Thursday, February 08, 2007

The original MJ was the original point forward

Hello there. The player above, nicknamed "MJ", (whose birthday just happens to be today) was the first winner of the Wooden Award and also won a national championship in college. In 1983, his team was responsible for sweeping the 56-26 Boston Celtics (which featured four hall-of-famers plus Cedric Maxwell and Danny Ainge). His career was tragically cut short at age 30 when (after winning the NBA comeback player of the year award) he "turned to run upcourt, slammed his head into the stomach of the 7-foot [Benoit] Benjamin and fell to the floor." (As you can see from the story, available here, it was thought that he would be sidelined for "two to three weeks". Whoops!)

Now if I told you that the original MJ was also the original point-forward, you might assume I was [misguidedly] talking about Magic Johnson, but of course it is obvious from the picture above that this MJ was no Spartan.

The MJ I speak of is none other than Marques Johnson, who played for the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks teams of the early eighties. While using "powerhouse" and "bucks" in the same sentence sounds strange now (unless referring to a very, very large herd of deer), MJ's teams were the real deal. From 1978, when Marques was the runner up for rookie of the year, until 1984, his last year before being traded, the Bucks ran off seasons of (in order) 44-38, 38-44, 49-33, 60-22, 55-27, 51-31, and 50-32. (As a matter of fact, the Bucks continued to have a very high level of success throughout the eighties comparable to the Celtics or Lakers, minus the championships.)

Marques came into the league in '78 and was coached by the same Don Nelson who is now running and gunning with the Golden State Warriors, and who resurrected the Dallas franchise [that's him during his tenure as coach of the Bucks, on the right, looking a bit like a fish].

Johnson was a 6'7" small forward who grew up in the sunny confines of Crenshaw, LA. (Home of Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, Ice Cube, Skee-Lo, and Ice-T.) Marques played very well in high school and then played for John Wooden at UCLA for two years (before another two under Gene Bartow). When Wooden left, Marques began to blossom, and won the Wooden award the first year it was offered.

Johnson was drafted third by the Bucks in 1977, and had a great rookie year, averaging 19.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. He was not a great long-range shooter (he made 14 three-pointers in his career) but he had a very good mid-range perimeter game and possessed a knack for getting inside. Consequently, he shot a robust 52% from the field that year. (This would begin a string of 52%, 55%, 54%, 55%, 53%, 51%, 50%, 45%, and 51%. Not bad.)

Don Nelson liked the rookie, who worked hard during the summer before his second season to improve his already formidable talents. He averaged 25.6 points per game his second year, along with 7.6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. He was the original Shawn Marion style small forward, except he had a reliable inside and mid range game instead of Marion-style chicken-wing three-pointers.

For MJ's next five years, all on Milwaukee, he led a solid team that included a number of great players. (Alex English [HOF '97] backed him up early in his career and Milwaukee elected to let him leave rather than move Johnson. Check English's stats [here] and you can realize how much they must have thought of Johnson.) Sidney Moncrief, Bob Lanier, Junior "The Torch" Bridgeman, and Mickey (the original "Rubber Band Man") Johnson all supported him on those excellent teams.

The reason that nobody talks about those excellent teams is because they played at a time when the Eastern conference was far better than it is today. The Bucks lost (in seven games) in the playoffs in 1981 to a Sixers team featuring Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Darryl Dawkins, and Andrew Toney. In 1982 they lost to the same Sixers team, which had added Mo Cheeks and went all the way to the finals, losing to the Lakers. In 1983, they slammed the Celtics in a 4-0 sleep, but then got slammed themselves by the Sixers, who had just picked up Moses Malone in his prime and were the best team in the NBA, sweeping the Lakers in the Finals. (They also swept a Knicks team featuring Bernard King, Bill Cartwright, Sly Williams, Paul Westphal, and Trunk Robinson. As a matter of fact, the only team to whom that Sixers team lost a game to in the playoffs was the Bucks. They won 65 games in the regular season that year.)

In 1984, Johnson's last year with the Bucks (in which he averaged 20.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals and .6 blocks per game), his team beat Dominique Wilkins's Hawks, Darryl Dawkins and Buck Williams's Nets, and then faced the future NBA Champions, the 62-20 Boston Celtics. Those Celtics would be their undoing. (The combined record of the Eastern teams the Bucks lost to in the playoffs with MJ on their team was 245-81, or .751. In the last six years there have been three teams that good. Milwaukee had to hit that four years in a row. That sucks.)

Marques Johnson is really notable because he was the first of his kind, the point forward. Not only that, he coined the phrase. "It was the early eighties and we had all our point guards were hurt with the Bucks. Nellie [Don Nelson] 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."

Now, if you were to go to the Wikipedia entry for Point Forward (here), you would find that it correctly credits Don Nelson as the visionary behind it, but says that "The first actual point forward is often believed to be Paul Pressey of Nelson's Bucks in the mid-1980's..."

Today is Marques Johnson's birthday and it's time for the original MJ to get his due. He inspired a new role that some of my favorite players (especially Anthony Mason) have excelled in. Today, point forwards are important parts of many teams, including the Cavs, Lakers, and Hawks. Who doesn't enjoy a really big dude playing out of position and messing everything up?

It is true that Marques never had great assists numbers (he had years of 4.6, 4.5, and 4.3), but he was the first, and he deserves some recognition. Furthermore, he had every chance to be a truly memorable player if hadn't been for that big tub of guts Benoit Benjamin (that's him standing next to Ewing in what looks to be a velvet jacket).

Here's to you, MJ. Sorry that other guy stole your name, but I'm guessing you're not too mad about it.

(One quick note: If you are a big fan of White Men Can't Jump, Marques plays the dude who gets hustled and then empties the playground when he goes to his car to get his other gun.)

As always, e-mail me at


Kodijack said...

I am learning a lot from your blog. I do remember that the Bucks were once very good. But I barely recognized MJ as that good of player. And I did not remember that the Nuggets got Alex because of the Bucks, very cool.

JimmyValente said...

thanks, i appreciate it. tell your friends

MattG21 said...

good show.