Few weeks ago I had a chance to talk with a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, five-time NBA All-Star, Sidney Moncrief. We discussed his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, defensive mentality, and his accomplishments.
Starting with your time at Arkansas. How big impact do you think coach Eddie Sutton had on your development at such early stage of your career?
I had two coaches that had a lot of impact. In junior high school I had coach Johnny Greenwood – great coach, fundamentally good, disciplined. Then I had Oliver Elders in high school, same type coach. So, when I went to Arkansas and played for Eddie Sutton, who as people know, was a defensive-minded coach. It was an easy transition for me because I had good coach in junior high school and high school.
In 1979 you lost Regional Final against Indiana and Larry Bird. Did you see the early signs of his greatness, that you would see later in the NBA?
I did, because Larry Bird and I, we played even before that game, in the World University Games in Sofia, Bulgaria, that was I think in 1978. We were together for six weeks, playing basketball. His greatness was evident when we played together on that team. I saw his skillset, focus, basketball IQ, competitiveness, all those traits were on display when we played together.
In 1979 you were drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks. How do you recall learning from older players, like Brian Winters, Marques Johnson?
Also, Junior Bridgeman, Harvey Catchings, Quinn Buckner. We had a veteran team. Not only a veteran team – when they were in college, they were very successful, and they knew how to win. They knew how to prepare to be an NBA player, they knew preparation for pregame. So, I watched what they did, and tried to emulate some of their good habits. That helped me quite a bit when I was a rookie, and even after that.
Defense and coach Nelson
Can you talk about your defensive mindset? Is it something that you had early in your career, or is it something that you were taught in the NBA?
I played for coach Eddie Sutton, and if you practiced, 3 hours of practice was defense and toughness. And I did that for four years. When I came into the NBA, I had the defensive mentality, I just did not know how to play defense in the NBA way. Coach Don Nelson, coach John Killilea – I had some really good teachers in the NBA that said: “OK, we know you were a great defensive player in college, but in the NBA, you need to change your technique, if you are going to be successful on this level”. And that came from coach Nelson teaching me new techniques of how to become a better defensive player.
Coach Don Nelson was quite young when you joined the team. Was he an authority on you right away?
He had already been coaching the team when I got there, but he was new to coaching still. I think we bonded because he had high expectations of how he wanted the game played, of what he wanted from players. Because I had such a good training in college, I was able to fit in what he was looking for in a basketball player. That allowed us to have a better relationship than most players might have had with some coaches, because a number of coaches would come from college unprepared for the NBA. I was coached hard in college, so the transition was easier for me in the NBA.
Before playing the LA Lakers and Magic Johnson – have you ever thought about trying to prove Jerry West wrong, that he should have picked you instead of Magic?
No, because he should have picked Magic instead of me! I never went into a game against the Lakers trying to prove that he should have picked me. I approached every game the same way, giving my best effort, being prepared for my opponent, and trying to win the game, and I did not let those sideline conversations enter into how I prepared for any game.
When you became a starter, you got more minutes, but also more pressure and responsibility. Was it a difficult transition for you?
I did not see it as pressure, it was not difficult. I was just playing basketball, just like when you are young and you are on a playground, competing, trying to win the game. That is how I approached the game, even at the NBA level. I never felt pressure from having to be the best player, to having to guard the best opponent. I just went out there and played basketball and tried to have fun doing it.
In 1983 you became the first DPOY in the NBA history. Did you think about the awards and accolades during your career?
No, I did not. When you get older, at least in my case, I have a greater appreciation for the accomplishments and the awards then when I played the game of basketball. When I played the game, it was like: “Okay. You are an All-Star. Okay, cool. You are a Defensive Player of the Year. Okay”. I never really thought about it. When you retire, and you have time to reflect upon your career, I started to have a greater appreciation for what I was able to accomplish.
In the 1980s you faced the 76ers a few times. Do you agree with Charles Barkley’s opinion, that Andrew Toney was the best player on that team?
Andrew Toney was one of the best players in the history of the NBA, for the limited amount of time he played. That team was extremely talented. He was the best offensive player on that team. Of course, they had Dr. J, who was a great offensive player, Moses Malone was not bad, Maurice Cheeks could do some things, but offensively Andrew Toney had no rival. His offensive game was as complete as you could find in an NBA player. He could shoot the 3-pointer, drive, hit the two-dribble pull-up, post-up. I do not think that there was anything offensively that he could not do on the court.
At the same time, you also played a few playoff series against the Celtics. Did Larry Bird have more respect towards you because you played against him years ago in the NCAA, or did he trash-talk you even more than others?
He did not trash-talk me, he did not have to. I always say that great players like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan – they are just so good that they get bored. They have to find something to keep them pumped up, and that is where trash-talking came in. But he [Larry] did not talk much.
How do you recall the moment when Marques Johnson got traded to the Clippers, and a huge part of the team changed? Do you think that this was the right move?
It was the saddest time in my entire NBA career, when that trade happened, because we lost a great player like Marques. Harvey Catchings and Junior Bridgeman, they were two of my best friends on the team. We had a really good team, but the management felt, rightfully so, that they needed to start rebuilding for the future.
An opportunity came along to make the trade – no one is going to be upset about getting Ricky Pierce, Terry Cummings, or Craig Hodges. Those were three phenomenal basketball players. But when I lost Junior, Harvey, and Marques, that took a lot temporarily out of my spirit. It took me about two days to get back right.
What is a bigger achievement in your opinion – five straight All-Star Games, or four straight All-Defensive First-Team selections?
I think it is really amazing that I did some of those in the same year. Because occasionally you have a player who is an All-Star, but he is not on All-Defensive Team. Michael Jordan who was the MVP of the league, was also Defensive Player of the Year. That is special. When you can get recognized for your overall basketball ability, that is what the All-Star Game is all about, and then you can be recognized for the other side, playing defense at a high level – I think that the combination of the two makes it more special than anyone of the two individually.
In 1989 you retired but came back a year later. Did the Atlanta Hawks reach out to you and persuaded to do so, or did you reach out to the team?
I reached out to them. I felt like I had some more good years left of basketball. When I retired, I retired because I was mentally tired. I was becoming too critical of the part of basketball that should not have concerned me, which is what the front office is doing. As a player I was successful all those years because I just focused on playing. When I started focusing on more than playing, I became less of a player. When I retired for a year, I felt that the energy of a basketball player came back, and that is when I reached out to the Atlanta Hawks. I always liked the Hawks organization, the city, and I wanted to play in the city of Atlanta.
How do you recall having a chance to play with veterans and Hall of Famers, like Dominique Wilkins or your former rival, Moses Malone?
That was awesome. We had Spud Webb, John Battle, Doc Rivers – we had some really good basketball players. And if we could have ever put aside the pettiness that sometimes existed outside of basketball, it would have been a special time. Moses was older, I was older, and we were not as good as we had been, but I loved playing with the team. Watching Dominique play every night, to watch the show that he would put on – it was just worth being on the bench watching it. It was fun time, it was good to be back with a new spirit, different mindset. Feeling like I was a rookie again, was a lot of fun.
In 1990 Bucks retired your jersey number. How much did it mean to you, that your jersey was alongside team’s legends, Oscar Robertson, and Junior Bridgeman?
I did not give it a lot of thought until I retired for real. When I coached with the Bucks or the Warriors, and I would go back to the Bucks arena and see the number hanging up there, especially when I coached for Milwaukee, because we had so many home games. That was a constant reminder right in the rafters: “You played with some really good players, and your name is right beside some of the greatest players in the history of the Bucks”. That was pretty cool.
In 2019 you were finally inducted into the Hall of Fame. One of the inductees was your rival from the 1980s, Bobby Jones. What did you feel when you realized that so many years after your battles, you will join the Hall of Fame together?
I thought this was so appropriate because Bobby played the game with so much passion. He was a good offensive player, and he was willing to sacrifice his offensive skills to make the team better. That team had Andrew Toney, Dr. J, Barkley, Darryl Dawkins, Maurice Cheeks. Defense was finally on a larger scale for the Naismith Hall of Fame, it was finally spotlighted. It is important to play offense, win games, and be a good defensive player. I could not think of any other player that simplified what it means to be an all-around player and person than Bobby Jones.
What do you think about Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also won the DPOY award, and the current Bucks team? Do you see any similarities between the teams that you played on, and the current squad?
Giannis is a generational kind of player. I do not think you will see another player like Giannis come along. Not during my lifetime. It is really fun to watch him play. Our teams were better teams, we had more skilled players, and we had guys who played longer in college, which means that they came to the NBA more experienced. Different type of teams – Giannis is definitely a player that stands out, I do not think that you can compare him to any player that has played in the Milwaukee Bucks uniform. I also do not think that there will be another player who could be compared to Giannis.