Marques Johnson, cradling the ball casually in his left hand, was already in flight toward the basket for a seemingly unobstructed layup when two bulky Seattle SuperSonics crossed the lane and blocked his path.
Johnson, quickly shifting both the ball and his body to the right, reached around the defenders and deftly flipped the ball off the board and into the basket.
From takeoff to landing, the Clippers' flying forward had traveled about six feet forward and three feet sideways.
Before those two bewildered SuperSonics knew what had hit them--or, rather, what had not hit them--Johnson was halfway down the court and had probably forgotten what an extraordinary move he had just completed.
Days later, though, Clipper Coach Don Chaney still had not forgotten. Chaney was struggling to describe Johnson's move when another thought struck him.
"Last season, the ball probably would have dropped off Marques' foot and gone out of bounds on that play," Chaney said, smiling.
Last season. Marques Johnson would rather not hear about last season anymore.
Adversity hit Johnson early and often last season and didn't let up until his scoring average had been reduced to a career-low 16.4 points and his self-confidence and reputation around the National Basketball Assn. had fallen even lower.
"There were times when I wished I could've just closed my eyes and the season would be over," Johnson said. "But it seemed like it would never end."
Three injuries, not serious but nagging enough that he never quite felt right, were Johnson's major problems. But he also felt hurt and somewhat betrayed that the Clippers, learning in February that the Bucks had withheld information on Johnson's previous drug problem, sought to rescind the six-player trade with Milwaukee that had brought him back to Los Angeles.
In short, Johnson's return to his hometown after seven successful seasons in Milwaukee could have served as an updated version of "You Can Never Go Home Again."
But now, there is a new twist to the story. Johnson, never one to walk away from challenges, is back for another season. This time, he has brought the best aspects of his game with him.
After Saturday night's game against Utah, Johnson ranked eighth in the league in scoring with a 23.3 average and had scored more than 30 points six times. With Derek Smith still recovering from knee surgery, Johnson is about the Clippers' only offensive threat.
At least once a game, Johnson scores on a twisting inside move through a maze of bodies that leaves opponents dazed, teammates admiring and fans gasping.
"I've had many people say to me, 'Man, I didn't know you could play like that,' " Johnson says. "I think, 'You should have seen me in Milwaukee.' "
Once again, people are talking basketball--not drugs or lawsuits--with Johnson, which makes it a lot easier for him to focus on his game.
And when Johnson is on top of his game, there aren't many small forwards who are comparable.
Many suspected that Johnson, who will be 30 in February, would be unable to regain his form after misplacing it last season, but his play so far suggests that he has made it all the way back.
"He's playing at as high a level as he did in his last couple of All-Star years with us," said Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson, after Johnson had scored 23 points and sunk the winning free throws against the Bucks recently. "He's got his whole life together, and it shows."
Said Laker Coach Pat Riley, after watching Johnson score 34 points: "There's no question about Marques' skills. He's truly one of the finest front-line players in the league."
Chaney added: "Marques is back--all the way."
Taking a pass in the low post with his back to the basket, Johnson faked as if he were going to turn and shoot a layup. Both Joe Kleine, Sacramento's 6-foot 11-inch rookie center, and forward Otis Thorpe left their feet.
Still with his back turned, Johnson flipped the ball over his right shoulder and drew a foul on Kleine. Johnson didn't need to look to know if he had made the shot. The crowd reaction told him.
A basketball seems no larger than a grapefruit when it is in Marques Johnson's grasp. Last season, though, the ball must have seemed considerably larger and more awkward, something he had to lug around.
"If I had taken the ball to the basket last season, I'd say 8 times out of 10 it would slip out of my hand and I'd have to grope for control," Johnson said. "At the beginning of the year, I'd make my normal moves and I'd figure the ball was right where I had dribbled it, but it was actually three feet behind me."
Johnson had never experienced such a phenomenon. But then, he also had never before experienced a broken bone in his shooting hand, which he had suffered during the exhibition season.
"It wasn't until the last month of the season when I felt comfortable with it," Johnson said. "People don't realize how it affects you."