Marques Johnson: L.A. streetball 101

Marques Johnson first earned a reputation running with the Denker Bucks of L.A.'s famed Run, Shoot and Dunk League during the early years of West Coast streetball

Originally Published: August 19, 2011
By Ronnie Flores | ESPNHS

In conjunction with the Boost Mobile Elite 24 on Aug. 27 (4pm PT, ESPNU), ESPNHS is taking a deep look into the roots of California streetball. This two-part series begins with a profile of 1973 Crenshaw (Los Angeles, Calif.) graduate Marques Johnson.

Part two: Rafer Alston globalized streetball

Pros playing with street players is a summer phenomenon that reached its peak at Harlem's Rucker Park in the 1960's and 1970s. When the 1980's Magic-Bird rivalry ushered in the big bucks era of pro basketball, the practice slowed down.

With the NBA currently locked out and social media bringing fans and pros closer together, Pro-Am streetball is undergoing a renaissance in cities across America.

This is especially true at L.A.'s Drew League, a Pro-Am that's been around since 1973 and recently received a visit from Lakers' superstar Kobe Bryant. "The Black Mamba" sent the overflow crowd into a frenzy with a game-winning fall away jumper over Drew regular and L.A. native James Harden, who plays with the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder.

There have been plenty of special moments in Los Angles' sub-NBA culture long before the cameras. Many of those moments occurred at the Drew -- and even before that at the Run, Shoot and Dunk League.

"Because of the level of communication, the media didn't care," said former NBA All-Star Marques Johnson, who first got a taste of streetball as a teenager at the league when it was played at Denker Park. "The ability to communicate was mostly word of mouth. In the moment, nobody paid attention like that."

The league was relatively unknown outside of Los Angeles, but it was a hidden gem to South-Central's basketball community. The games were packed and sometimes got rowdy, but most important the talent level was high. Johnson recalls an intensity level on par with any NBA game he played and occasional gunfire stopping play.

Johnson matriculated from Audubon Junior High to Dorsey (Los Angeles) with good friend Ricky "Tex" Walker. Even though he wasn't eligible to play for the Dons varsity as a tenth-grader (he was 14), Johnson still got an education on big-time ball at the Run, Shoot and Dunk as the league moved to L.A. Trade Tech College.

"It was a proving grounds for high school, college players and the pros," said Johnson, who has a team for the Boost Mobile Elite 24 named in his honor. " One of the rims was 9-11 and the other like 9-3. Everybody loved playing on the short rim so you could dunk.

"The greatest leaper I'd seen was David 'Airplane' Payne&I don't know where he played at and it didn't matter. He rolled through and I tried to take a charge in the lane...he dunked it out me and got the foul. I was 15 years old at the time."

Payne was just one of many early L.A. playground legends that helped make the league so competitive. Others were bruiser Charles Bloodworth, Donald Strong, Walter Ned, future L.A. Laker Jerry "Money" Chambers and Jimmy "Helicopter" Payne, David's little brother. The league also wasn't immune to the scoring onslaughts of 5-foot-10 guard James "Arkansas Red" Allen, a Southern transplant that preceded Raymond Lewis as the city's first streetball icon.

After his sophomore year, Johnson's father Jeff decided to send his son to Crenshaw (Los Angeles). In 1971, Crenshaw won its first of 16 L.A. City Section titles under head coach Willie West, who eventually added Run, Shoot and Dunk founder Joe Weakley to his coaching staff.

West happened to work with Johnson's father and even his formal introduction to Crenshaw had a streetball element.

"My father took me up there on Tuesday nights to play in some pickup," Johnson said. "Coach West was about 31-years old and he could still play. Boy, he talked a lot of trash to be a coach. But I turned around and dunked one and he figured 'ok he can play.'"

Play he could, as the rugged forward perfectly fit in Crenshaw's defensive-oriented lineup consisting of small forward Kenny Daniels, center Renard Murray and guards Reggie Mims and Maynard Brown. The "DC-5" (Dynamic Defensive Cougars) was rolling along with a 12-0 record before Daniels was declared ineligible. Crenshaw still won its last two games to finish the 1971-72 season 14-0 on-court while scoring 76.9 points and giving up only 40.6. As a senior in 1972-73, Johnson averaged 26.4 points per game, as the L.A. City Section Player of the Year was honored as Cal-Hi Sports State Player of the Year.

Crenshaw finished 18-0 his senior season and while Johnson never experienced a varsity loss, one of the most memorable games he played as a teenager came in defeat. It occurred in the champion game of the Run, Shoot and Dunk summer league, when a 17-year old Johnson formed a potent 1-2 punch with longtime friend Walker (who developed into an all-city player at Dorsey). The youngsters fell short against a team full of UCLA standouts and pros such as Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Henry Bibby, Jim Price and Ricky Hawthorne.

Despite the loss, it was a fond time for the underappreciated streetball standout who went on to capture a national championship with UCLA, earn NCAA national player of the year honors in 1977 and develop into a five-time NBA all-star.

"Our squad, the Denker Bucks, was a good team," Johnson said. "The league was a bit regionalized&you had teams from Long Beach and Pasadena and in those days they were sponsored by local businesses. It had a Rucker kind of approach...teams did whatever it took to get players.

"The refs were crazier than the players. I remember one, Lorenzo Clark, carried a .22 pistol with him. When I played with Crenshaw, the refs were talking to me through the city playoffs giving me pointers. They remembered me from the summer."

As Johnson went on to fame with another Bucks team -- the NBA franchise in Milwaukee -- the Run,Shoot and Dunk also went into transition, moving again to Crenshaw High School. With L.A.'s pros coming back every summer to mix it up with the local standouts, the league didn't skip a beat and the competition grew, according to Johnson. Out of respect for Weakley, the local guys who made the pros worked camps and clinics for free.

Los Angeles streetball eventually went mainstream after New Yorker Kenn Hicks founded the National Outdoor Basketball Championship, and ran it Labor Day weekend at Venice Beach, beginning in 1979. Even Hollywood got in on the act with the 1992 streetball film "White Men Can't Jump," in which Johnson actually had a role as volatile streetball player Raymond.

With all he accomplished at Crenshaw, UCLA and in the pros, Johnson points to a particular game for the Denker Bucks as the ultimate confidence-booster and to a specific moment when he "arrived" as a bonafide L.A. streetballer.

"I remember coming down and taking off just inside the free throw line against [David] Payne," Johnson said. "He was about 30 years old...I returned the favor and threw one down on him. It was my coming of age play as I took it with two hands and as Joe Weakley liked to tell me over the years, 'dunked the ball and defender at the same time.'

A reputation was now something Johnson had to defend, not earn.

"In the Run, Shoot and Dunk you had to up hold your rep. Fans today still come up to me to talk about the great games."