"To me, the beauty of the game is in getting to the basket and avoiding contact," says Johnson. "If I go up in the air and someone's in the path, I can almost always find a way to contort my body so I can get around him. There is so much space around the basket. You know there are going to be little pockets, little black holes, places you can occupy and score from. Sometimes I'm going to one but they close it up before I get there. Well, that just opens up another one someplace else, so I just have to find it and get there fast."
Bill Bradley, the former Princeton All-America, New York Knick, and now U.S. Senator from New Jersey, had a favorite phrase, which he applied to his life on and off the basketball court: "A sense of where you are." Bradley is another of Johnson's heroes and in many ways their personalities are similar. But on the court Johnson does things with a basketball Bradley could only have dreamed about. And Johnson, too, has an abiding sense of where he is.
Johnson plays so high off the floor that he gives the impression of having the ability to walk on air, to stop time. "Often I take off from some spot, land 10 feet away and I'm not even sure of what I've done in between," he says. "I've always had an instinctive ability to get to the ball or to the basket. And I always know where I am and where I must get to. On a rebound, I can tell from the trajectory of the shot where it's going to bounce and how high I have to jump to get it. On a pass or a drive I know just how to get my body moving right. It's almost as though I can make my own physical laws."
Few people were prepared for what Johnson was going to do when he entered the NBA in 1977. In four years at UCLA he had been an outstanding performer, winning College Player of the Year honors in his senior year. But UCLA's highly disciplined system—Johnson played his first two years under John Wooden, his last two under Gene Bartow—didn't allow individual talents like Johnson's to manifest themselves as the professional game does. "I became a prisoner of that particular system," he says. "But really, that was the way I learned to play, and the way I played in high school. I learned efficiency, how to play without using up too much energy. My father used to call it 'playing the easy way.' "
What Johnson brought out of UCLA was a winning attitude. "Coach Wooden made you have it," he says. Embry recalls going to Pauley Pavilion in 1973 to scout a UCLA senior named Bill Walton. "I saw this freshman, Marques Johnson, and I said to the guy next to me, 'We're scouting the wrong kid.' "
Still, there were raps on Johnson's game. People said he couldn't shoot from the outside, that he couldn't dribble well, that he didn't have great speed. "I hadn't been sure about Marques before I went to see him in the Pizza Hut Classic in Las Vegas," says Nelson. "He had a poor game—one for seven or something—but I'd been to their practice a couple of days earlier and he was absolutely sensational. If I hadn't done that, I never would've fallen in love with him."
Milwaukee had the first choice in the 1977 draft, but the Bucks were set on using it to take Indiana Center Kent Benson. Nelson wanted Johnson, too, so he traded Center Swen Nater to Buffalo for the No. 3 pick. Nelson's mentor, Boston G.M. Red Auerbach, was aghast. "Red told me never to trade a seven-foot center for anything but another seven-foot center," says Nelson. "But I had a hunch Marques might be an exception."
Exceptional was what he was, from the first day of his first season. With a scoring average of 19.5 points and a rebounding average of 8.5—plus an ability to play defense uncommonly well for a rookie—Johnson, more than anyone, was responsible for turning a 30-52 team into a championship contender. In the playoffs he averaged 24 points and 12.4 rebounds, outplayed Phoenix Forward Walter Davis and embarrassed the writers and broadcasters who voted Davis, not Johnson, Rookie of the Year in 1978.
Johnson is driving right, and Cleveland's Mike Mitchell is with him step for step. Suddenly Johnson cuts left—Mitchell is still going right—and enters the lane where 6'10" Dave Robisch has spread his bulk. Johnson takes to the air, brings the ball to his knees, switches it to his right hand, brings it up again, spins it in off the glass. And draws the foul.
"I have fun at least once or twice in every game," Johnson says. "Of course, fun for me a lot of times is watching other players do stuff. When we were playing Philly once, Julius dunked one on me. I didn't show it or let anybody know how I felt, but inside I was applauding and giving him a standing ovation. And later I told him, under my breath, 'Good move.' "