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Jim Murray

It's Been Back to the Future for Marques

February 16, 1986|Jim Murray

There's an old adage: "Be careful what you pray for. You may get it."

Or, the worst thing in life may not be in not getting everything you always dreamed of. It may be getting it.

Just ask Marques Kevin Johnson.

Before there was a Magic Johnson in this town, there was a Marques. He could do everything with a basketball anyone ever wanted. He didn't play a game, he painted it. He moved across the court like a brush across a canvas.

I once wrote that watching Marques Johnson on the court was like watching Gene Kelly in the rain or Peggy Fleming on the ice. Or Joe DiMaggio gliding under a long one.

The problem was not what he did, it was where he did it.

There's nothing wrong with Milwaukee, Wis. It probably beats 20 to 30 other cities as a place to eat sausage, raise kids, brew beer, dance the polka or bowl.

It's not so idyllic if you're a sports superstar. If you're a Star, you want to play the Palace. If you have a hit show, you want it on Broadway.

Marques Johnson could see that the other M. Johnson had taken the act to Hollywood, where he had become a household word, a media pet and an international celebrity. Marques' fame tended to peter out about Oshkosh.

It wasn't as if Marques had come into town on the egg truck. Marques was no ordinary collegiate jump-shooter from the canebrakes or tobacco sheds. Marques had played his college basketball with John Wooden's UCLA Bruins. Hollywood's team. Marques came from klieg-light country.

He began to yearn for a return, he admits now. Like the Good Soldier Schweik, he had put in his time in the snow. He was bucking a trend, spending his winters out of the Sun Belt. He was going into Fahrenheit-minus when every other millionaire was going to sunglasses country.

So, when he got the news that he was being traded back to Southern California, Marques felt like a kid getting a new pony. His prayers had been answered.

Never mind that the Los Angeles Clippers were less a team than a caravan. They came through towns like the high-plains drifter, the basketball version of the largest permanent, original floating crap game in sports.

They came into town trailing the detritus of lawsuits and counterclaims by way of Buffalo, where they were the Braves, and San Diego, where nobody could remember what they had been. They settled permanently in the shadow of the Lakers, who were annoyed at these claim-jumpers.

Never mind. For Marques, the essential fact was, his dream had come true. All he would need would be a little help and the Clippers would be banging the boards of a championship.

It all came to a shuddering stop with the publication of a Times story five months into the season. The focus of the story was that the Milwaukee Bucks, when they traded Marques, had neglected to mention that he had once undergone drug treatment. But the real bombshell was the news that Marques had been on drugs, at all.

The worst thing had happened to Marques: He had gotten his heart's desire.

If he had stayed in Milwaukee, confidentiality might have been preserved, his reputation saved.

Marques was stunned, then hurt. His first reaction was to go into a shell, to take a posture of, "What story?" To pretend it wasn't there or, even if it was, it would go away, like the little man who wasn't there. He began to leave locker rooms with everything but his coat over his head, like one of those photos captioned, "Mafia Don Quizzed."

Truth doesn't go away. Ignored, unaddressed, it spread. At year's end, the Clippers sued the Bucks for selling them fraudulent goods. Marques began to feel like stock in a nonexistent gold mine.

Marques decided to go public.

"I read in the paper where Reggie Jackson had argued that the athlete's privacy and confidentiality should be honored, and then some woman sent a letter disagreeing and saying the problem should be addressed and opened for everybody's benefit," he said. "Her arguments impressed me."

Marques decided that silence was the worst form of denial.

With most players, you become aware of a problem when they start missing planes, buses, practices or team meetings. With Marques, it was when he began missing free throws. He made all the other schedules.

There is probably no such thing as an occasional user of cocaine. Like pregnancy, addiction has no degrees.

But when rumors surfaced about Marques' use, he readily confirmed it for his coach, Don Nelson, and general manager, Wayne Embry, and enrolled in a Minneapolis hospital without demur.

He was actually relieved. He is a young man from a strongly religious household, where his father was a schoolteacher and his mother came from a long line of preachers.

Marques recalls: "I felt like a hypocrite. I knew what I was doing was the opposite of what was morally right."

It was shame, not defiance, that caused him to want to avoid the issue.

The story has a happy ending.

Marques Johnson, 1986, is the player the Clippers thought they were getting all along. Just turned 30, he is a board-clearing, 23-point shooting star who just may lead the team into the playoffs for the first time since it left Buffalo.

The moral of the story is: The worst thing about dreams coming true is that sometimes they make you wake up.

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