Meet Marques Johnson: From L.A. to Milwaukee and Back – Part 2

Marques Johnson has always had a connection between Los Angeles and Milwaukee.

Whether it’s been on the court as a highly decorated high school and college player, a multi-time NBA All-Star, or in the broadcast booth as one of the game’s best analysts, his career has circled from his California home to the Midwest (and back) quite a few times.

TBW’s Ray LeBov recently sat down with Marques to discuss his long and diverse career as both a player and media member. Part 2 has been lightly edited for clarity and length. It focuses on Johnson’s journey from the theater stage to the broadcast chair, where he now provides color commentary for Milwaukee Bucks games.

RAY: After you left the NBA, you had a few years before you got into broadcasting.

MARQUES: I was fortunate. After I left the NBA in 1989-90, I got some acting jobs right away, including White Men Can’t Jump and Blue Chips.

Acting was always a passion of mine. I’ve been involved in plays and drama since I was a seventh-grader at Audubon Middle School, which had a great drama department.

By the time I was a ninth-grader, I was Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie. I also played the title character in a production of Li’l Abner.

A short white girl played my mother in the (latter) play. Here I am on the stage calling her ‘Mammy’—couldn’t get away with that now days. We also did Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game. I can still sing every lyric from every song in those plays, our rehearsals were so thorough. (Mario Lomeli was the teacher, and he was great.)

I got the role of the Elvis-type character in Bye Bye Birdie because I was a much better dancer than the other two guys that auditioned. Those hours of dancing in the full-length mirror in the family den with my four sisters finally paid off!

So acting was a real natural thing for me, though I didn’t do much in high school because I was concentrating on basketball. I was a theater arts major at UCLA, and I did a lot of plays and student films and things of that nature.

I started out as a political science major and really loved it. But then during my sophomore year, this professor in TV Production, Arthur Friedman, asked me and some other UCLA athletes to join his sports broadcast journalism class. This included John Sciarra, Mark Harmon and Rick “Doc” Walker”, who has done media in DC after retiring from the Washington Redskins.

We had a ball! I did live broadcasts at football games from the sidelines at the Coliseum. I had my own TV show three days a week. It was called Searching (after the Roy Ayers song). Professor Friedman had designed an independent theater arts major for UCLA basketball great Mike Warren a few years earlier and did the same for me and then my college teammate Roy Hamilton later.

When I played for the Bucks, I did special features for the local NBC affiliate. We’d take a cameraman on the road, interviewing Red Auerbach, Julius Erving, etc. We showed what a typical road trip was like.

So broadcasting was something I had prepared for when it opened up three or four years later (after I retired). I was fortunate because Roy Hamilton was one of the best executive producers and production guys in TV in terms of basketball stuff.

He saw some potential in me early on and hooked me up to do some NBA Summer League games in Los Angeles for local cable TV. He then got the head job at Fox producing basketball and hired me.

RAY: How many years did you do broadcasting in LA?

MARQUES: I worked with Fox Sports in a few different roles. Steve Physioc and I were the lead analysts for college basketball for about six years working together.

Then Fox Sports started The National Sports Report to try and compete with ESPN. Fox had Kevin Frazier, Keith Olbermann, Chris Myers and that whole crew⁠—a lot of really top-notch talent. I was a studio analyst on that show for a number of years.

I also worked in Seattle with Kevin Calabro during the last few years of the Sonics. They had a great team in 1996 with Gary Payton Shawn Kemp and Nate McMillan that went to the NBA Finals. I worked UCLA radio with the great Chris Roberts and was a part of the broadcast team that saw UCLA win a championship with Jim Harrick in 1995.

Chris would sign off our broadcasts by thanking our engineer and me, and then he would always thank ‘Robert LaPeer’ for doing stats. But there was never anyone else with us at the broadcast table!

So after a year of this, I asked him who this Robert LaPeer guy was that he was always thanking. He told me that was his real name and that his stage name was Chris Roberts.

But I’m kind of the Forrest Gump of broadcasting. I just always seem to be around great situations that lead to great things. So I’ve been fortunate in that area.

RAY: How did you wind up doing broadcasting for the Bucks?

MARQUES: In 2014 or 2015, I was working for CBS Radio in Los Angeles doing a morning sports talk show, “The Home Team” with Jeanne Zelasko. We were getting up at 3:30 every morning to be at the studio by 4:15 and on the air at 5:30, five days a week. We were talking everything from NASCAR to horse racing to swimming, all the sports that I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about.

So I’m having to research all day long. It’s a tough grind five days a week.

The Bucks approached me about coming back to Milwaukee to work with Jim Paschke. I wanted to make a change, but my initial reaction was: “I’m not going back to Milwaukee.”

I hadn’t been back there on a regular basis for 30 years. But I went to meet with the team just because it’s the Milwaukee Bucks, my former team who have been cool with me over these years. Even though I had spent a lot of time there (in my NBA career), I went back to Milwaukee thinking that there was no way in the world that I would accept the job.

I was staying at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. There’s a George Webb greasy spoon restaurant right across the street. I went into there, and the cook behind the counter recognized me right away.

He said, “Marques Johnson, my parents were big fans of yours back in the day. That’s all they talked about when I was growing up. Can I call them to come down and get your autograph?”

They came down and I signed a bunch of stuff for them. That was cool to be remembered by them in Milwaukee.

The Bucks set up an audition tape format for Jim Paschke and me at the Bradley Center. And there was a bunch of workmen sweeping up there.

A couple of them called out, “Marques Johnson, what are you doing here, man? You look good, man. Are you coming back? Welcome back, baby!”

And it kind of hit me that maybe this might not be a bad situation after all.

The audition tape went great. Jim and I had great chemistry right off the bat. The Bucks offered me the job and I accepted it. It turned out to be one of the best moves I’ve ever made.

I’m the guy that fired David Falk after my rookie year because I could never talk to Donald Dell who was running ProServ. They always passed me along to David Falk.

I’m the guy that Junior Bridgman tried to get to go in early with him on the Wendy’s franchises that he had a chance to purchase in the Midwest. He told me that I had to come in with him on the Wendy’s deal. I said that “nobody was going to eat those square hamburgers” and told him that he would lose his money.

So $500 million later, it is clear he made the right decision.

So one of the decisions that I’m the most proud of is coming back to Milwaukee and being reunited with the fan base and people who have so many great memories of those teams from the 80s and even this newer generation of fans.

RAY: You are always thoughtful and prepared with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. And you make it all about the viewer. Those are all things I admire in analysts. Unlike some of the analysts who we see, on even the national networks, you are totally prepared. 

Mar 24, 2019; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks former player Marques Johnson waves to the crowd during a halftime ceremony to retire his jersey during a game between the Bucks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Fiserv Forum. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MARQUES: Well, thank God for and some of these stats outlets. A good friend of mine, Jeff Chapman, his company (S.T.A.T.) produces stats and really cool game breakdowns for a lot of broadcasters. I rely on those a lot.

I also use my acting background. As an actor when you’re preparing for a role, it’s all about the backstory and coming up with nuances. You have to have a backstory to fulfill the requirements of the character.

When I go into a game, it’s always about the backstory and finding out as much information as I can by reading every article on different players, and that’s why your site Basketball Intelligence is so useful.

Also the way has set up its stats services enables me to get a great range of really good, detailed, inside information-type stats. Just about anything you would want, like who’s the best with 0-5 dribbles, who the top pick-and-roll guys are, or who is the best pull-up jump shooter.

The Bucks also have some of the best analytics guys in the league: David Mincberg and my guy, Patrick “Buckets” Haneman. Buckets hooks me up with some terrific material that really enhances the broadcast.

The team has been very generous in that area.

I dig into that stuff, primarily about what’s going to be relevant for that game. It’s a nonstop job for me, and the fact that I love basketball makes it easy. I watch games all the time.

My wife, Lee, may have a “honey do” list, and I tell her “I’m working right now.”

She says “You’re watching a basketball game.”

And I respond, “That’s my work. That’s what I do. I have to be prepared.”

I love the game to that point where it’s not work. It’s enjoyment for me. I used to mimic Chick Hearn in the hallway of our house in South Central Los Angeles as a nine-year-old.

I would cut out the stats of every basketball team and player from the LA Times. I knew all the stats of guys that nobody ever heard of.

That has always been fun for me.

I’m fortunate because I grew up on Chick Hearn. Dick Enberg was our announcer at UCLA. Al Michaels took his place and was our announcer for the last couple of years when I was at UCLA.

I’ve been around some of the best in the business. I’ve worked with Steve Physioc, Tim Brando, Joel Meyers, Barry Thompkins, Chris Myers, Gus Johnson and Jim Paschke. They are some of the brightest and best minds in the business, and it’s easy to be successful when you’re working with somebody who enjoys what they’re doing as much as you do.

RAY: How do you articulate nuances of the game in a way that is not over the head of the casual fan yet, at the same time, not boring to the sophisticated fan. Is that difficult?

MARQUES: It’s something that happens innately because I’m a student of the game.

I’ve played for some of the greatest coaching minds, starting with my Dad. And then Willie West, the greatest coach in California high school basketball history, along with John Wooden, Gene Bartow and Don Nelson.

I think I have a way of looking at the game that is insightful and a little bit different because of my experiences. Not only experiences but the people that I talk basketball with, starting with my sons Josiah and Kris.

Kris broadcasts a lot of high school games, including all of Sierra Canyon’s games with LeBron James’ son. We talk about games in somewhat different contexts than most people. We go a little deeper into the mindset of what players are thinking in different situations. He has absolutely one of the best basketball minds I have ever been around, and that’s saying something.

And Josiah is a creative genius. He encourages me to have a presence on social media. He had an animated show on Comedy Central called The Legends of Chamberlain Heights that ran for a couple of seasons. He just finished writing episodes for one of the top producers in Hollywood dealing with one of the most controversial figures in sports.

I can’t say more. I’ve been sworn to secrecy!

I have fun with it. I’m always looking and probing to see where the game or a particular sequence is headed. I really plug myself into what’s going on out on the floor. And I think that comes through in the broadcast and gives viewers some enjoyment.

RAY:  You certainly succeed with that. If the NBA restarts, games will be played without fans present. Have you thought about what that would be like? Have you ever done a game with no fans?

Jul 5, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Elijah Bryant (19) dribbles against Philadelphia 76ers guard Zhaire Smith (8) during the first half of an NBA Summer League game at Thomas & Mack Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

MARQUES: When I first joined the Bucks, then-owner Jim Fitzgerald was big into cable TV. We’d have lengthy conversations about the future of televised sports.

And he’d often tell me that there would come a time sooner than you think when there wouldn’t be any fans there. It would just be the game being televised.

He passed away a few years back. Of course, he didn’t foresee the circumstances with the pandemic.

I’ve never done (a game like) that, but I’m looking forward to seeing what the league comes up with. I was talking with my wife Lee about this recently. She was talking about missing all the accouterments, the music, the excitement and everything that goes along with the sounds of the game.

I think the league is probably going to address that in some way. Not that they’ll pipe in applause or fans cheering but just in terms of music and sounds that you normally hear. I don’t expect that it’ll be just guys dribbling up the court in an empty arena with the echo of the ball and the squeak of the sneakers that we’ll have to deal with.

I’ll be interested to see what they come up with. Whatever happens, we will make the best of it.

RAY: In this series of interviews that I’ve been doing with NBA broadcasters, yours is the first that takes place after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. I read a very powerful statement that you made on Facebook and a few lines, in particular, have stuck with me.

You said that there’s been a psychic moral upheaval, and you asked what has happened to change hearts and minds. You wrote about your own history having resulted in a confusing cauldron of emotions and self-imagery. Those are some of the things that resonated with me. 

MARQUES: Recently, there was an event at my daughter’s private school in the Playa Vista part of Los Angeles. This was organized by the black student parents, but it was open to everybody.

We got there for the event to show support for the protests against police brutality, racist policies and systemic racism. Out of the 500 people who were there, probably 70 percent were not African American.

We went through the eight-minute and 46 seconds of silence to mirror the time that Mr. Floyd had the knee on his neck that cost him his life. I looked around and saw all these different races of people⁠—white people, Asian people, black people⁠—kneeling or sitting down, being silent with their thoughts and being reflective.

I was moved to tears because it showed me that this is a different era. This is a different time.

We’ve had these types of demonstrations before. I remember vividly the Watts riots in 1965 when I was 9 years old. I was in South Central, and at the elementary school down the street we had National Guardsmen perched on top of the auditorium with their rifles pointed down on the streets.

In 1992 when the Rodney King response happened, I worked a playoff game between the Clippers and the Jazz, which had to be moved to Anaheim because of everything that was going on in Los Angeles.

It seems like almost every 30 years or so these things happen. But this is different in the sense that you’ve got different races of people being involved.

And this whole deal about Black Lives Matter: Two or three years ago, when you said that, you were met with derision and people would come back with “All Lives Matter.”

And they thought BLM was a terrorist organization that was looking to harm policemen even though that wasn’t what that movement was all about.

It wasn’t about only “black lives matter.” We never meant that.

What we were saying was black lives matter too, so give them as much weight and credit as you would any other any other race.

Different races of people have embraced this movement in London and Berlin and New Zealand and in North and South Dakota, and in many places that might have just a 1 percent black population. People are out en masse, supporting what’s going on right now.

I don’t know if it’s the pandemic and being sheltered at home and reflection with so much time to think that has changed the perception, but there’s a movement going on that I’m really happy about and proud of.

I have a guarded optimism that there will be positive to come out of this. That’s my hope.

RAY: We all hope that. I think there’s reason to have faith in our younger generations.

MARQUES: I’m a Christian. One of the stories in the Bible that’s really been at the forefront of my mind is how Moses took the Israelites to the precipice of the Promised Land at the River Jordan. But he didn’t get a chance to actually cross over.

That went to the younger generation. Joshua was the guy that actually led the children of Israel over the River Jordan into the Promised Land.

Martin Luther King talked about how he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land. He said: “I may not get there with you, but we as a people are going to get to the promised land.”

That great speech told us that the older generation was there to support and lead to a certain point, but the younger generation is the generation with the energy to get it done. He stressed the importance to be vigilant and not let the movement die and to not let anyone turn it into something counterproductive.

Today, it’s not just the younger generation of black young men or women, but it’s all races that are involved. I see that register in the minds and hearts of white kids, and they’re coming out and it makes me emotional to think about where we are right now.

It gives me optimism that we have a bright future ahead of us if we stay vigilant and stay focused on these changes that we need to make.

RAY: What are your thoughts regarding the restart format? 

MARQUES: We are in uncharted territory here. One of the biggest questions is whether or not the season re-start will be embraced wholeheartedly by the players. With the public demonstrations against police abuse and other social ills still going strong, how will that impact the focus players will need to compete at a level expected of them?

The league has to adequately address that issue to the satisfaction of its players.

RAY: How do you assess the Bucks’ chances?

MARQUES: The Bucks would have to be one of the favorites to win it all. A lot depends on the commitment the players had to working out on their own during the shutdown. The organization that did the best job of helping its players to stay in the best shape possible under these conditions has a definite advantage.

You hear stories about some teams having organized workouts when they weren’t supposed to. I guess we will see if there is any truth to that, won’t we?


Don’t miss Part 1 of Ray’s interview with Marques.