Milwaukee Bucks: Marques Johnson broke the mold in a variety of ways

MILWAUKEE, WI - CIRCA 1970s: (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - CIRCA 1970s: (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images) /

While Marques Johnson gets credit for being one of the league’s best players in his time with the Milwaukee Bucks, his overall influence on the NBA is somewhat overlooked.

Often what separates the best athletes from those with incredible talent who just fall short is the ability to stand out from the crowd. It’s not enough to just be good, as to truly be able to reach elite status, a player is required to stand on their own two feet and offer something different.

That can come by way of a strong or charismatic personality, or a touch of ingenuity and an innovative instinct.

While many players who make it to the peak of professional sport, and more specifically the NBA, can often possess one of those two traits, Marques Johnson possessed both during his time with the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Having been selected with the third overall pick of the 1977 NBA Draft, Johnson went on to spend seven seasons with the Bucks. During that time, the former UCLA Bruin was selected to four All-Star teams, an All-NBA First Team, and two All-NBA Second Teams, all while averaging 21.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks on 53 percent shooting from the field.

And still, there was so much more to Marques Johnson’s career than numbers and accolades.

When we take stock of the landscape of the modern NBA, Johnson’s fingerprints are all over it. The Louisiana native was one of a number of players who changed the way forwards played the game, triggering a shift that eventually led to wings taking over in the ensuing decades. Beyond the court, when players now sign contracts for endless riches, they also owe a debt to Johnson for being one of the first players willing to agitate from within the system.

That all started with Johnson being unafraid to take control.

It didn’t take long for Johnson to prove himself in Milwaukee, compiling a stunning season in his rookie year and becoming more and more central to the team’s plan over the years that followed. His influence and importance to the team reached a point that as the Bucks prepared to head into the 1981-82 season, Johnson took drastic action in pursuit of a deal that would pay him closer to his apparent worth.

The then 25-year-old failed to show up for training camp, breaching his contract and then putting in a trade request. According to a report from the New York Times in August of 1981, Johnson made it clear to Bucks coach Don Nelson exactly what he was looking for.

"“Johnson asked Coach Don Nelson last Friday to trade him to a team that was more willing to pay him what he thinks he deserves, and to a city where more commercial endorsements were possible.”"

The Bucks never considered trading him.

As not only one of Milwaukee’s most important players, but also one of the league’s stars, Johnson’s actions caused quite a stir. Describing the process and the way in which he ultimately kept a low profile in the negotiations that followed, Johnson explained to Sports Illustrated:

"“I was trying to let things work below the surface. I went public the first time and things got crazy.”"

Johnson’s power play represented a major risk and a rare instance of an NBA player sticking up for their own rights at that time, and it worked. Johnson went from earning $1.1 million over six seasons, to a deal that would net him $8 million over the course of eight years.

As Roy S. Johnson described the events in a New York Times profile of Johnson in the December after negotiations were finalized:

"“Johnson recently proved that basketball’s pressures and decisions off the court must be handled in the same way as a last-second shot, with conviction and confidence.”"

As Johnson, himself, explained in that same piece:

"“Sports salaries are not governed by the same forces as they are in the real world,. One generous owner can restructure the salary scale at many times the rate of inflation. It’s hard for the sports public to understand and accept that.But 10 years after I’m gone, the Bucks’ organization will still be there. With sports, the organization is the stable thing, not the player.”"

With his contract worked out, Johnson returned to doing what he did best for the Bucks. Although his best play in the NBA arguably came in his first few seasons, Johnson couldn’t be accused of remaining static, as his game continued to evolve.

It was a feature of Johnson’s play throughout his career, and one of the strongest facets of an incredibly well-rounded team that Nelson had constructed.

As Johnson relayed to us in an interview in the summer of 2015:

"“I loved playing with that group. Everybody understood their role. I averaged 26 points per game in my second year and made the All-NBA First Team, knocking Julius Erving off the team.Nellie called me into his office before the next season and asked me to scale that back to 20 points per game and seven rebounds with good defense.His point was that we had such terrific balance with Bob Lanier, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Sidney Moncrief, Mickey Johnson and Quinn Buckner.”"

In spite of being one of the league’s deadliest scorers, Johnson persistently showed a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team. While that first instance may have led to his biggest drop-off in scoring, Johnson’s most famous adjustment came years later.

Johnson is one of a number of influential figures from the late 70s and early 80s — including fellow Bucks luminaries Don Nelson, Del Harris, and Paul Pressey — who deserve credit for the birth of the “point forward” role.

While Johnson doesn’t claim to be the first player to have played in such a capacity, he was certainly among them. What Johnson does lay claim to is having been the one to coin point forward as a phrase.

"“We played the Nets in the playoffs and a bunch of point guards were hurt. During practice before a game in that series, Nellie altered the offense so that I initiated it from the forward position.As we were walking through it, I nonchalantly observed to Nellie, “So, instead of a point guard, I am a point forward.” Nellie was like, “Hmm. Point forward, I like that. Yeah you’re a point forward.”Rick Barry played the position before that with Golden State in ’75. Robert Reid with the Rockets and John Johnson with the Sonics in the early 80’s. Paul Pressey was a point guard in college so it was very natural for him after I was traded. But I know for a fact that term wasn’t used until I said it.”"

Regardless of the origin of the phrase, Johnson played the role as a focal point of a Bucks’ offense that confounded the league.

The idea of wings and forwards taking on more of an initiating presence left a lasting impression in the NBA, paving the way for players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Scottie Pippen, LeBron James, and now, Giannis Antetokounmpo to further take up that mantle as time has gone on.

Next: Milwaukee Bucks: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s legacy mixed with off-court challenges

Johnson’s contributions to the Bucks’ success and remarkable consistency stand up among the best in franchise history to this very day. It may still take a jersey retirement for him to have the full credit he deserves for those efforts, but as he looks around at today’s NBA, he can’t help but feel at home in a league where the players are being paid handsomely, and allowed to create more freely than ever on the court.