Bucks legend Marques Johnson discusses Milwaukee's 'Return to the MECCA' game

The Milwaukee Bucks' game on Thursday night against the Boston Celtics will be a unique one, as the team is returning to their old arena, the MECCA, for a throwback game. Not only will the Bucks be wearing their retro jerseys, but the team has also brought back the iconic MECCA floor for the game. 

Ahead of the special event, CBS Sports chatted with Bucks legend, and current TV broadcaster, Marques Johnson about the game and his memories playing in the MECCA back in the 1970s and 80s. 

CBS: Back when they first announced it, did you have any idea it was coming? What was your first reaction to hearing they were planning this game?

Marques Johnson: I had heard about it a few months back when it was being kinda bandied about with some of the Bucks executives. They didn't know who the opponent would be at the time. They were thinking Philly as a possible opponent, or the Celtics. That was my first awareness of it being a possibility.

Fiftieth anniversary, I thought it was a great idea. I wasn't aware they were going to reconstruct the floor at that time, but I thought that was the logical thing to do and made the most sense, so I'm glad to see them following through with that aspect of the throwback game. That was one of the most appealing thing in my mind of the whole situation.

CBS: Yeah, the floor will be really cool. I was watching a little documentary about it, and they said it was "The floor that made Milwaukee famous." At the time did you think 'hey this is kinda cool or neat,' or was it not something you really thought about?

MJ: It was so bright and different and totally out of the realm of anything that I had seen before in terms of playing basketball. I remember that was one of the selling points with the young team that we had in 1977 with myself and Junior Bridgeman, Quinn Buckner, Brian Winters. Kent Benson was the No. 1 pick. We had another rookie, Ernie Grunfeld, on the team. Alex English was a second-year forward who was my backup at the small forward spot on that team.

At the time, coming from Los Angeles, I don't know what my reaction … it wasn't like a bunch of excitement, it was more just like I wanted to get on with my rookie year, and get my professional career started. But once I got on the floor, and saw what it was all about and was able to look at the floor up close and personal, and the job that Robert Indiana, the artist they commissioned to design the floor. It was the biggest piece of pop art at that time in history. You know as a ball player, it didn't resonate as much as it does looking back, but at the time it was just pretty cool to be a part of something like that with this young energy that this team had back in 1977. So the floor was just an added attraction to everything that was going on. And the arena was kinda old at that point and needed a face lift, so from that standpoint it was pretty cool.

CBS: Growing up ... I'm from Milwaukee, and I'm only 24, so the MECCA, I always saw it as an old and run down building. What sort of memories do you have … you know, you guys were great back then … when that arena was full and fans were coming out and it was alive?

MJ: Well I've got a few. The enthusiasm of the fans, especially my rookie year, they were coming off a losing season the year before, and had three first-round draft picks. So we were a young, exciting team, with a new coach for Don Nelson's first full year as a coach. He had taken over about 18 games into the season a year before for Larry Costello. So this was his first full year of having his own team with a bunch of young players. We were an offensive team, I think we averaged -- you'd have to look it up -- but 110, 112 points, something crazy when you think about it. (The official mark, per basketball reference, was 108.4 points per game.) Just an offensive juggernaut, we were trying to push everything. It was an exciting brand of basketball. A lot of lobs, a lot of dunks.

But my favorite memory, couple of them from that rookie year, was the organist, Frank Charles. Every time I would do a dunk, or catch a lob, or hang in the air and do something, he would break into "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" on his organ. I would kinda look up at him and give him a nod or an acknowledgement when he would play that song. That was kinda one of my favorite memories.

Then fast forward a couple years later. We swept the Boston Celtics after we picked up Bob Lanier in a trade for Kent Benson, just that playoff series. We beat 'em the first two games in Boston, and came back to Milwaukee and the fans were just as rabid and as crazy as they'd ever been with the thought of beating Bird and McHale and Parish and that great Celtics team. That was kinda my favorite memory as a player.

But just playing there, it was always capacity. We had the smallest venue in the league. We'd catch these teams coming into Milwaukee like the Lakers. My buddies Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes would be coming in with their fur coats and cowboy boots and hats all that, and we just knew that if we jumped on 'em early, and really put the pressure on 'em early, they'd be ready to get back to the warm weather in a hurry. It would be in the dead of winter, it might be 30 below or whatever, but our fans were there in full force, and completely behind us. It was just a great, great time to play professional basketball in Milwaukee for me.

CBS: Speaking of the Celtics, obviously the Bucks are going up against the Celtics, you mentioned playing against Bird. What was that like going up against one of the greatest players? I mean you matched up one-on-one against him sometimes.

MJ: At that time, I was pretty good myself so they were good battles. I wasn't looking at him like he was better than me at that point, I was just as good if not better than him. That was my attitude. I felt I could score and do everything he could do against me. I could respond tit for tat. Same thing with Julius Erving coming in. It was just a great time, a golden age of small forwards in the league at that time. Bernard King and Walter Davis and I had a Rookie of the Year battle. They averaged 24 a game, I averaged like 20 and 10, 10 rebounds a game. You didn't really look at it at the kind of reverence for Larry Bird or Dr. J that fans have now. At that point we were kinda the top three forwards in the league, and battled accordingly.

And those were the games you got up for. I remember I think I had 33 or something in the game we swept them, and blocked Larry's shot a couple times. Bill Fitch got fired after that season cause they got swept and that was the first time they'd ever gotten swept in a playoff series. We had things rocking.

The only downside was we always had to go through Boston and Philly. Philly was a juggernaut themselves. Moses Malone, they picked him up, and it almost wasn't fair to put him on a team with Doc and Bobby Jones and Mo Cheeks and Andrew Toney and all the great players. It was kinda the way it was back in those days. It was just terrific basketball, high-level basketball being played.

CBS: Yeah, I think the one year Philly won it you guys were the only team to beat them in the playoffs.

MJ: Yeah, right. That was the year they asked Moses how many games it would take to win the championship. He was like, 'Fo, fo, fo.' It was actually fo, five, fo, which is a Grover Washington jazz song, but that five, every time I hear that song, we were the one team to beat them. 

And even in that series, if you go back and look at the scores, we lost in overtime one game, I think in Philly, maybe Game 1 or Game 2. It was a competitive series, even though we lost 4-1, we could have easily won two or three games that series, but just didn't get the breaks down the stretch. (The Bucks lost Game 1 in OT, 111-109, and three of their four losses in the series were by single digits.) Looking back on it, 4-1 is kinda, on the face of it, a humiliating kind of loss. But when you think about how great that team was, they went on to sweep the Lakers four-zip in the Finals. So for us to be competitive as we were against them I think was a testament to just how good of a team the Milwaukee Bucks were in that time period.

CBS: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about Giannis Antetokounmpo. I was reading that you actually coined the term "point-forward" back in the 80s. Did you ever think there would come along someone like Giannis who would take that position to these heights.

MJ: Honestly, you know, no. There's been some great players that have played the position. Scottie Pippen was a great point-forward for the Bulls when he played. LeBron James, I thought, was just the epitome of the position, at his size, 6-8, 6-9, 250 pounds and what he can do. But Giannis has just kinda taken it to another level.

I think Jason Kidd did a real smart thing when he moved Giannis … what was it, two seasons ago I believe. The last 25-30 games after the All-Star break when we were having a losing record, weren't going to the playoffs, so it became all about player development. So Jason put the ball in Giannis' hands as the point guard.

That really got Giannis comfortable becoming a playmaker. That carried on into his Most Improved Player year last year, when he led us in four or five different stat categories. And now this is just a continued evolution of that process.

Then you couple that with, and this is what people have to realize: Giannis is on a different spiritual plane as a basketball player. He lost his dad in late September, and his family is real close. And after he had the great game against Portland when he won the game with a great steal and dunk and then a great blocked shot. He had the basketball in the locker room, the team had given it to him as the game ball, and he put 'To daddy, I had 44 points and we won the game,' which is the most important thing. 

But Giannis is on a different kind of spiritual level as a basketball player in terms of motivation, inspiration that is going to be really fun I think to watch this year. I call it a different vibe that he's playing with right now. He's already great, one of the top five to seven players in the league right now. But now you put this added inspiration and motivation and emotion on top of it that he's going through as a person, as an individual, as a man who just lost his dad at 22 years old. You couple that with his talent and everything else, it becomes almost like a perfect storm for him to have a season of seasons as a basketball player. 

NBA Writer

Jack Maloney lives and writes in Milwaukee, where, like the Bucks, he is trying to own the future. Full Bio

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