HoopsHype.com Articles

Original point forward
by Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti / December 9, 2005

Seth M. Ferranti

GORILLACONVICT.COM
Soul Man is the world's leading prison basketball journalist. He also writes for Don Diva, Elemental, Vice and Slam.
If you want the 411 on convicts, street legends, prison gangs, the mafia and life in the belly of the beast, check out gorillaconvict.com/blog
Check out Soul Man's first book Prison Stories and watch out for Prison Basketball, out in March 2007.
You can e-mail him at info@gorillaconvict.com.

The NBA wasn't always the multimedia juggernaut that it is now. Today's players owe a debt to the players of yesteryear who made the league what it is. Back in the 70s, there weren't prime-time TV slots or $100 million dollar contracts. We've all heard of the greats like Dr. J, Wilt and Jerry West, but there were other players who played at that level. Who helped to make the NBA what it is today. And one of those other players, less hyped, but still like that, is Marques Johnson, the original point forward. He averaged 20.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game for his 11-year career that spanned from 1977 to 1989 with three teams – the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors.

Raised in Los Angeles, Johnson went to a national renowned hoops factory, Crenshaw High, playing under legendary coach Willie West. From there, he went on to star at UCLA under another coaching great, John Wooden. In 1975, Johnson helped to lead the Bruins to the NCAA championship. As a senior in 1976, he won the National College Player of the Year award and was selected by the Bucks as the third overall pick. He led Milwaukee to five division titles under Don Nelson over the next seven years, but could never get his team past the mighty Celtic and 76er squads of the era to advance further in the playoffs.

In 1984, he enjoyed a homecoming as he was traded, still in his prime, to the lowly Clips for Terry Cummings. He played three brilliant seasons in LA with no playoff appearances before a neck injury in 1987 effectively ended his career. He made a brief comeback in 1989 with the Warriors, but his All-Star days were over.

But MJ wasn't through. He went Hollywood, acting in White Men Can't Jump and Blue Chips. Nowadays, he can be seen as a basketball analyst on FoxSports Network. And since you know we keep it real, we reached out to Johnson to bring you his story in his words. The tale of the original point forward.

"I have mixed feelings," Johnson says looking back at his career. "I feel a sense of unfullfillment for not at least having played for an NBA championship. It seems it was either Boston or Philly that stood in the way. But when you look at some of the players on those two teams – players like Bird, Erving, Malone, McHale – it’s no disgrace to lose to them."

The man who won at every level still burns for that NBA ring. That shows where his heart is at. And his game was like that. Marques Johnson was a competitor through and through.

"My game was all about efficiency. Scoring the easiest way possible. That’s how my dad taught me. I always thought if you were a forward and didn't shoot 50 percent from the field, you weren't doing your job," Johnson says. "I was named an All-Star as both a forward and a guard."

As for the point forward position, Johnson explains: "It was the early 80s and we had all our point guards hurt with the Bucks. Nellie came up with a way to have me initiate the offense in all our sets. My response was, 'so instead of being the point guard, I'll be the point forward.' Nellie liked the label and has used it ever since."

Johnson remembers the 1978-79 as his best one: "The year before I was the runner-up to Walter Davis for Rookie of the Year, but I kicked his ass in the playoffs and we swept his team, the Suns. I then averaged 28 points and 14 rebounds against the great Bobby Jones of the Denver Nuggets in a seven-game series."

That was not bad for a rookie. But that summer was when Johnson made great strides in his game.

"Larry Brown told me that the two most important summers as a player was the one before your first year, and the one after it," Johnson says. "And that summer after my rookie year was when I finally felt confident shooting from the outside. Nellie showed me a simple adjustment on my shot and I came back and averaged nearly 26 points and 8 rebounds. I was 1st Team All-NBA and knocked Dr. J off that team that year."

"I grew up idolizing Julius when I used to watch the ABA on CBS back in the early 70s," Johnson says. Others he admired include Bernard King ("relentless down in the post"), EC Coleman ("the toughest guy to score against") and Sidney Moncrief ("the best to play with").

He also gives props to Alex English and Jamaal Wilkes.

"English was my backup at small forward when I first got to the Bucks," Johnson says. "We used to go at it pretty hard. I know he was destined for greatness. Just not in Milwaukee."

"Bill Walton was unbelievable but Jamaal Wilkes was the guy I matched up against as a freshman. He blocked every shot I took the first week of practice. I called home to my mother saying how I was in over my head at UCLA because of this Wilkes dude, but my father got on the phone and forcefully reminded me that Wilkes was a two-time All American."

So in reality the competition just made MJ better.

About the league back in the day, Johnson says: "It was routine to have most of the teams score 100 points per game. You had most teams where eight or nine guys would average double figures. Cats could shoot the heck out of the ball. It was also a time where drug abuse was a problem. Cocaine just kind of exploded onto the scene, not only in the NBA, but in the country. And there was concern that the league was too black. That white people didn't want to watch because of that. The Knicks were referred to as the Niggerbockers. Playoff games were shown on tape daily at 11:30 pm. It was different era."

Two players come to mind representing Johnson’s game in the NBA today – Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade.

"As a matter of fact, Alex English made that comparison last year with D-Wade and me. I am honored, needless to say," Johnson says. "My son Kris makes the comparison between me and Paul."

While he sees some of himself in several players today, there's not a lot in common between the league now and back in the day.

"Obviously, it's gotten a lot younger. There was no way a high school kid could come in and have an impact that some of these guys have done," he says. "The players are also less approachable, with the private jets and security people that travel with them. I remember being stuck in O’Hare airport for six hours in a brutal snowstorm. We flew coach sometimes and interacted with the casual fan a lot more."

LIFE TODAY

As a lead analyst for FoxSports Network, Marques Johnson does both studio work for NBA games and color commentary for college games, mostly Pac 10.

"I am really into helping out the kids in this city too, especially at Crenshaw," Johnson says. "I am a volunteer coach there, focusing on developing the big men. I am also a member of the committee (CEAC) that determines how budgetary funds are allocated and what curriculum best serves the needs of the students."

And you know the original point forward has five sons who followed in their dad’s basketball footsteps. There were six, but one died tragically in a drowning accident in 1989. But the others are all good ballers and of their own merit.

"My oldest son Kris was in the top 25 all-time for career scoring when he finished at UCLA. He's played overseas for the last couple of years. He averaged 30 points a game in Lebanon last year. Josiah is working behind the scenes in sports television after having played for UCLA for the past four years. Joshua is a sophomore at Crenshaw playing for the legendary Willie West and Moriah is the freak of the bunch. He's 14 and dunking like crazy. Cyrus is six years old, and I coached his Pee Wee team this summer. It included my grandson Will, who scored all 24 points in one of our wins."

So it’s all good in the Johnson family, where basketball is first and foremost. To his credit, Marques Johnson was a great player and without the severe neck injury in 1987 that shortened his career he might of been one of the top 50 players. But he did his thing for 11 seasons and helped to lay the foundation of the league for today’s players along with his contemporaries Dr. J, Magic and Bird. So when you think of the original point forward, think of Marques Johnson. The man who invented the position.

Seth "Soul Man" Ferranti, federal prison number 18205-083, is housed at FCI Loretto. Previously he resided at FCI Fairton, FCI Fort Dix, FCI Beckley and FCI Manchester. He has been a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com since 2003