TEDxUCLA 2019: Time

How badly do you want something?


About Marques

Marques Johnson is the first winner of the John R. Wooden Award at UCLA, where he helped lead the Bruins to Coach John Wooden’s 10th and final NCAA Men’s Division I basketball championship.

As a professional athlete, Marques played seven seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, followed by seasons with the Golden State Warriors and the LA Clippers.

Today you can find Marques back on the Milwaukee Bucks as a basketball analyst, and he continues to give back to the Milwaukee community through positive philanthropic endeavors.


I played basketball here at UCLA for John Wooden. (Cheering) (Applause) Yeah. (Cheering) (Applause)

I was on his tenth and final national championship team. I should have kept that net; it’s probably worth a lot of money nowadays. He won 10 championships in 12 years. He coached some of the all-time greats, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, like Bill Walton.

Talking about time, he was meticulous with his time and practice — every minute was accounted for. He had some great sayings too, like, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and “Make every day your masterpiece,” and “Be quick but don’t hurry.” He also had these philosophical building blocks that he used to form the pyramid of success.

Now, I was a 17-year-old freshman straight out of Crenshaw High — (Laughter) does that look like the kind of guy that needs to learn how to tie his shoes or put his socks on — which he taught us at UCLA — or interested in philosophical building blocks? Probably not, not at that time.

But I was a basketball player at Crenshaw too, and a real good basketball player. And when I got to UCLA, I was only the fourth-ranked player out of five recruits that came in in 1973. Just the fourth best out of five guys. And I thought I was pretty good.

And I say that to you to tell you that I was not some winner of the genetic lottery, that success for me as a basketball player was no foregone conclusion, that things were challenging when I first got here. Let me give an example of how challenging they were.

My first week in practice, I matched up against Keith Wilkes, and every day, Keith Wilkes is just working me, using me; he’s blocking my shots. I’m so frustrated by the end of that first week that I call home to my mom and dad, crying on the phone — I’m 17 years old. And I’m crying and crying.

My momma’s like, “What’s the matter?” I was like “See, I told you all I shouldn’t have come to UCLA, I should have went to UCSB” — no offense UCSB. (Laughter) “I told you I should have went to UCSB. I’m in over my head; I can’t play here.”

And my dad, in that direct way of his, said, “What’s the problem?” And I said, “Keith Wilkes, Dad. He’s blocking every shot I take.” And my dad, without hesitation, said, “Keith Wilkes? He’s the best forward in America — you’re going to be fine.” (Laughter)

Now, don’t you just hate when people assume that the success you achieved is because somebody gave you something or because you got a lucky break? Don’t you just hate that?

I mean, have you ever noticed a duck on the water, right? You watch that duck kind of zipping back and forth, floating on air, just moving and grooving; there’s that duck making it look so easy. (Laughter) Yeah. But would you look beneath the water, what do you see? You see those little duck feet, (Laughter) those little duck feet just moving back and forth, moving back and forth, working hard.

So I’m here today to tell you that I don’t care what it is, what you’re doing, who you are; you’re not going to have success unless you’re willing to put in the work. And the easier that you make it look, trust me, the harder you’ve got to put in that work.

See, my dad, speaking of work, he was the hardest working man that I know. I mean, this guy taught school during the week. He welded in the Long Beach shipyards at night when we needed extra money, and we had five kids, so we always needed extra money. So he was always welding. On the weekends, he’d cut hair at Pete’s Barber Shop on 79th and Western, and then he still found the time to coach my youth basketball teams. That’s my dad.

See, when I was in my early 20s, I had this complex because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to measure up to being the kind of man that my dad was. Then about 20 years later, I’m working UCLA radio, doing basketball games; I’m working at ESPN TV, doing basketball games, traveling all around the country; I’m a part-time assistant for the University of Alabama, Birmingham, flying there four, five times a month, working with their players — and then it dawned on me: I got three jobs like my dad had three jobs. (Laughter) And of my six kids that played basketball, I coached each and every one of those in youth basketball. So thank you, Daddy, for being a great role model. (Applause) (Cheering)

Now look, we can wish, hope, pray for greatness all we want, but unless we’re willing to put in the time, it’s not going to happen. There’s a guy by the name of Malcolm Gladwell. He took a lot of flak for that 10,000 hours of practice to be great stuff, and I am not really here to debate that, but he said something else that really resonated with me that has universal application.

He said, “Natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.” “Natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.”

Now, when I was at UCLA, I had the reputation of being one of the hardest working guys around. I was the first guy to have my own personal trainer, this guy right here, Malek Abdul-Mansour. He looks like he’ll get you in shape, don’t he? That was my personal trainer. I was one of the first to have one. And we did everything we could to get me better; we were relentless.

You know, you didn’t have to cajole me or convince me to get out on the floor or on the court or on the track — I love working out. Let me say this, if you want to be good at something, find something that you don’t necessarily have to love, but you’ve got to enjoy it, you’ve got to like it.

See, I had this roommate when I was at UCLA, right? This guy right here, Big Rich. Big Rich was 6’10”, best shooter in college basketball, immensely talented. We were roommates in college, teammates at UCLA at the same time. And I would always badger Big Rich about working out: “C’mon, man, we’ve got to work out, go to the gym, go to the track, work with Malek.”

Now, he was lounging in our apartment on our brown bean bag chair. Anybody out here have a bean bag chair back in college? You know what those are? All right, a few of you do, okay. On the bean bag chair, he’s strumming this little finger instrument called a kalimba -— poom, poom, poom — just chilling. And I’m like: “C’mon, Rich, we’ve got to work out, man, we’ve got to do something, get with Malek.”

And Rich looks up to me and says something that I’ll never forget. He looks up to me and says, “Marques, look, man, you play basketball because you like playing basketball. I play basketball ’cause I was tall, and I had to play basketball. Now leave me alone!” (Laughter) And I left him alone.

But he was right. I played because I loved the game. And I used to always think that I had this burning drive and desire to succeed that was borderline obsessive. But then it hit me later on, Was it really a drive to succeed or was it a fear, right? A fear of not only failure, but just being mediocre, a fear of mediocrity. And that word, fear — it’s a great acronym that I love: False, Evidence, Appearing, Real — false evidence appearing real.

So now, when I was at Crenshaw High School, my high school coach, Willie West, taught me about hard work better than anybody else — other than my dad. But it’s something else that he taught me. See, he taught me that I lacked the confidence in myself.

See, back in those days, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have Google or YouTube or anything like that, so what we learned about other players from around the country was from what we read about them in magazines like Street & Smith and Parade magazine, so I’d read about guys like Tom LaGarde, and Jeep Kelly and Wesley Cox, and see, I’ve got this magic magnifying mind, so you put a meatball in my mind, it comes out a meatloaf.

And so I blow things up totally out of proportion. I’m thinking these guys are God’s gift to basketball. How could I compete with these guys? And that fear is creeping in. What I didn’t realize was that I was probably just as good, if not better, than any of those guys at that particular time.

But that fear was something that I had to embrace. And it served me well, especially here at UCLA, my senior year — a couple of things happened. They were starting the John R. Wooden Award, given to the best player in college basketball. He’d retired a couple of years earlier. Also they were bringing back the dunk shot. The dunk had been banned for 10 years — a 10-year hiatus, banned in 1966, coming back in 1976.

I got with my guy, Malek, and Malek, in that Neptune, New Jersey, cadence of his said, he liked to clear his throat, “Yo man, listen, man! For you to win this award, man, you got to go out there, man, and dunk everything, man.” He was doing the eyes like that too. “You’ve got to dunk everything.” So that’s what we worked on, me dunking everything.

So my senior year, I came out, and I was the dunking fool. I dunked forward. (Cheering) I dunked backward. (Cheering) (Applause) I dunked off of one feet; I dunked off of two feet. I dunked on people, around people, through people — I was a dunking fool. I was a dunking maniac. (Laughter) (Applause)

I had 63 dunks by the end of my senior year. (Cheering) (Applause) Thank you. Thank you. But that was the most in college basketball. No other team had that many dunks. I had 63 by myself. (Laughter) And yes, I was the first winner of the John R. Wooden Award as being the best player in college basketball in 1977. (Cheering) (Applause)

So now it’s time to move on to the NBA. So I’m the third pick of the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, for most basketball players, being the third pick, you’d be like enamored, that’d be the best thing that could ever happen to you. But I’m a “glass half empty” kind of a guy, so I was a little ticked off because I am the Wooden Award winner, I’m College Player of the Year — I should be number one.

But at the same time, there’s that fear again: Am I going to be good enough? Am I going to be just another guy? Am I going to be mediocre? So I got that ego that wants to be number one, but I’ve got that fear. So I’m like this egomaniac with an inferiority complex. (Laughter) And that’s a tough place to be. (Laughter)

So I get with my guy, Malek; we work out. So by my second year in the NBA, I’m first-team All-Pro, which means I am one of the five best players in the world. I spend another five years with the Milwaukee Bucks. I deal with some personal demons, but have some productive years also.

And now it’s time to get traded to Los Angeles, right? So now it’s time to get traded to Los Angeles, and I’m coming home, and my family and friends get a chance to see me play. Any athlete can tell you that’s one of the greatest joys you could experience: coming back home.

Except I wasn’t coming back home to the Lakers, the glamour franchise of this city, with Kareem and Magic and Showtime — voila! — and all that, see. (Laughter) Voila! — that’s Magic. See, I was coming home to the most dysfunctional franchise, maybe, in sports history — the Los Angeles Clippers.

So I was going to be … (Laughter) No, see, this is mid-’80s. So I was going to be seated on that iron throne, right? But it was going to be the king of the Clipper World. (Laughter) A crown for a king, you see — that’s what was going to happen to me.

So what happens? I break my hand the first day of practice. I have a terrible year my first year as a Clipper. I just sucked. Got with Malek during the off-season; my second year, I made the All-Star team. Third year — okay, I’m having another great year, worked hard. 

That year I struggled coming out the gate, then my 10th game, November 20, 1986 — never forget that day — I was hitting shots, couldn’t miss, I was on my way to 40 or 50 points. I got a rebound, went to push the ball up the floor, and there was my teammate, Benoit Benjamin, standing right in front of me. I run smack-dab into Benoit’s stomach, like a big dumb oak tree, just standing there — number double zero — that’s the last thing I remember seeing, double zeros.

I ruptured a disc in my neck. I get paralyzed for three to four minutes, seemed like longer, but three to four minutes in my upper body. They carry me off the court in a stretcher with a neck brace around my neck in an ambulance. So the rest of that season, I didn’t play, didn’t know if I’d ever play again, got a lot of medical opinions that said maybe, maybe not.

And then something else happened. Six months later, May of 1987, around this time of the month, my son, Marques Johnson Jr., drowned in a swimming pool accident. Yeah. So now, career is pretty much over, tragic drowning of my son.

So I do what you would expect in a lot of situations like that: man, I just lose it. Drugs, alcohol, guilt, resentment, anger — all those things walking around. I just wasn’t a good person to know at that time of my life.

And so what happened? Well, what happened — those life lessons I learned from my dad, from my high school coach, Coach Wooden, from Malek, from other great mentors in my life and my mother, they started to sink in, and I had to redirect some of that energy, you know, some of that investment of time, and not to the physical but to the psychological, to the inner healing, to the spiritual, to the emotional.

So I got into recovery for the alcohol and drugs, I got some grief therapy for the death of my son, I got therapy for other issues I was going through, and I came out on the other side. I came out on the other side.

Now, Coach Wooden has another saying that I love. He says: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best you’re capable of becoming.” I love that by Coach Wooden.

But I also love something else that I heard. See this young man right here? You might recognize him. I work for the Milwaukee Bucks now — that’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, that’s the “Greek Freak,” all right? (Cheering) (Applause)

Four years ago, when I first started working for the Bucks, on New Year’s Day, he came up to me — he calls me Ol’ School — “Ol’ School, I saw a video of you, and I want to get buckets like you; that’s my New Year resolution. (Laughter)

So I reminded him of that four years later, New Year’s Day this year: “You remember what you told me four years ago, New Year’s resolution?” We laughed about it. “What’s your New Year’s resolution this year?” And he looked at me, and he said, “To be the best version of myself.” One of the top five players in the world, 24 years old: “To be the best version of myself.”

I mean, look, life is a long, tough road, path with twists and turns, and ups and downs, and joy and tears and all that, but I’ll tell you what, man, if we just make the effort to become the best versions of ourselves, then we’re on the right track. Thank you. (Applause) (Cheering)