Legends profile: Sidney Moncrief

One of the top players of the 1980s, Moncrief was known as an all-around player who could do it all on the floor.

From NBA.com Staff

Sidney Moncrief was a cornerstone of the talented and successful Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s.

He never finished in the top 10 in scoring or the top five in assists or rebounds. His team never made it to the NBA Finals. And his name doesn’t appear on the list of all-time statistical leaders.

But ask anyone to name the top all-around players of the 1980s, and Sidney Moncrief will be on that list. If any player could do it all, it was Moncrief, who played 10 of his 11 NBA seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks and entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019. Whenever Moncrief displayed his gap-toothed grimace, you knew he was about to pull something special from his big bag of tricks. He could shoot from the outside, post up, dunk over 7-foot centers, make the key pass, crash the boards, and slash through the paint for a layup.

Although he was a legitimate offensive threat, Moncrief may have been best known for his unrelenting defensive play. The 6-foot-4 guard stayed in a textbook crouch, using his lithe, sinewy frame to keep within an eyelash of his opponent. His springy legs (he had a 36-inch vertical leap) gave him above-average shotblocking abilities, and the compact Moncrief could bench press his body weight plus 30 pounds, which gave him the needed muscle to be a force underneath the basket. He was always among the first players back on defense after a basket or turnover. The NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award was seemingly created just for him in 1982; he won the award its first two years of existence.

So versatile was Moncrief that when he appeared on the cover of the Bucks’ 1984-85 media guide, the team had him wear a Superman costume. He was one of the game’s hardest working and best liked players. His consistency, dependability and versatility made him a fan favorite in Milwaukee and an admired figure among the league’s top stars.

Michael Jordan once told the Los Angeles Times, “When you play against Moncrief, you’re in for a night of all-around basketball. He’ll hound you everywhere you go, both ends of the court. You just expect it.” Not a bad assessment, considering Moncrief played with a degenerative knee problem that one doctor said would limit him to no more than two years of pro basketball.

Growing up in a segregated government housing project in East Little Rock, Ark., Moncrief learned the value of protecting both himself and what belonged to him. He participated in a lot of sports, mostly basketball and football, but many playground disputes were settled with fists instead of points. “In that environment, you were always on the defensive,” he recalled in Sports Illustrated, “because you never wanted to show that you could be dominated in any way.”

His mother, who worked as a motel maid, was tough, too. When she went to work, she left young Sidney a list of chores. When she got home, they had to be done — or else. “As tired as she was, she always took the time for discipline,” Moncrief told Sports Illustrated. “I had to do things right. It gave me a very strong foundation to work from. Everything you do at home carries over into what you do in life. And it did carry over onto the basketball court. I was hesitant about doing anything halfway.”

With that kind of upbringing, Moncrief developed a strong competitive spirit. When he had to be, Moncrief was a solid performer in the classroom as well. As a senior at Hall High School in 1975, Moncrief needed to raise his grade point average to 2.3 to qualify for a basketball scholarship from the University of Arkansas. Moncrief earned a 3.8 and joined the Razorbacks the following fall.

Moncrief shined in college. His defensive play for coach Eddie Sutton’s Razorbacks won accolades nationwide, and his ability to maneuver inside was equally impressive. With teammates Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph, Moncrief was part of one of the country’s most entertaining teams. He shot .606 from the floor during his four collegiate seasons and earned All-America honors as a senior in 1978-79.

In 1979 the Milwaukee Bucks and fourth-year coach Don Nelson were looking for a strong guard to complement the powerful tandem of Marques Johnson and Junior Bridgeman. Milwaukee made Moncrief the fifth overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, behind four highly touted players: Magic Johnson, David Greenwood, Bill Cartwright and Greg Kelser. Later in the season Milwaukee acquired the aging — yet still effective — Bob Lanier from Detroit to play in the middle.

The Bucks went from tied for third in the Midwest Division to first in Moncrief’s rookie year, improving from 38 wins to 49. It was their first of seven straight division championships and 10 straight playoff appearances during Moncrief’s career in Milwaukee. However, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers would dog the Bucks in the postseason throughout the decade.

Playing in 77 games as a rookie, Moncrief averaged a respectable 8.5 points. The next season he improved to 14.0 points per game. That year, 1980-81, the Bucks won 60 regular-season games but lost to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals in seven games. The Bucks lost Game 7 by a single point, 99-98.

By 1981-82, Moncrief’s third season, he was in full bloom, averaging 19.8 ppg, a career-high 6.7 rpg, and 4.8 apg over 80 contests. He made his first of five straight appearances on both the All-Star and All-Defensive Teams. He was also named to the All-NBA Second Team.

During the next four seasons Moncrief averaged better than 20 points and tallied at least 330 rebounds and 300 assists each year. With his height even more a handicap in the NBA than it had been in college, Moncrief honed his jump shot into a lethal weapon. But he never did abandon his penchant for the inside game. In 1982-83, perhaps his finest all-around campaign, he averaged 22.5 ppg 5.8 rpg, and 3.9 apg, shooting .524 from the field. He earned the NBA’s first-ever Defensive Player of the Year Award and was also named to the All-NBA First Team, joining Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Magic.

Moncrief continually improved on what was probably the strongest aspect of his game: his defense. He seemed to have a knack for getting his hand in the way of a pass, knocking away a ball in mid-dribble, or keeping his man from getting off an easy shot. He was superb at switching off, ensuring that no one got a free shot or an open lane to the hoop. People started taking notice. Moncrief won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1983-84.

It was in 1984-85 that league observers began calling Moncrief one of the game’s best all-around players. Mark Aguirre and Adrian Dantley were scoring. Moses was rebounding. And Magic and Bird were scoring, passing and dazzling crowds. And then there was Moncrief, who was simply doing everything. He was truly a team player.

Nelson, who hired Moncrief as an assistant for the Dallas Mavericks beginning in the 2000-01, recognized a quality that dated back to Moncrief’s upbringing in the East Little Rock projects. “His mental toughness is about as strong as anyone I’ve ever been around. And I’ve known a lot of players,” the Bucks coach told the Los Angeles Times.

Still, the team could never reach the pinnacle of success. The Bucks twice came within one step of the NBA Finals. In 1983 the Bucks swept Bird and the Celtics in four games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The 76ers proved too tough in the conference finals, however, dumping Milwaukee four games to one, then sweeping the Lakers in four games in the NBA Finals. The following year the Bucks got past Darryl Dawkins and the New Jersey Nets in six games in the conference semifinals. In a rematch against the Celtics, a healthy Boston team prevailed in five games and went on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven for the NBA title.

By the 1986-87 season the Bucks had been dethroned as division champs by the Atlanta Hawks, and Moncrief was starting to lose spring from his steps and altitude from his jumps. Foot and knee problems kept him out of 43 games and limited him to 11.8 points per contest. In the playoffs the Bucks managed to get past Philadelphia in a tough, five-game first-round series, but again Boston kept Milwaukee from advancing, winning the Eastern Conference semifinals in seven games.

The Bucks sank further in 1987-88, finishing two games over .500 and tying for fourth in the Central Division. Again Moncrief lost playing time to injury. This time it was tendinitis and a nerve problem in his neck, as well as the advancement of his chronic knee trouble. Because of the high position of his kneecaps, cartilage roughened on the underside of the bone. Also, a large bone spur was removed from one of his knees during the season. He played in 56 games, averaging just 10.8 points.

The 1988-89 season was Moncrief’s last in a Bucks uniform. Recovering from surgery, he bounced back slightly, playing in 62 games and averaging 12.1 points. But three injury-plagued seasons convinced him to retire. Moncrief left Milwaukee as the franchise’s second-highest scorer, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He ranked second in assists and games played, fourth in rebounding, and first in free throws made and attempted.

He also left with virtual godlike status in Milwaukee — and in Arkansas, where his stature grew with every year he spent in the NBA. The Arkansas Democrat called him “the most beloved athlete in the history of Arkansas [who had] done more for race relations in this state than anyone in the past 20 years.”

After Moncrief left the NBA, people in Little Rock started bouncing around his name as a possible gubernatorial candidate. An articulate and intelligent businessman and an immensely popular personality, he seemed a natural for politics. Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, once joked in the Los Angeles Times, “The only comfort I can take in having the smallest governor’s salary in the nation is that it might stop Sidney Moncrief from running against me.”

Even as a player, Moncrief had an active off-court life: he owned real estate and Arabian horses, sat as a director on two corporate boards, was an advisor to a savings and loan, had voting rights in a public utility, and did charity work around Milwaukee. After he retired, he opened Sidney Moncrief’s Buick in Little Rock.

At age 33, however, Moncrief found that the business world lacked some of the excitement offered by a career in pro basketball. After sitting out one season, he took his bad knees back to the NBA. Ten days before training camp was to open, he called the San Antonio Spurs, but the money couldn’t be worked out. A week later he called the Atlanta Hawks, who were looking for an experienced player to balance out a team of wild-eyed youngsters. Moncrief was their man. Just like that, Moncrief was back in uniform for 1990-91. “That’s my personality,” Moncrief told HOOP magazine at the time. “Impulsive.”

He played a limited role for the Hawks, coming off the bench in 72 games and contributing 4.7 points in 15.2 minutes per game. At season’s end, Moncrief was through with playing, this time for good. He left the NBA with 11,931 points (15.6 ppg), 3,575 rebounds (4.7 rpg), and 2,793 assists (3.6 apg) over 767 regular-season games. He shot .502 from the field and .831 from the free-throw line. In 93 playoff contests, he averaged 16.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 3.4 apg.

Asked by HOOP during his last season what he’d like his legacy to be, Moncrief replied simply, “I’d like to be remembered as a consistent player.” That he was — and much more.