Like a lot of great achievers, Sidney Moncrief’s greatest motivation came from the things he didn’t want to do. Namely, fail. Flop. Mess up.
Over 11 NBA seasons, 10 most successfully with the Milwaukee Bucks, Moncrief channeled his fear of failure and glass-half-empty outlook into five All-Star games, 10 selections to all-NBA or all-defensive teams, 11 playoff appearances and now membership in the Class of 2019 for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
People attending or watching the ceremony figure to see Moncrief smile in one night more than he did on the court across his entire career. As a 6-foot-4, 180-pound shooting guard, Moncrief’s all-around approach had him routinely slotted in from about 1980 through 1986 close behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird among the league’s best players.
So lean you could see veins in his temples pulse as he worked, eyes focused like lasers, Moncrief worked relentlessly on both ends of the floor. He attacked the basket on drives and with post-up moves, developed an outside shot on the fly, perpetually moved both himself and the ball, and dared to crash the boards when dinosaurs still ruled the NBA paint.
Defensively, Moncrief was even more tenacious. Coltish to the point of looking spindly, he ran run on his toes to catch and pester the men he guarded, knifing and wincing his way through screens if Milwaukee’s innovative coach Don Nelson wasn’t flexing an early version of today’s switch-everything defense.
Throughout, the new Hall of Famer stayed serious. As serious as he was working down his chores list each day before his mother, a hotel maid, got home from work. As serious as when he’d hit the open gym at Parkview High in Little Rock, Ark., and follow a workout routine he’d written down while other kids were just worried about “Next!”
As serious as when Moncrief showed up to Bucks training camp for the first time and pushed back immediately against a time-honored NBA tradition.
“I was holding out so I wasn’t there at the start,” former teammate Marques Johnson said. “But once I got there, Junior Bridgeman, Quinn Buckner started telling me just how different of a cat he was. One thing they pointed to, they tried to do the rookie hazing thing to get him to carry the basketballs, and Sid refused to do it. His explanation was, he wasn’t a rookie because he’d been playing all his life. So they cut him some slack.”
He had the respect of every player on the team. But he also had the opponents’ respect, the other coaches, everybody.
Said Bridgeman, NBA swingman turned restaurant mogul: “Sidney considered himself a player, and the NBA – even though it was better competition – still was just basketball. I think that made him the kind of player he became. Mentally, if you feel like ‘this all isn’t new and it’s just a game,’ then you don’t have the nervousness and the rookie jitters.”
Affable and modest off the court, Moncrief was and remains analytical about his playing days and the job that got him, finally, to Springfield. At no point, then or now, was it a joke.
“Maximum effort,” he said of his best attributes. “A commitment to being a professional, the way you performed, the way you carried out the game plan, the way you interacted with your teammates. When I watch tape of myself now, what really strikes me is how explosive I was and how many different ways I could score the basketball and play defense. Not being one-dimensional was important to me.”
Folks noticed. Only five guards (none since 1996) have been named NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Gary Payton (1996), Michael Jordan (1988), Michael Cooper (1987), Alvin Robertson (1986) and Moncrief. Only the Bucks start won it twice, in 1983 and 1984. Those were the first two times it was presented, as if Moncrief’s game demanded the DPOY’s invention.
“People forget with Nellie – and Sidney was the key to it – we were the best defensive team in the league,” said Garry St. Jean, a Bucks assistant in the ‘80s. “We were one of the first teams to switch. Remember the double-teams we used? Nellie was ahead of his time defensively. He always studied the rules, and then he’d find a way to break ‘em. Moncrief was the cornerstone to all that.”
St. Jean, now a broadcast analyst of Golden State games, remarked in a Sports Illustrated article 34 years ago that an easy way to earn quick cash was to bet on Moncrief’s squads in Milwaukee’s daily scrimmages. “He never allowed you to have a bad practice,” St. Jean said last week. “How many guys can you say that about? He was always, always prepared. He was in great physical shape. His mental state of mind. His toughness. His defensive acumen on and off the ball.
“He had the respect of every player on the team. But he also had the opponents’ respect, the other coaches, everybody. He wasn’t a flamboyant player, but everybody from Billy Cunningham to [Maurice] Cheeks to Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge and all those guys, thought he was amazing.”
Said Nelson by phone from his retirement retreat in Maui: “You just didn’t want him off the floor because he played both ends all the time. He couldn’t do it physically, of course, but you wanted him out there 48 minutes every night.”
Two years after Johnson’s first holdout made him a late witness to Moncrief’s game, his second in the fall of 1981 opened his eyes even wider.
“When you’re holding out, you don’t want your guys to fall on their faces, but you want them to kind of struggle to be around .500 while you’re gone. Y’know, show they miss you a little bit,” said Johnson, a 2019 Naismith Hall finalist.
“But the Bucks started out 7-2 that year. They weren’t helping my leverage one bit, and Sidney Moncrief was the main culprit, having a fantastic start. I think they were 12-6 by the time I came back from that holdout. I was just glad to get back in the fold.
Playing the right way
Had Moncrief never played a minute in the NBA, he still had achieved hoops immortality for the photograph that graced Sports Illustrated’s Feb. 13, 1978 edition. In the midst of Arkansas’ 32-4 season that would reach that spring’s Final Four, Moncrief was captured soaring to the rim, the basketball cocked behind his head for a killer dunk, with a hammer headline of “High on the Hogs,” in reference to the Razorbacks’ unofficial nickname.
It is regarded as one of the sports weekly’s most memorable covers, with a look on Moncrief’s face of sheer … ferocity? Nope, try ouch!
“When I took off to dunk that ball, I had started having my [left] knee issues,” Moncrief said more than 41 years later. “I remember my knee giving out a little bit when I planted. So if someone looks at the cover, they see my grimace and might think it’s intensity. It’s more pain.”
The toughness to play through that, to gut out 11 seasons after doctors predicted he’d break down in seven or less, came early. Moncrief grew up as the second youngest of seven siblings, a brood spread across about 15 years. His father traveled, his mother worked cleaning houses, then hotel rooms, before assisting in class rooms by the time Sid reached high school. His parents divorced when he was in sixth grade – later, his stepfather worked fixing leaks for the gas company.
Everybody, in their time, had chores. “We just didn’t have people lying around doing nothing. Summertime, whatever, it didn’t matter. You had to be busy,” Moncrief said.
That meant mopping floor, sewing his own clothes and ironing in junior high. He and the others tended to a family garden about 20 minutes from home around school and basketball practice. “Mostly vegetables,” he said. “All the things I didn’t want to eat, we grew.”
The discipline of that served the children well – Moncrief is proud of the adults his siblings are – and taught him what commitment is.
The family at one point had moved into public housing in East Little Rock, by age which is where an overdue asphalt court caught Moncrief’s eye at age 11 or so. Till then, he’d been playing football.
“The rims had the chain ‘nets.’ That’s when I started being interested in basketball,” he said. “I still hear the sound when people would make shots.
“By seventh grade, we moved again and a neighbor had a goal – the worst goal you’d ever want to see. … In eighth grade, I was just OK. But I was a starter and all-city on the ninth-grade team. That’s when I started really developing as a player. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but I’d be out there thinking, ‘You need to make more layups,’ so that’s what I’d do. I’d dribble the ball more, all sorts of things like that, and I got better.”
Charles Ripley, the coach at Parkview, kept their gym open late, so Moncrief would travel there when his own school’s, Hall High, was closed. He already had developed an impatience with wasting time, so kept his workouts and scrimmaging on tight schedules. He blossomed as a player at Hall under coach Oliver Elders, and learned more about character too.
One morning in the cafeteria, Moncrief made the mistake of not calling him “Coach Elders.” “I called him ‘O.E.’ I was a sophomore,” Moncrief later recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Son, you won't ever play for me being this disrespectful.’”
Elders and Moncrief thrived together, nowhere more so than in the classroom when Moncrief hiked his GPA from slightly above 2.0 to a 3.8 as a senior to nail down his scholarship to Arkansas. That’s where he learned defense and detail from coach Eddie Sutton, and where he teamed with Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph to form the Razorbacks’ entertaining and lethal “Triplets,” as NCAA broadcaster Al McGuire dubbed them.
Moncrief was named third team all-American as a junior, first team as a senior, and made 60 percent of his field goal attempts over four college seasons. Sutton spent 75 percent of Arkansas practice time drilling defense, which served his top NBA prospect – Moncrief is the first Razorbacks player inducted into the Hall of Fame and still ranks as the highest drafted – well as a pro. Even concerns about his left knee couldn’t scuttle enthusiasm for Moncrief among the league’s scouts.
No, that was left to Nelson.
The 1979 Draft was all about Magic Johnson, with no clear order for those who would be chosen after him. The Detroit Pistons were desperate to move up to snag Michigan State’s second star, Greg Kelser – the Spartans had just beaten Larry Bird’s Indiana State team for the NCAA title – and approached Milwaukee about a deal.
“They gave me a million dollars to move,” Nelson said, chuckling anew about the maneuver. “We had lost exactly $1 million with the team that year. So with one little move, I could put us in the black.
[Note: Several reliable league sources recall the Pistons paying $50,000 rather than $1 million to flip picks, still a considerable sum in 1979.]
“To do the deal, they had to tell me who they were going to take. I figured I could get Sid after that.”
Much has been made about Chicago losing the coin flip that year with the Lakers, which cost the Bulls Johnson but helped keep them scroungy enough to get Michael Jordan five years later. In an alternate 1979 reality, though, the Bulls could have opted for Moncrief at No. 2 instead of UCLA forward David Greenwood – and probably improved enough to miss out on Jordan that way, too.
‘Sir Sid’ knightly in Milwaukee
Brian Winters was a bearded, sharpshooting off guard, born and raised in New York, schooled in South Carolina and heading into his sixth NBA season. He’d been an All-Star twice in his first four years with the Bucks. So it wasn’t as if Milwaukee was drafting for need in 1979.
“Before the Draft, Nellie called me and said, ‘Y’know, Brian, we’re going to draft a guard. He plays your position.’” said Winters, 67, who scouts for the Indiana Pacers. “All I said to Nellie was, ‘Is he good? Then draft him. Because I want to play with good players.’
“Fairly quiet personality, not overt in his manner, but he fit right in. No problem with me. I felt we got along great. We played well together, competed against each other in practice every day. Never had a problem with it.”
Nelson knew where it was headed, but used Moncrief off the bench in 1979-80, even as the Bucks’ victory total jumped from 38 to 49. It was their first of seven straight division titles and 10 consecutive playoff appearances during Moncrief's time in Milwaukee.
“Your teammates make you,” said Moncrief, who will turn 62 in a few weeks. “And not just on the court. Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings were my mentors when I came in. They used to show me how to dress, how to work out, how you should approach the game, how to be a professional. They kept me safe on the road.
“Those early years in the NBA, if you don’t have a stable person you can be around, it can get a little rocky. I had that with Milwaukee, guys who could keep me focused.”
From 1980 to 1984, Moncrief and Marques Johnson were as potent and talented a tandem of shooting guard and small forward as the NBA had. That changed when Nelson traded Johnson, Bridgeman and Catchings to the Clippers in September 1984, replenishing his roster with Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges. “It broke my heart,” Moncrief says. But success on the court continued, and these days they all choose to remember the good times.
“Sidney was the first guy I played with who was an ardent, consistent weight lifter,” said Johnson, now a Bucks TV analyst. “He convinced the Bucks to put a bench press into one of these little musty side rooms in the MECCA, and he’d go in there for 15, 20 minutes. One day I asked him what was going on, and he showed me. So I started lifting with him. That was something that was taboo for me at the time, but he said, ‘As long as we get up shots afterward, we’ll be fine. We’ll get our touch back.’’’
Defensively, Johnson is convinced there were three or four Bucks victories that were clinched when Moncrief came up with steals to thwart any opposing heroics. “He was so good at coming up big defensively in big moments,” Johnson said. “I always say Michael Jordan is the greatest two-way player I’ve ever seen. Sidney Moncrief is second.”
Moncrief’s position was loaded in the ‘80s with dangerous scorers and fine athletes: Dennis Johnson, Darrell Griffith, Andrew Toney, Otis Birdsong, David Thompson, Walter Davis, World B. Free, Rolando Blackman, George Gervin, Clyde Drexler and Jordan. His head-to-heads with Jordan started well enough, Milwaukee winning five of the first eight meetings and a 3-1 first-round playoff series at the end of Jordan’s rookie season.
Then it turned: Jordan’s team went 12-2 over their final 14 clashes. In the 22 regular-season games overall, Jordan averaged 31.6 points to Moncrief’s 14.6. Moncrief’s effective strategy on defense – take away strengths, nudge them toward weaker moves – didn’t pay off the same against the Bulls star.
Their careers weren’t in sync either, with Moncrief’s knobby knees and other body parts limiting his availability and effectiveness starting in 1986-87, with Jordan’s star fully ascending. He played the equivalent of two seasons over his final three in Milwaukee, averaging 11.6 points and 25.6 minutes. By the end of 1988-89, at age 31, Moncrief called it quits.
A year away from the game did wonders for his physical well-being, so he put out feelers in the summer of 1990 and found a taker in Atlanta for a part-time reserve and resident “old head.” Now he calls that season, with Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone, Doc Rivers and some raw young players, his “most rewarding year in basketball.” After being a high pick and an All-Star, Moncrief welcomed a smaller role, including winning a roster spot and earning a non-guaranteed contract by averaging 4.7 points in 15.2 minutes.
“It was all about basketball, and I enjoyed it,” he said of his final season.
Moncrief left Milwaukee as arguably the second greatest player in franchise history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And as disappointing as it was that his teams, despite winning nearly 64 percent of their games in his Milwaukee run, never broke through to the Finals, getting eliminated year after year by Boston or Philadelphia makes sense, in hindsight. The Bucks got bounced from the conference finals three times in four years (Sixers in ’83, Celtics in ’84 and 86).
“We were good. We got everything out of those teams that we could to do as well as we did,” Moncrief said. “We were just not the better team during that era.”
Those early years in the NBA, if you don’t have a stable person you can be around, it can get a little rocky. I had that with Milwaukee, guys who could keep me focused
Conventional wisdom says that those Milwaukee teams, as a result, are underappreciated. Nelson, for instance, ranks the 1983 and 1984 squads as the best he ever coached. But the old Hall of Famer doesn’t agree that the ring not won sticks to individual players.
“You don’t have to win championships necessarily to have the respect of the Hall,” Nelson said. “I’m a good example. I’ve never won a championship as a coach, but I went into the Hall of Fame as a coach. It took me a while to get in, but that’s fine.”
A common question for yesterday’s legends is, how would his game translate to today’s game? With Moncrief, as with so many of the era, it would be unfair to focus on his 3-point field goal percentage (.284). The weapon got to the NBA the same season he did and didn’t merit practice time or game-planning.
“If Sidney had worked on it the way they do know, he’d have been a 36, 37, 38 percent shooter, because of how tough he was mentally,” Marques Johnson said.
A current comp, in demeanor if not in level of accomplishment? Johnson called Bucks guard George Hill a “poor man’s Sid.” “He’s nowhere near that superstar status, but he’s a guy you’d love playing with. A guy who plays at both ends, knocks down big shots. The main thing that reminds me of Sidney is George’s stoic attitude. He just competes.”
Johnson added: “He was first-class athlete who jumped out of the gym and dunked on Robert Parish and 7-footers on a regular basis. Who led us in rebounding a couple of years. And he worked on his outside shooting so much, he became a better than average shooter. So he’d translate really well to today’s game. He’d be about a $40 million a year player.”
Nelson recalled Moncrief playing big with a 35-inch vertical leap, but also his knack for playing small. “He had a way to make himself thin, to get through seams,” the coach said. “There was a technique that he used that he taught to other guys on our team. He just had a way to physically force his way in and get so small, and not get picked off by the screens.”
As for Moncrief’s demeanor, he never broke character when the ball went up. Yet teammates saw a side of Moncrief the public did not.
“Like in all of us, there are two different people,” Bridgeman said. “The basketball person is exactly like you saw. He was serious when he played, when he was working out, before the games. The game – like all great players – was what was important to him.
“But away from the game, it was a different Sidney. We’d laugh. He went to the movies a lot. He told jokes. It was probably different from what people thought.”
Moncrief is more relaxed and outgoing these days as a businessman and entrepreneur, his latest incarnation after a dozen different post-playing pursuits. He coached for a few seasons, including with Nelson as a defensive guru in Dallas and Golden State and with the Bucks under Scott Skiles. He has invested in real estate, owned a Buick dealership, served on corporate boards and was thought to have a future in Arkansas politics.
Currently, he and his wife of four years, Takisha, run Moncrief One Team, a corporate coaching and motivational program. He has written six books to that end, and resides in the Dallas area, where all but one of his four grown sons (Jon, Brett, Jason, Jeffrey) live.
“I’m really introverted by nature,” Moncrief said. “But my overall life experiences, success and failures, has certainly equipped me to give certain insight to schools and individuals.
It’s so natural for me to do what I’m doing. And I love everything about my life right now. If someone can say that, that’s a good thing.”
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