Marques Johnson gathers himself on the left wing, impassively facing the basket, holding the ball lightly with both hands, which dangle between his thighs. His feet are flat on the floor. Boston's Larry Bird, the defender, watches the ball, at the same time keeping peripheral track of the moving Bucks and Celtics, waiting for something to happen. Then, at just below the speed of light, Johnson's head and hands flick right, toward the painted lane. Bird's eyes shift just so, and his left hand goes out to cut off Johnson's path. Bird has been snared. For Johnson, making a basket now will be like picking a spring flower. As if time has stopped for everyone but him, Johnson flicks the ball from his right hand to his left, takes one step and launches himself into his own space. He is almost left of the basket before Bird even notices he is gone. Still in the air as other Celtics close in, Johnson tucks the ball into his midriff, drawing his elbows in tight. A midcourse adjustment takes him behind the glass, and before his feet touch down on the right side of the basket, he has shoveled the ball, spinning, up and off the backboard, into the hoop. By the time the spectators' eyes have shifted from the quivering hoop to the spot where Johnson landed, he is no longer there, but halfway downcourt, ready to set up on defense.
If Marques Johnson is not generally conceded to be the best all-round basketball player in the game today, it is only because comparing players at different positions is as difficult as comparing pitchers with hitters, quarterbacks with linebackers or goalies with wingers. In the NBA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands alone at center and Magic Johnson has no equal at guard. But at forward, the game's glamour position, two players stand out. One is Philadelphia's 6'7" Julius Erving and the other is Milwaukee's 6'7" Johnson.
Ask any NBA coach which of the two he'd rather have on his team and he will say "both." Each is a superb scorer—Erving averaging 26.6 points and Johnson 20.2 so far this year. But press a little bit, and the coach will say that Johnson is the superior defender; his 218 pounds provide more strength than Erving's 200. And then he might point out that Johnson is just 24 years old while Erving is 30.
Johnson himself believes there is little difference between himself and Doctor J. Johnson has idolized Erving ever since he watched him do amazing things with a multicolored ball in the 1972 ABA All-Star game while Marques was a student at Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School. "Doc is in a class by himself," says Johnson. "But...well, maybe he gives up a little on the defense. Put it this way: If you had a team I don't think you'd go wrong with either one of us."
False modesty is not among Johnson's failings. In fact, his bluntness has sometimes been mistaken for snobbishness, or indifference. But he has never caused a headache for a coach or a moment's jealousy on any team he's played for. If anyone ever was, he was born to play basketball. His father, Jeff, then a high school coach in Nachitoches, La. and now a math and science teacher and the coach at Crenshaw, named him after Marques Haynes of the Harlem Globetrotters. Why Haynes? "Because," says Jeff, "of all the players I'd ever seen, Marques Haynes was the one who could do the most things with a basketball." Jeff Johnson is 5'11" and his wife, Baasha, is 5'8". Yet the doctor who delivered Marques predicted that he would grow to be 6'6" or taller. His father says, "I always knew he would be a basketball player. Why? Because he was a boy."
Just as today's centers—even Abdul-Jabbar—are still measured against Bill Russell, forwards are compared to Elgin Baylor. "Elgin, Doc and Marques, in my opinion those three guys are the best forwards ever," says Wayne Embry, the former NBA center who is now a Bucks vice-president. "Marques is closer to Elgin than Doc because of his great strength and defense. He not only has the quickest first step of anyone I've ever seen, but once he makes it he's way up above everybody. Put those two things together and he can get anywhere he wants."
"Doc's the Doc," says Bucks Coach Don Nelson. "But Marques is the best all-round. We ask him to do more and he does do more. I never want to limit his abilities to one or two areas. There's no doubt I could get 30 points a night from him if I went to him more. But he's got to work his butt off on the D, so I limit him to 35 minutes or so. I could play him at guard if I wanted to, he's that versatile. Sometimes in practice I do."
"Playing forward in the NBA requires a wider repertoire of skills than any other position," says Johnson. "You have to be able to handle the ball, shoot from the outside, rebound, play defense against a variety of players. Like myself—I might have to guard Maurice Lucas one game, Walter Davis the next. That's like guarding a center and a guard, totally different types. I have to play against Larry Bird, a phenomenal offensive player, also rebound, then get out on the fast break and run."
As great a player as Johnson has become, his father thinks he should be even better. "He's too conservative," says Jeff Johnson. "He can do more things than he's doing."
Standing at the low post, right side, with Bird and the basket behind him, Johnson takes a bounce pass from Len Elmore. The upward bounce of the ball, which he catches at his belt, seems to lift him off the floor like a Minuteman missile. He blasts off, twisting toward the hoop, leans at a 60-degree angle and bangs the ball off the glass and through the cords. Again, the move was too quick for Bird to react to it.