MONCRIEF THE MAGNIFICENT : Natural Ability and a Strict Work Ethic Prove to Be an Unbeatable Combination

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Times Staff Writer

It is usually not mandatory, nor even advisable, to break a sweat during game-day practices, and the Milwaukee Bucks had no intention of doing so just because Coach Don Nelson dragged them onto the court.

Realizing, perhaps, that his players were working only to stay warm inside the chilly MECCA Arena, Nelson had them walk--not run--through the plays the Chicago Bulls were expected to use in that night’s game.

But once Sidney Moncrief squared off against reserve guard Ricky Pierce, portraying Bull guard George Gervin rather unconvincingly, he could not help himself. Moncrief actually started playing defense, which made everyone else on the court look like department store mannequins.


Breaking both a sweat and a smile, Moncrief playfully cut in front of Pierce-Gervin and stole a pass, waved his arms and helped teammates who didn’t need any.

“That’s Sid,” said Nelson, who knew better than to tell Moncrief to save something for the game.

Later that night, the real Gervin got the same treatment. Gervin, the Bulls’ main offensive threat since Michael Jordan and Orlando Woolridge were injured, was held, sometimes literally, to 17 points by Moncrief, who countered with 20 of his own playing less than three quarters of another rout by the Bucks.

“When you play against Moncrief, you’re in for a night of all-around basketball,” said Jordan, a spectator on this night. “He’ll hound you everywhere you go, both ends of the court. You just expect it.”

That, too, is typical Sidney Moncrief. At his best--and the remarkable thing about Moncrief is that he’s almost always at his best--Moncrief is arguably the NBA’s best all-around guard and most assuredly one of the hardest workers.

There may be a few who are more effective passers, more than a few better outside shooters and many with bodies better suited to the role of the archetypical guard in the National Basketball Assn. But no one, it seems, does it all as well as Moncrief, who appears to have reached the peak of his seven-year career.


Defense, of course, is Moncrief’s specialty. His excellence in that area has made Moncrief, at 6 feet 4 inches and 183 pounds, a three-time all-defensive team choice and the leader of the NBA’s fifth-best defensive team.

That alone has not made Moncrief, 28, a five-time All-Star. He also has career averages of 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4 assists and, as Nelson often points out, does other things for the Bucks that cannot be charted.

What matters most to Moncrief, though, is that Milwaukee has won division titles in each of his six previous seasons and is once again leading the Central Division.

“There aren’t many players in pro basketball who can do a lot of different things on the court simply because there are so many specialized players,” Moncrief said. “Some players can make the game look easy. I make it look hard. I try to play as best I can and work as hard as I can. That’s all you can ask for.”

And that, basically, is the reason Moncrief has been so successful. It may seem simplistic, but Moncrief has combined plenty of natural ability with a strict work ethic.

“Of all the things I like about him, his mental toughness is about as strong as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Nelson said. “And I’ve known a lot of players.”


That mental toughness must be the answer because the physical Moncrief is far from imposing. His sharp cheekbones and brow, receding hairline and noticeably bony knees make Moncrief look much older than 28.

There are days, Moncrief says, when he feels a lot older, too. Seven years of playing 33 intense minutes in nearly every game has taken a lot out of him. He also suffers from a degenerative knee condition that threatened his career almost from the start.

Yet, Moncrief has played in 515 of a possible 545 games and still has the drive and enthusiasm he had as a rookie fresh from Arkansas.

“The thing that amazes me the most about him is that he’ll play so long and hard in every game, then practice the same way every day,” teammate Paul Pressey said.

Moncrief said: “It’s all mental. I definitely don’t have the body to do it. I put my mind to the fact that, even though I played 40 minutes the previous night, and it was a difficult ball game, you still must perform the same way the next night. Or at least try to. But I must admit the way I play and the position I play wears me down.”

Defining Moncrief’s position is as difficult as trying to drive around him. In almost any game, Moncrief is a point guard leading fast breaks, an off-guard camping at the perimeter, a small forward posting low for inside shots, or a big forward crashing the boards for rebounds.


Is it any wonder that the Bucks pictured him on the cover of last season’s media guide in a Superman suit?

But for all the respect and accolades super Sid has received in recent years, his personality still is more like shy Sid.

Although he is extremely courteous, is open to most any interview request and is active in many local charities, not many people in Milwaukee or other NBA cities know much about Moncrief. He hasn’t the charismatic personality of Magic Johnson, the intimidating swagger of Moses Malone or the boyishness of Isiah Thomas.

Even now, after more than six years in Milwaukee, Moncrief is little more than an intimate stranger. Tom Enlund of the Milwaukee Journal recently wrote: “Who is Sidney Moncrief? He has dined in our restaurants and has shopped in our malls. . . . Perhaps it’s time for some introductions.”

Brief glimpses into Moncrief’s personal life always begin in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., and it explains a lot about why Moncrief is known as such a tenacious and, occasionally, pugnacious player.

Hard work and Moncrief were formally introduced when he was 7 and his mother, Bernice Perkins, was trying to stay off welfare in the then-segregated government projects in East Little Rock.


Young Sidney was handed a list of chores to complete by the time his mother returned from her job as a hotel maid. If the chores weren’t completed, well, you didn’t want to be around the house when mom found out.

“The threat of punishment was all we needed to keep us in line,” Moncrief said. “Even when she wasn’t around--and she worked a lot--we knew there were certain things we had to do and certain ways we had to act.

“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.”

If Moncrief learned discipline from his mother, he learned competitiveness and diligence on the playgrounds. Kids in Moncrief’s neighborhood played lots of sports--football, basketball, track--but all included fighting.

A kid who is “built like a stork” learns that it’s either be tough or be dominated. Moncrief fought and won his share. But Moncrief always was more interested in basketball than anything else, which one reason why he said the racial problems in Arkansas in the early 1960s didn’t directly affect him.

“You’re only concerned with your little world,” Moncrief said. “Had I been 21 and forced to survive in the real world, I might have felt differently.”


There was enough room in Moncrief’s little world, which revolved around basketball, to include school work and an interest in a neighborhood girl named Debra.

“I’ve known him since elementary school,” Debra Moncrief recently told the Milwaukee Journal. “Later on, he got lucky in high school and started dating me. He grew up and, when he matured, he realized I was the one for him. . . . He’s changed a lot. The person he is now took some time.”

It wasn’t until Moncrief’s senior year at Hall High School in Little Rock that he realized a previous indifference to schoolwork might cost him an athletic scholarship. He improved to a 3.8 grade-point average his senior year and meet the entrance requirements at Arkansas.

By the time he got there, Moncrief had improved academic habits and an all-around game on the basketball court.

Moncrief had NBA aspirations then, but most people thought he wasn’t being realistic. After all, Moncrief came from a state then known as a coldbed of prep basketball.

“Being an All-American from that part of the country didn’t automatically mean you were going to be a pro player,” Moncrief said. “We didn’t have too many when I was growing up.”


It took considerable growing, both as a person and a basketball player, before Moncrief was eventually picked fifth overall in the 1979 draft. His fundamentals and defensive skills were refined under Coach Eddie Sutton, but his offensive game always flourished.

“I matured a lot at Arkansas,” Moncrief said. “I think being in an environment that reinforced how important education was, how important it was to do the right thing on and off the court, really helped.” By the time he was a senior, Moncrief had become an All-American and had startled many with his ability to play the low post at 6-4. The game that cemented his reputation as a defensive wizard occurred in the 1979 Midwest Regionals when the Razorbacks played Indiana State.

That night, Moncrief draped himself all over Larry Bird and made it extremely difficult for Bird to get open shots. Indiana State won the game and went to the Final Four, but Moncrief later went to the Bucks in as shrewd a draft move as the league had seen in years.

Milwaukee had the fourth pick and privately said that they planned to draft Moncrief. But the Detroit Pistons, who had the fifth selection, coveted Greg Kelser and wanted to make sure they got the Michigan State star. The Bucks let on that they were interested in Kelser, and Detroit forked over $50,000 to exchange picks with the Bucks.

In three seasons, Moncrief fully adjusted to the NBA game, which was bad news to shooting guards everywhere. Even playing a total game, though, he did not draw nearly as much attention as Thomas or Magic Johnson because he never finished among the league leaders in any one category.

“It’s more difficult to evaluate a good defensive performance,” Moncrief said. “You can guard a guy and he can score 25 points and you could do everything possible to stop him. But to the average person, well, they’d say you didn’t play defense.


“Or, you could play lousy defense and the player may have an off night and score eight points and everyone says you’re a great defensive player.”

So, what makes a great defensive player?

“It’s hard work, mostly,” Moncrief said. “But it’s also technique and dedication. It doesn’t take a whole lot of natural ability. I think everyone has the potential to be a good defensive player. But if your coaches before you get to the NBA don’t emphasize it, the chances of players feeling the obligation to play good defense isn’t there.”

The persistent idea that little defense is played in the NBA rankles Moncrief, who says he sees it every night.

“Defense in the NBA, at least for the good teams, utilizes the team concept,” he said. “The players are so good offensively that you have to play the percentages and gamble once in a while. The type of players behind you make a big difference.”

Not everyone has the ability to play defense as Moncrief does, according to Clipper guard Junior Bridgeman, a close friend of Moncrief and a former teammate with the Bucks.

Why not?

“Because he’s always working,” Bridgeman said. “One year, he was scoring great, playing tough defense and leading the league with like 40 minutes a game. I didn’t understand how he could play that much and do it every night.


“Fundamentally, Sidney plays defense the way you’re supposed to. He very rarely raises up from his stance, and he has the type of body in which he can slip through screens and take the pounding from bigger players. And, of course, he does whatever it takes to win.”

Few things are as important to Moncrief, on and off the court, as order. Without it, he would not be in control. Moncrief, usually even-tempered, gets frustrated when people don’t work as hard as he does.

“When he goes on the road, I get all these assignments,” Debra Moncrief, a nurse, told the Journal. “Then, when I drop him off at the airport, we have to review my assignments. If I don’t have them done when he gets home, he gets upset. He’ll say, ‘What are you waiting for, Debra?’ . . . I tell him I’ll get it done when I get it done.”

Moncrief’s sense of order already has enabled him to advance in the business world.

Back in Arkansas, where he and Debra live in the off-season, Moncrief is a director on two major corporate boards, and holds a full voting position with ARKLA, a public utility with assets in the billions.

Moncrief once held a summer job at that same utility company, installing power lines for $1.69 an hour.

Moncrief also dabbles in real estate and Arabian horses, and there’s talk in Little Rock that he might someday run for office, since he is, without question the most popular athlete in the state.


“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Bridgeman said. “I’ve been down (to Arkansas) with him three or four times, and he’s big there. He’s more than just a basketball player to them. He’s a favorite son. I know that’s an overused term, but everyone there looks up to him.

“Writers ask me about Sidney. They ask me if he really is as perfect as he seems. I feel kind of bad because I can’t think of anything bad to say about him. What you see is what is there.”

Because of his knee condition and the manner in which he plays, you might only see Moncrief on the basketball court for another two or three years.

Since his college days, Moncrief has been playing with a painful ailment known as chrondromalacia, which is the roughening of the cartilage on the underside of the kneecap. Because of the alignment of Moncrief’s kneecaps and extended pounding he subjects his legs to, the condition has never gone away. Before the 1979 draft, one doctor predicted that Moncrief would only last two seasons in the NBA because of his knee problems. But Moncrief normally sits out only a few games each season because of the pain, although he had to miss two last week.

“It is nothing you can predict,” Moncrief said of his knee problems. “You try to keep it under control. I’d like to play as long as I can at a high level, but I’ll probably only last until I’m 30 or 31. I want to go out, No. 1, in the best shape health-wise, and No. 2, financially.”

At a banquet in Little Rock last summer, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton jokingly said: “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.”


Moncrief laughed and said he hasn’t seriously thought about a second career in politics.

But if Moncrief, a liberal, did seek office, he might lobby for a strong defense.