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Bucks legend Marques Johnson on growing up in South Central, Giannis and playoffs

Ahead of his jersey retirement in Milwaukee, Johnson reflects on his journey

When Marques Johnson was drafted in 1977, the 21-year-old UCLA forward had aspirations of being an NBA superstar, winning an NBA title, and maybe, if he had time, coming across the type of beautiful people he was used to in his native home of Los Angeles.

The first two goals were attainable enough since Johnson was drafted third overall by the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that won the NBA championship six years before and had a superstar opening after the retirement of Oscar Robertson and trade demand of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974 and 1975, respectively. But on that last desire, well, there’s a reason Wisconsin is known for its cows and beer and not for the attractiveness of its people. (This writer is from Milwaukee, so don’t take it personally.)

Not to mention, Johnson traded in the beaches and Hollywood lights for subfreezing temperatures, nearly constant frozen precipitation, and roads so slick that he crashed at least two of his Jeeps.

“My first year — and I may get this conflated — but the first year was more snow than they’d had in 25 years. It was just snow, snow, snow until May,” Johnson told The Undefeated. “And then my second year was the coldest that it had been in 30 years. … And everybody kept telling me that ‘This is really extreme. It’s bad, but it’s not really this bad.’ And you couldn’t have told me different.”

Nevertheless, Johnson and the Bucks still found success on the court. From the 1977-78 season to 1983-84, when he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee won fewer than 49 games just twice, won five consecutive division titles (1980-84), and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals twice. Alongside fellow Bucks greats Sidney Moncrief, Junior Bridgeman, Bob Lanier and Brian Winters, Johnson averaged 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 524 games in his No. 8 jersey.

That forest green, red and white jersey, with its four All-Star and three All-NBA selections, will be retired by the Bucks on March 24 during halftime of the team’s game against the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers. Johnson’s will be the ninth jersey retired by franchise, joining the likes of Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson and Moncrief.

Ahead of Sunday’s ceremony, Johnson spoke over the phone with The Undefeated about his jersey being retired, growing up in South Central Los Angeles, how much better current star Giannis Antetokounmpo can get (hint: a lot), and that glorious hairline of his.

What does it mean to have your jersey retired by the Bucks?

It’s really emotional and heartwarming and exciting and an honor — a privilege. All those things kind of rolled into one. It’s been a long time coming. A lot of people have made some noise about it over the years, and I always get asked, ‘Why aren’t you up there in the rafters along with Sidney [Moncrief], Bob [Dandridge] and Brian [Winters] and Junior [Bridgeman] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Oscar [Robertson] and all these great players?’ And my thing has always been, ‘Well, if it happens, I’ll be honored to have it happen; if it doesn’t happen, then it’s not supposed to happen.’ But, trust me, I’ve always wanted it to happen. So when I found out from our team president, Peter Feigin, actually about a year ago, it was just a big — I wouldn’t say relief; it was just exhilaration.

Marques Johnson of the Milwaukee Bucks in action dribbling the ball up court during a circa 1980s NBA basketball game at the Milwaukee Arena in Milwaukee. Johnson played for the Bucks from 1977-84.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

What was your best on-court memory from your time in Milwaukee?

It was a compilation of everything. It was getting there in 1977, 21 years old out of L.A., stars in my eyes, and thoughts of being a great NBA player was my goal. And winning a championship in Milwaukee. But what happened was, I come to Milwaukee, and we’ve got this nucleus of just great young talent from all sorts of solid programs: myself and Dave Meyers from UCLA; and Junior Bridgeman from Louisville; Quinn Buckner, who we lost to twice in ’76 on that great Indiana team with Kent Benson; Brian Winters from South Carolina. So this great youth movement in Milwaukee with an opportunity to build and grow together. Our model for the franchise was ‘Green and Growing.’

I was looking over some stuff that year: We beat the Sixers that year, beat the really good teams with Dr. J [Julius Erving] and those guys. Beat the Knicks in triple overtime and surprised the league with how quickly things came together.

What was it like living in Milwaukee in the 1970s and 1980s?

The weather, driving in the snow, I probably had literally three to five accidents from sliding off the road and running over my neighbor’s mailbox to hitting some ice coming down to practice in my CJ7 Jeep and spinning out on the freeway. I got into another accident within a couple of years driving my Cherokee Jeep to a game and started slipping and sliding on [Interstate] 43 headed south and so I just turned into the center divider so I wouldn’t hit anybody and just messed my truck all up and probably gave myself a concussion. But we didn’t have that back in those days, so I played and had a terrible first half and Nellie [Bucks coach Don Nelson] got all into me in front of all my teammates.

Cultural differences, as Kareem talked about, it was slower; it wasn’t a whole lot going on. You didn’t have all the beautiful people like you had in L.A. I went to UCLA right near the ocean in Bel-Air and Brentwood and Beverly Hills. It was none of that. I was on a constant quest for that element of the beautiful people. And I found it, but it was on a much smaller scale than what I was accustomed to. But, I say this with all honesty and sincerity, after I was there about two or three years, I came to realize that the people in Milwaukee were in Milwaukee because they loved the city, they loved raising their families there and just the goodness of the community kind of overtook me and it became a really good place for me to be.

You were born in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and raised in Los Angeles, right?

We left Louisiana when I was 5 years old in 1961. My parents, with the racism and segregation and everything that was going on down there, their dream was for us to all finish from UCLA or some kind of University of California campus, and we all finished from either UCLA or UC Santa Barbara. And that was because of Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche, and the Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender were the black newspapers of the day, and it was always about UCLA in terms of African-Americans and high achievers. So they sort of correlated the two and felt like for us to have a good chance of being successful in life as African-Americans in America that going to a UCLA or UC campus school would give us a leg up on that. That was their dream. They were able to move out in 1961 and we all kind of fulfilled the vision they had for us.

And you lived in Crenshaw, California?

I grew up deep in South Central from the first grade to about the sixth grade. I went to school with James Lofton, he was a childhood buddy of mine, we played park league ball together, hung out, walked to school together. We moved when I was 11 to the Windsor Hills. I grew up playing football and basketball and baseball with Ray Charles Jr., and Ike and Tina Turner’s kids, Ike and Craig and Ronnie and all those guys. It was just a different level — Nancy Wilson lived in this neighborhood. I’m still in the neighborhood now. My mom is here, all my sisters are here. I think it’s the highest per capita income for a predominantly black neighborhood in America. And it’s the Crenshaw district.

Marques Johnson of UCLA Bruins poses for a portrait.

Collegiate Images/Getty Images

What was it like moving from the overt racism of the segregated South to California?

I tell a story about being in first grade and having the teacher Ms. Dodge at Manhattan Place Elementary School bring up four or five different races of kids and go down the line and talk about the virtues and the negative parts of each, and she got to me and talked about the colored people, and how you can’t trust them, and they’re lazy, and they’re this and they’re that. I went home and told my mother what Ms. Dodge said, and she went up there and cussed Ms. Dodge out one side of the school and down the other.

We faced it here, a different type; it’s kind of subtle, it’s not as overt. And that was the one thing a lot of people from the South say about the North and the West: At least in the South you sort of know where you stand. You can’t run north in those days. It was a lot of subtle-type stuff: You go to a store, you might be followed by the security or store attendant. My mother would turn around and say, ‘Why are you following me? I’m going to buy something. I’m not going to steal. I’ve got money.’

It’s a different type of racial attitudes, but all in all, I think [my parents] feel good about it because — and I tell this story all the time — my memories of Louisiana: segregated swimming pools, but also Christmastime in Natchitoches, Louisiana, had a big Christmas parade on the Red River and the black kids are on one side and the white kids on the other, Santa Claus comes down the middle of the street and just throws candy to the white side of the street. I remember that specifically. That stuff happened. It wasn’t to that degree out here [in Los Angeles], there was stuff to deal with, but I think overall they would tell you, my parents, that the opportunities were a lot better, and the lifestyle in terms of being an African-American was easier on you being in Los Angeles as compared to Louisiana.

Were you still living in Los Angeles during the riots in 1992?

That was early ’90s and I was living in Bel-Air watching the news and the riots start happening. First it was kind of relegated to Vermont [Avenue] and South Central — Vermont and Florence — and everything going on, Reginald Denny and all that stuff. I said, ‘Wow, that’s terrible.’ And then it spread a little further west to Pico [Boulevard] and another street, maybe 15 miles away from where I was in Bel-Air. I actually did a Clippers playoff game; they were playing against the Utah Jazz. So me and Ralph Lawler, the broadcaster for the Clippers, they moved the game from [Los Angeles Memorial] Sports Arena to Anaheim because everything happened. I think my opening line was that Karl Marx or somebody said that, ‘Religion is the opiate of the people, but tonight sports might be the perfect time to help soothe some of the tensions that are going on in Los Angeles right now, and for the next couple of hours we hope to bring you that sense of relief.’ That was the approach to the broadcast. It was nuts at that time.

With the recent arrest of Bucks guard Sterling Brown by Milwaukee police and the comments made by guard Malcolm Brogdon about the city’s segregation, what can the Bucks do to help improve race relations in the city?

Sterling Brown is doing his part: He spoke on a panel in Sacramento with all the stuff that they’ve had with police and the African-American shooting that they had there. So, they’re trying to take some proactive steps — Milwaukee has always been a city, geographically, where blacks are located in the part of town they’re in. They’re not only settled in those areas when they first migrated from the South, but then the mass transit situation never really developed like a lot of people thought or hoped that it would. So now you’ve got a bunch of people stuck in this one area without adequate transportation to get around.

So in terms of employment and jobs and all that — education, academics, all that stuff becomes really restrictive in terms of mobility. We try to do what we can with the understanding that it’s a long-term project, that it’s not going to change overnight. And I think the Bucks, they’ve set aside minority contracts for builders, minority hiring. That was one of the drawing cards in terms of getting this project for the new arena green-lit, which was really impressive on the part of Peter Feigin and the owners of the Bucks, that they wanted the community to have a major stake in this whole development project, and they do and continue to.

National media seem reluctant to believe in the Bucks’ chances in the playoffs due to the team’s collective postseason inexperience — what are your feelings?

I understand the national media and just them being a little skeptical of this team right now because we have not done anything, we have not proven anything. But, that being said, we’ve got a coaching staff that understands the big picture and they’ve been able to work with these guys, develop these guys the right way. I just look at our crew when we play against the Celtics, play against the Raptors, play against the Sixers, and I just think we match up with any of them, and can beat any of them in a seven-game series. So I’m real confident that we will continue to do that, and at the very least will be a team that will get to the Eastern Conference finals and very well come out of that and be in the NBA Finals.

Statistically, Giannis Antetokounmpo has improved every season he’s been in the league. How much better can he get?

He’s 24 years old. He’s starting to improve his outside shooting. That’s going to become more consistent [as the years go on]. And, I know how hard this dude works. I see how hard he works on a daily basis. I mean, you look at his body. Yeah, everybody remarks about the upper body and how that’s totally transformed from three or four years ago, and he’s going to continue to put in that work and get better and better, and start to really realize where his status is in this league in terms of just being an unstoppable force. I’m not going to be disingenuous and say he hasn’t scratched the surface, he’s done that. But he’s got a lot of room in terms of improvement.

NBA/UCLA alum Marques Johnson receives the game ball just before tip-off of the Utah Utes vs. UCLA Bruins during a NCAA PAC12 college basketball game at Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 18, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images

You’re 63 years old: What’s the secret to the immaculate hairline?

I’ve got a guy in Milwaukee. His name is Dedric King, I call him Dedric ‘The Lineup’ King. He does a whole straight-razor. The straight razor, brother, that’s it. My dad was a straight-razor guy; everybody’s trying to get the electric edger to line you up. That straight razor does it like nothing else can do it. And Dedric ‘The Lineup’ King uses that straight razor, he soaks it, heats it, gets it nice and soft, and he puts that straight razor on it, and that’s what makes it as immaculate as it gets.

Liner Notes

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"