Is he truly as mature and upstanding as most people seem to think he is?
He says, "Can't I be those things and still have a dirty room?"
In Marques Johnson's neat life there have been few occasions when order seemed threatened and even fewer outright bad moments. There was a nagging uncertainty when he contemplated leaving UCLA after his junior year. Both the Denver Nuggets, who were still in the ABA, and the Detroit Pistons, who would have the first pick in the NBA draft, were after him. But they kept reducing the money as the ABA-NBA merger grew imminent.
"I felt like Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees" says Johnson. "Should I go or shouldn't I? Would my life and career fall apart at midnight?" He turned to his parents for counsel, as always.
"We advised him to stay in school," says Jeff Johnson. "There didn't seem to be any reason to us why he should hurry into the pros." Indeed, the elder Johnson had moved his family—Marques and three sisters, now there are four—to Los Angeles from Louisiana in 1961, expressly so that Marques could attend UCLA. "Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson [both UCLA alumni] were two men I admired very much," says Jeff. "That was long before I even knew about Wooden."
Two dismaying events for Marques occurred simultaneously last fall. Both resulted from mistakes. His marriage ended after less than two years—"I got married because I thought it was the thing to do," he says—and he went through a distasteful holdout in an effort to get his original six-year contract renegotiated. Bucks Owner Jim Fitzgerald steadfastly refused, though he offered Johnson a modest bonus, and Johnson had neither the heart nor the stomach to prolong the holdout to the point of affecting his career. He shrugs and says, "I figure why go through hell? Might as well just play basketball." He is getting $250,000 this season, which makes him the fourth-highest-paid player on the Bucks—after Lanier, Brian Winters and Mickey Johnson. About 60 or 70 NBA players who wouldn't have a prayer against Johnson in a game of HORSE are paid more. But there is no bitterness. The Bucks understand Johnson's desire for more money and he understands their position as a tightly run business. "A contract is a contract," he says. "My mistake was signing for six years. Now I realize I was betting against myself. But I just saw that million dollars. I wouldn't have cared if it was spread over 30 years. They told me six years would go fast, but...wow, I still have two more to go."
Johnson doesn't want to offend Milwaukeeans, but it isn't his favorite town. Los Angeles, where he grew up, is. "After you've been to a couple of the places here, what's there left to do?" He knows he'll be worth a solid million a year in 1982 and he doesn't intend to make any mistakes next time around.
Of this the Bucks' front office is keenly aware. "We know that we're going to have to come up with a very, very good offer," says Steinmiller, "but it's not like we haven't been down that road before." Indeed, Milwaukee had a similar problem with Abdul-Jabbar in 1975. He was so good that the Bucks couldn't afford to keep him, and the trade they made with Los Angeles brought several of the players who helped make Milwaukee the winning team it is today. "We can always back up the Brinks truck into L.A. again," says Steinmiller. "Not that we want to. We don't want to do that at all."
An outside shot by Winters bounces off the front of the rim high into the air. Abdul-Jabbar has position for the rebound—arms and legs spread wide—meaning that no one is going to get it but him. Johnson is pushed all the way under the basket so that the only way he can get the ball is if it falls through the net. But as Kareem reaches, Marques shoots up and out like a rocket, intercepts the ball and slam-dunks it, right before Abdul-Jabbar's amazed face.
"You know," Johnson says, "maybe one of the reasons I put on such a stoic front is because I've always had secret doubts about myself. I've always had a tendency to downplay my talents. I would always go into a situation thinking I wasn't as good, maybe, as I really was—in high school, in college. Coming out of college, even though I'd been Player of the Year, I still had doubts. I heard people say that I might not be good enough. I thought, 'Can I really play with these guys?' Then I got to my first training camp. One hour. No more doubts. No more doubts at all."