Five-time NBA All-Star Marques Johnson will be the first to have his number retired at the Fiserv Forum, the new home of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Johnson was drafted by the organization in 1977 and played seven years for the team. He still ranks Top 10 in franchise history in key stats like points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and field goal percentage as well as minutes and games played.
In addition to his athletic career, Johnson is currently an on-air broadcast analyst for the Bucks since 2015 and is a former early morning radio host in Los Angeles. He also has an expansive creative history, including key credits in films like White Men Can’t Jump (1992) and Blue Chips (1994).
He caught up with HoopsHype to discuss the past, present and future of his time in the league.
I wrote an article a little over a year ago outlining the best player for each team that does not yet have their jersey retired. Your name was the first I listed. Congratulations! How did the Bucks tell you that you were going to receive this honor?
Marques Johnson: When I was first told by the team president Peter Feigin, it was in the spring of last year. We were talking about my plans to continue my association as the color analyst for the Bucks. He stopped and said he wanted to let me know that my name was going to be the first to go up in the rafters of the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. It was emotional just hearing it. I didn’t burst out into tears in his office but I wanted to. I could have cried! I was just really appreciative. People have talked about it and I appreciate people like yourself saying it was overdue and it should have happened a long time ago. I’m just glad it’s happening now. I appreciate the team for bestowing upon me one of the greatest honors that you can have as a player.
How does this compare to the news that No. 54 was going to be retired by UCLA?
MJ: It’s on the same level. It’s hard to compare which one is more exciting and which had a more profound effect on me emotionally. UCLA wanted to retire players who had been College Player of the Year so to be in the initial grouping of those players was special. This is almost a little bit more special just in the sense that it had been so long – over 30 years! – since I’d last played with the Bucks in 1984. My mom is still alive so she’ll fly out for the ceremony; she will be 92 years old this year. One of the reasons I chose that date is because her birthday is one day later (March 25) and so we will make it a big celebratory weekend.
Was there much significance to choosing either No. 54 or No. 8 for you?
MJ: I was given that number at UCLA and it was assigned by either coach John Wooden and the staff. Larry Farmer, who had been a part of three straight national title teams for the school and played every game when the team went 89-1, wore that number before I did. He was my assistant coach when I was there. We still refer to each other as ’54’ today. ‘How you doing, 54?’ whenever we see each other.
When I graduated UCLA and I had to select a number for the Bucks, they were worried I would pick that number again. I was selected at No. 3 overall but Milwaukee also had the No. 1 pick and drafted Kent Benson, who wore No. 54 all through his career. But I wanted no part of No. 54 – that’s too big of a number. I felt like a linebacker wearing that. No. 8 is the day that I was born (February 8) and I wore No. 35 at Crenshaw High School. Three plus five makes eight. That has always been a special number for me. That’s the number that I chose once I could make that decision. I like single digits.
Now that you are an announcer for the Bucks, there are few who people who have a better look at Giannis Antetkoukounmpo than you do. What are your general impressions of the budding superstar?
MJ: This is my fourth year covering him and he was averaging around 17.0 points per game as a 21-year-old. But for me to see him continue to grow and develop, I want to say this: his former head coach Jason Kidd deserves a lot more credit. People want to knock Kidd for a lot of things he did as a coach but you cannot knock him for the foresight that he had to put him at the point forward position two or three years ago. When he put the ball in his hands, he had incredible numbers after that. You saw him light up, come alive and find himself and his passion as a player. So to be there while that happened and to see him take off like that, I knew he was headed on that trajectory to be one of the best players in the game. The way he’s going, he’s bucking for one of the best of all-time. His numbers, work ethic and impact on the game on both ends of the floor – and the fact he is only 24 years old – it’s mindboggling to think about how good he is going to get.
You mention the term ‘point forward’ which is something that I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve read that you actually came up with the phrase! Is this correct?
MJ: I did. It was 1984. We were playing the New Jersey Nets in the playoffs. They had a couple of guards who were pressuring our guards. Don Nelson in practice had the idea to have me take the ball up the floor and initiate offense as a relief to the pressure. I wasn’t trying to be Magic Johnson and dish out 10 or 11 assists. I was just supposed to get us into our offense easier. When Nellie told me what we were doing, my comment to him and assistant coach Del Harris was that I was going to be a point forward not a point guard. And Nellie really liked that. That is when that term was first uttered, right there at that practice.
I’m not arrogant enough to think I was the first one to play the point forward. Rick Barry played the position in the 1975 NBA Finals. And if you look at old footage of Maurice Stokes, he played the position too. John Havlicek played it. There are others who played it better than I did. I was just the first one to come up with the terminology. No one mentioned that phrase before the 1984 postseason, though.
Who are some current players who you think are currently thriving in that role?
MJ: The skill development of these guys is so remarkable. You have a lot of guys who have that ability. Look at Justise Winslow, for example. Who would have ever thought two years ago that at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds he would be an effective point guard for the Miami Heat? There are so many players with that size who work on that skill more than we ever did. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green both advance the ball up the court for Golden State. And when Green has the ball in transition, he is so fun to watch because he can break down defenses and make the right decision and the right pass. Ben Simmons and Luka Doncic are both some of my favorites to watch. You aren’t pigeonholed to sit on the wing and shoot jump shots just because you are 6-foot-6 or taller anymore. These guys really work on a plethora of skills.
What are some of the best ways the Bucks can create a championship team around Giannis?
MJ: I think we are already doing it! They have this thing called Daily Vitamins where they work the mindset for these players whether it’s on the court or talking to them in the office. I read something on Twitter that Kidd gave these guys the keys and this staff is showing them what those keys unlock. Mike Budenholzer has a philosophy about different quadrants taped off on the floor during practice. The concept has allowed Giannis to be one of the most devastating scorers in the paint since Shaquille O’Neal in terms of his ability to produce points.
Management has brought in Brook Lopez, who is shooting three-pointers. He has been killer for us and he has expanded his range to about 27 feet and draws opposing bigs way far away from the rim. Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill and DJ Wilson have all been fantastic additions for Milwaukee as well. The depth they are adding allows Budenholzer to play Giannis for just 33 minutes per game, which is fewer than his previous three seasons. He was also covering more ground than almost anyone else, which wears you down. Now he is getting more rest and it is going to allow him to be even more impressive during the postseason because he will be rested and effective.
Do you think Giannis will develop his shot enough to a point where he will be a serviceable shooter from beyond the arc?
MJ: Yes! This year is a total anomaly. He is kind of in his head and wants to prove he can shoot the three-pointer. You aren’t going to see this again. But his form is there and he is starting to do a hesitation move like Kobe Bryant that is getting him in a better rhythm when he is coming off one dribble. It’s getting to be more consistent. He isn’t going to be the best but he is going to be reliable enough to shoot between 33 and 37 percent and if he can do that, it’s going to unlock a new level of effectiveness on offense.
Something folks may not know: You and your son Kris Johnson are the only father-son combo to win collegiate national champions at the same school. How would you compare the two experiences?
MJ: It was fulfilling, to say the least. My son wasn’t the same type of player that I was. He wasn’t as athletic, he was heavyset growing up. He lost around 60 pounds between his freshman and sophomore year after he required knee surgery. He also went to the same high school that I went to and play for the same coach. He won two state championships at Crenshaw playing for Willie West. Nobody worked harder than he did. He started as a sophomore and he averaged almost 20 points per game in conference play as a senior. When he finished his four years at UCLA, he ranked Top 25 in the program’s all-time scoring list. That’s one hell of an accomplishment for a guy like him who was just a 6-foot-4 power forward.
And his son, your grandson Will Johnson, is now on the Oregon Ducks basketball team. What can you tell us about Will?
MJ: He worked his butt off at Palisades High School. Kris coached his AAU team and to watch him become an all-city player as a junior and as a senior to win Western League co-MVP is amazing. As a Division 1 player at Oregon, it is a testament to his perseverance. If you’re willing to put in the work, the sky is the limit. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and it’s wonderful to watch that third generation of my family play D1 college basketball.
Last question: Are you able to get off another dunk on your birthday like you did for your 60th?
MJ: Ha! It seems like every year around my birthday I have a minor little injury that makes it way harder. I may try to see if I can pull it off this year. I’ve been working out a little extra hard, doing a lot of leg exercises. I’d hate to think I’m done for good. If it doesn’t happen, I’m ready to accept it. But I’d like to give it one more shot.