommonly well for a rookie—Johnson, more than anyone, was responsible for turning a 30-52 team into a championship contender. In the playoffs he averaged 24 points and 12.4 rebounds, outplayed Phoenix Forward Walter Davis and embarrassed the writers and broadcasters who voted Davis, not Johnson, Rookie of the Year in 1978.

Johnson is driving right, and Cleveland's Mike Mitchell is with him step for step. Suddenly Johnson cuts left—Mitchell is still going right—and enters the lane where 6'10" Dave Robisch has spread his bulk. Johnson takes to the air, brings the ball to his knees, switches it to his right hand, brings it up again, spins it in off the glass. And draws the foul.

"I have fun at least once or twice in every game," Johnson says. "Of course, fun for me a lot of times is watching other players do stuff. When we were playing Philly once, Julius dunked one on me. I didn't show it or let anybody know how I felt, but inside I was applauding and giving him a standing ovation. And later I told him, under my breath, 'Good move.' "

How often do opponents acknowledge Johnson's extraordinary moves?

"Hmmm. Some guys say, 'Try that again and I'm gonna break your arm,' or 'Come in here again and I'll take your head off.' When you're playing Julius it's 'Oh, it's Dr. J. How am I gonna stop him!' Sometimes I sense players have that kind of respect for me, whereas with other players it's 'Yeah. Come on. Take it to me.' Walter Davis and I have real good games. A lot of times he'll score 38 and I'll score 37.

"Now this one happened my rookie year in Houston. I was posting up with the defender fronting me. I'm supposed to break to the basket while Quinn Buckner throws me a lob pass. But the pass was behind me and low, and I had to turn around and bend down for it. I caught it and in one motion pulled up and dunked it blind, backwards."

"How did you know where you were?" someone asks him.

"I told you. I always know where I am."

"But a dunk? A fraction of an inch off and it bounces into the seats."

"Not if you know precisely where you are."

Johnson certainly gives the impression that he knows precisely where he is. He speaks clearly and carefully in a basso profundo voice, and is interested in many more things than the location of the basket. He was an excellent student from the beginning, and at one point his parents changed his elementary school because, says his father, "We thought he was making A's too easily. But he kept right on making A's and we were told he was just a gifted student." He received a degree in theater arts at UCLA; eventually he would like to get into film or television production work. He carries a Screen Actors Guild card. He keeps in close touch with current events, reading TIME magazine on planes while some of his teammates read trashy novels or sports pages or sleep. He is rarely quoted colorfully because reporters who cover the team have the idea that he is quiet and staid, and private. But he has a wry sense of humor, is quick with a quip and is universally liked.

"Marques is pure vanilla," says Bucks Vice-President John Steinmiller. Embry says that he is the embodiment of "class." Teammate Buckner, who is impressed with Johnson's intelligence and efficiency as a player, says, "Success hasn't fazed him in the least." Jon McGlocklin, a former Buck forward and now the team's radio and TV color man, says he doesn't really know Johnson well; no one on the team does. But his impressions are: "Intelligent, mature, strong, upright. He gives you a little bit of himself, but holds a little back. That adds intrigue. Makes him mysterious. I can't think of a single negative thing to say about him." Says Center Bob Lanier, "I love him. To death."

Johnson is driving a red Jeep to an out-of-the-way Milwaukee soul-food restaurant, and talking about discipline. "In things that I consider very important, I guess I am disciplined," he says. "That's the way I was brought up. But in minor things, cleaning my room, stuff like that, I'm not as together as my image might suggest."

Is he truly as mature and upstanding as most people seem to think he is?

He says, "Can't I be those things and still have a dirty room?"

In Marques Johnson's neat life there have been few occasions when order seemed threatened and even fewer outright bad moments. There was a nagging uncertainty when he contemplated leaving UCLA after his junior year. Both the Denver Nuggets, who were still in the ABA, and the Detroit Pistons, who would have the first pick in the NBA draft, were after him. But they kept reducing the money as the ABA-NBA merger grew imminent.

"I felt like Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees" says Johnson. "Should I go or shouldn't I? Would my life and career fall apart at midnight?" He turned to his parents for counsel, as always.

"We advised him to stay in school," says Jeff Johnson. "There didn't seem to be any reason to us why he should hurry into the pros." Indeed, the elder Johnson had moved his family—Marques and three sisters, now there are four—to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1961, expressly so that Marques could attend UCLA. "Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson [both UCLA alumni] were two men I admired very much," says Jeff. "That was long before I even knew about Wooden."

Two dismaying events for Marques occurred simultaneously last fall. Both resulted from mistakes. His marriage ended after less than two years—"I got married because I thought it was the thing to do," he says—and he went through a distasteful holdout in an effort to get his original six-year contract renegotiated. Bucks Owner Jim Fitzgerald steadfastly refused, though he offered Johnson a modest bonus, and Johnson had neither the heart nor the stomach to prolong the holdout to the point of affecting his career. He shrugs and says, "I figure why go through hell? Might as well just play basketball." He is getting $250,000 this season, which makes him the fourth-highest-paid player on the Bucks—after Lanier, Brian Winters and Mickey Johnson. About 60 or 70 NBA players who wouldn't have a prayer against Johnson in a game of HORSE are paid more. But there is no bitterness. The Bucks understand Johnson's desire for more money and he understands their position as a tightly run business. "A contract is a contract," he says. "My mistake was signing for six years. Now I realize I was betting against myself. But I just saw that million dollars. I wouldn't have cared if it was spread over 30 years. They told me six years would go fast,, I still have two more to go."

Johnson doesn't want to offend Milwaukeeans, but it isn't his favorite town. Los Angeles, where he grew up, is. "After you've been to a couple of the places here, what's there left to do?" He knows he'll be worth a solid million a year in 1982 and he doesn't intend to make any mistakes next time around.

Of this the Bucks' front office is keenly aware. "We know that we're going to have to come up with a very, very good offer," says Steinmiller, "but it's not like we haven't been down that road before." Indeed, Milwaukee had a similar problem with Abdul-Jabbar in 1975. He was so good that the Bucks couldn't afford to keep him, and the trade they made with Los Angeles brought several of the players who helped make Milwaukee the winning team it is today. "We can always back up the Brinks truck into L.A. again," says Steinmiller. "Not that we want to. We don't want to do that at all."

An outside shot by Winters bounces off the front of the rim high into the air. Abdul-Jabbar has position for the rebound—arms and legs spread wide—meaning that no one is going to get it but him. Johnson is pushed all the way under the basket so that the only way he can get the ball is if it falls through the net. But as Kareem reaches, Marques shoots up and out like a rocket, intercepts the ball and slam-dunks it, right before Abdul-Jabbar's amazed face.

"You know," Johnson says, "maybe one of the reasons I put on such a stoic front is because I've always had secret doubts about myself. I've always had a tendency to downplay my talents. I would always go into a situation thinking I wasn't as good, maybe, as I really was—in high school, in college. Coming out of college, even though I'd been Player of the Year, I still had doubts. I heard people say that I might not be good enough. I thought, 'Can I really play with these guys?' Then I got to my first training camp. One hour. No more doubts. No more doubts at all."