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Behind former NBA All-Star Marques Johnson’s birthday dunk at age 65

The Bucks analyst explains why his birthday celebration is important to him

Marques Johnson rose up for a one-handed “birthday dunk” on Monday morning that had greater meaning than any other dunk during his 11-year NBA career.

Starting at age 55, the five-time NBA All-Star has dunked on video on his birthday and displayed it on Twitter. But on Monday, his 65th birthday, his dunk made him reflect on his greater health and well-being.

“It’s just me using it as motivation to stay in shape and express my gratitude from where I came 20 years ago,” Johnson told The Undefeated after completing his birthday dunk on Monday wearing a mask and his old NBA All-Star jersey. “I didn’t think I’d live to see 65 based on the way I was living my life and the counterproductive things I was doing. Here I am 65, healthy as a horse and still able to get off my feet and do some things. That is kind of what it is all about for me.”

A member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, Johnson earned the USBWA College Player of the Year award in 1977 after starting at UCLA. In the NBA, he was a 1978 All-Rookie first-team selection and a three-time All-NBA selection. He averaged 20.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game while playing for the Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors. Johnson currently is a television color commentator for the Bucks, who have retired his No. 8 jersey.

The following is a Q&A with Johnson, who talked about his birthday dunks, his expectations for NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, and his comedic son and NBA social media influencer Josiah Johnson.

(Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated Johnson had a stroke 20 years ago. He never had a stroke.)

When did you begin dunking on your birthday and filming it?

I had an assistant coach at UCLA named Larry Farmer, who played at UCLA and wore No. 54 before I got there. He was about four years older than me and he was always talking about how he was dunking at 47, 48 just to see if he could still do it. So, I started around that age just once a year. Back then I could do it pretty easily.

The idea to film it came from Josiah after Blake Griffin jumped over the Kia [in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 2011]. I kind of spoofed jumping over a little Hot Wheels car and dunking at a 24 Hour Fitness by my house at age 55. So every year we just continued it. There were some years where I told Josiah, ‘This is it. I don’t think I can do it next year.’ But once I got close to 65, retirement age, Medicare and all that stuff, I said, ‘Let me try to do it one more year.’ What it does for me is give me motivation to stay in shape. I work out six days a week.

How many dunk takes did you have to do when you filmed?

It’s funny you mention. I only do it once a year. So, I don’t even know if I can still do it when I approach it. Before Josiah got there to film, I did a couple practice dunks. I could barely get to the rim. I was a little nervous. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I could do it this year.’ But once I got warmed up, four or five attempts into it, it felt good. He said, ‘You got one more in you?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it, man.’

I did it about seven or eight times. It seemed like the more I did it, the looser I got and the easier it became and the more confident I was that I could pull it off.

What inspiration do you think you give African American men and men your age seeing you dunk on your 65th birthday?

Take care of yourself. Don’t put limitations on yourself. Challenge yourself, especially when it comes to our health. That is the important thing, especially when it comes to this era of COVID-19, and everything else that is going on, like obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure and all that stuff. Everything fit together and became a perfect storm. I don’t know if I will be able to do it again next year. I will keep working toward it.

I know one year it ain’t going to happen. When it happens, I will accept that and just pat myself on the back for giving myself a good try and good go of it the past 10 years we have been doing it. And just be thankful to God for blessing me with the health he has.

You said that 20 years ago you were doing things that damaged your body. Can you expound on that?

I was involved in substance abuse and all that kind of stuff. Smoking cigarettes. Drinking too much. I was doing too much of everything, really. I just got tired of living that way, and I decided to do something about it. I will be 19 years sober in April. Since that point in time, life has been as good of a life as I could’ve ever asked for. That’s a big part of it, is being grateful. I got sober at 46 after smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day and drinking a fifth of gin every other night. I decided to go ahead and change the course.

There is a saying I love that says, ‘Living two lifestyles in one lifetime.’ I’ve been plugged into this second lifestyle and it has been nothing but a blessing. The Milwaukee Bucks job sprang out of it. A lot of good stuff is happening today.

What do you hope people remember about your NBA career?

I want people to be aware that I was first-team All-NBA my second year in the league. I averaged close to 26 points a game, five to six assists per game. [Then-Bucks coach] Don Nelson asked me to rear my scoring back to 20 a game going into my third year. I feel like I could’ve been a big-time point producer. That was part of who I was and my personality as a player being efficient with the basketball. That is one thing I want people to be aware of.

Marques Johnson (center) of the Milwaukee Bucks goes up to dunk the ball against the Washington Bullets during an NBA game circa 1982 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. Johnson played for the Bucks from 1977 to 1984.

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What are your expectations for Giannis and the Bucks?

You see the adjustments that are being made by coach [Mike] Budenholzer in the dunking area. He is using different approaches offensively to make Giannis have to expand his game and to think the game as opposed to just using his physical attributes to try to dunk and dominate the game. Now, he has to try to dominate the game with his mind. Giannis struggled early on. He admitted that he didn’t like this approach early on because he couldn’t just go out and get to the basket anytime he wanted to. But it’s forcing him to think about the game more.

He is getting better and better at it. In the long run, come playoff time, that is going to really help him. Now he doesn’t have to dominate the usage stats. He is not No. 1 in usage like he was last year. Now, he can rely on teammates [Khris] Middleton or Jrue Holiday to help facilitate. It’s helping Giannis in his rise as a manipulator and a guy who can manage the basketball. That is what separates LeBron [James] from everybody else at his advanced age. He knows how to manage the game better than anyone in the league, and Giannis is just learning that.

What do you think about Josiah’s impact on the NBA from a social media standpoint?

Josiah is one of the most talented guys that I know. He was one of the creators of [the animated show] Chamberlain Heights, which was cutting-edge, before its time and dealt with a lot of social issues that we are dealing with right now. What he is doing now is working with Ava DuVernay on the Colin Kaepernick story for Netflix as a writer on that show.

I told Jo after his show was canceled after two seasons because of a lack of promotion, ‘You ain’t never going to run out of creativity. There is no limit on that. So, don’t think it’s going to be your last great creative idea.’ And it hasn’t been. We got a series that we are working on about the area that I grew up in in Los Angeles, the View Park-Windsor Hills neighborhood called ‘Golden Ghetto.’ It’s a semi-autobiographical thing that we co-wrote together and got some good feedback on. Just the fact that he is killing the game like he is makes me proud as a father in other ways outside of being a basketball player.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.