It was only supposed to be a meeting between a team president and a broadcaster whose contract was about to expire. That’s all Marques Johnson was expecting when he got together with Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin toward the end of last season.
And for a while, cordial business talk was all that was happening. Both the team and FOX Sports Wisconsin had liked Johnson’s work over the past three seasons and weren’t interested in letting him go. Johnson, who played for the Bucks from 1977-’84, had enjoyed his reunion with the city that embraced him three decades prior.
But eventually, the back and forth got stale to Feigin. There was a trump card burning a hole in his pocket and it became time to play it. He halted the conversation about all the superficial contract stuff, looked Johnson square in the eye and took on a more serious demeanor.
“Marques, let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere. We love you. We’re going to honor you in a way you can be honored in no other place.”
Johnson, 62, was staggered by what came next, hit by a rush of emotion that could have easily brought him to tears had he not fought so hard to keep them back. It was a moment and feeling he had always hoped would come, but wasn’t totally sure if or when it would.
“And I just want you to know,” Johnson recalls hearing, “your jersey’s going up at Fiserv Forum.”
Yes, after all these years, the Bucks plan to retire Johnson’s No. 8 jersey making him the ninth Bucks player to be so honored and the first since the team’s move to Fiserv Forum this season. The ceremony will take place at halftime of the team’s March 24 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The festivities will include appearances by many of Johnson’s friends and former Bucks teammates. Most important to him is that his family, particularly his mother, can share in his joy.
It’s because of his mother, who celebrates her 92nd birthday on March 25, that Johnson selected March 24 for his jersey retirement. A few months ago, she took her first flight in over 20 years and proclaimed herself ready to travel again.
“Once she told me she was mobile in terms of flying and getting on airplanes again, I said let’s do it around the time we can combine the celebrations and have a jersey retirement and her 92nd birthday,” Johnson said. “It makes it perfect.”
That day will mark the culmination of a long, winding road for both Johnson and the Bucks, one that took longer than many expected to arrive at what many consider an overdue jersey retirement ceremony.
His numbers as a player unassailably put him as one of the best in Bucks history. During his seven seasons in Milwaukee, Johnson made four all-star teams, once earned a spot on the first-team all-NBA and twice garnered second-team all-NBA honors and was a leading role on some of the best Bucks teams to ever take the court.
Johnson’s 21.0 points per game are the fourth-most in team history. He ranks among the franchise’s all-time leaders in numerous statistical categories including first in offensive rebounds (1,468), third in rebounds (3,923), fourth in field goals made (4,546) and sixth in points (10,980).
Lloyd Walton, who first saw Johnson up close when Walton’s Marquette team played in the same Final Four as Johnson’s UCLA squad in 1974, became fast friends with Johnson when the two played together for the Bucks beginning in 1977. He was magnetized by Johnson’s humor, personality and passion, so much so that the two remain friends to this day and Walton named his son after Johnson.
He saw firsthand what made Johnson a special player.
“In my opinion, he was so intense and so passionate and worked so hard. Those are three characteristics I remember so well,” Walton said. “He didn’t just take it for granted. He worked his (butt) off every day and he became one of the best players in the league.”
As incredible as Johnson was on the court, there was a disconnect between him and the team. Raised in Los Angeles, Johnson bolted back there as soon as each season ended. Unlike teammates like Junior Bridgeman, he didn’t set down roots or engage in outreach with the community – something he now wishes he had done more.
Johnson also ran into issues with substance abuse. When the Park Avenue disco opened it became his regular hangout. During the 1981-’82 season, Johnson missed 18 games while being treated at a rehabilitation center for cocaine use.
“It was just getting caught up in the meaningless in terms of what’s really important,” Johnson said. “And I was young, I was just getting plugged into all of the nonsense. It took a while for me to appreciate it here, but by the time I started appreciating it … it was time to move and I was traded to Los Angeles.”
For three decades, Johnson was disconnected from the organization. He doesn’t feel like he was ever shunned, but there wasn’t a total embrace from either party. When he was traded, that was it. He moved on with his basketball career, experienced the darkest time in his life when his infant son, Marques Jr., died in 1987, and eventually got into movie acting as well as television and radio broadcasting.
It was television that offered Johnson a path back to Milwaukee. When the Bucks’ new ownership group established itself in 2014, they wanted to find ways to connect to the past, particularly the great Milwaukee teams of the 1980s – squads that largely get forgotten on the national scene because they couldn’t get past the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
In trying to revamp their television broadcast crew in 2015, Johnson’s name came up as a possible color analyst. Johnson wasn’t sure if he was interested in leaving his morning radio show in Los Angeles, but he took a red-eye flight to Milwaukee to audition with Bucks play-by-play man Jim Paschke.
To Johnson’s surprise, Milwaukee quickly felt like home again. After all those years, he hadn’t been forgotten and there were plenty of people who loved the early-80’s Bucks ready to remind him.
At his first stop, the George Webb restaurant on North Old World 3rd St., Johnson was immediately recognized by one of the cooks, who called his parents in to get an autograph. Then, when he arrived at the BMO Harris Bradley Center for his audition with Paschke, members of the cleaning crew recognized him and called out, “Man, Marques Johnson, we ain’t seen you in 20 years! You comin’ home, baby? You comin’ home?”
A short time later, the Bucks announced he was indeed coming home. He’s been a fixture on Bucks broadcasts ever since, drawing acclaim from fans new and old for his candor and wealth of knowledge. He also hit the ground running with community-involvement efforts he wished he had done more of as a younger man. He’s spent time with the Running Rebels Community Organization and has prioritized mentoring kids in Milwaukee.
“I think it feels right,” Feigin said of honoring Johnson now. “I think he’s really engrained himself in the community. I’m his biggest fan, so it’s hard to be objective.”
He’s also imparted some wisdom on Bucks players, including star Giannis Antetokounmpo who didn’t know much about Johnson or his skills until Johnson arrived. When Antetokounmpo watched YouTube clips and saw Johnson’s ball-handling and rebounding skills – similar to his own – he asked for tips about things like footwork, how to operate in the post and how to move his shoulders.
“I’m really happy for him, I think he deserves to have his jersey retired,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s amazing. He’s just sitting down there like a normal person, but this guy was one of the best players in the league when he was playing. … He’s a legend.”
And on March 24, with family and friends all around, a sell-out crowd cheering and likely no longer able to hold back the tears of joy and appreciation, Johnson’s Bucks legend will be forever enshrined with his No. 8 rising to the rafters at Fiserv Forum.