Marques Johnson did not look up. Not at his retired jersey, No. 54, hanging in Pauley Pavilion and not at the side-by-side national championship banners that he and his son Kris won as players in 1975 and 1995, the only father-son duo to win national titles at the same school.
Instead, Johnson took in his grandson Will, warming up in an Oregon jersey when the team played UCLA in February last year. In courtside seats, Kris wore an Oregon hat and Marques took pictures with his phone as Will warmed up with the Ducks.
“Just to see that brought tears to my eyes,” Marques Johnson said. “Because it was like the realization of a dream that started when he was 7, 8, 9 years old.”
As a redshirt, Will did not play in that game, but when UCLA faces Oregon on Thursday in Eugene, the freshman could come off the bench against the team he grew up watching.
Will has sat courtside at Pauley Pavilion with his father and watched his grandfather announce NBA games. He did NBA-quality drills with Kris as a 6-year-old, and grew close with his father’s former teammates — including Earl Watson and Baron Davis. His face lit up at Kris’ stories of collegiate and professional basketball. Will played plenty of other sports, and was a left-handed pitcher for the Santa Monica West Little League All-Star team. But before entering high school, he decided to devote all his energy to basketball.
“I guess I loved the sport, overall, more,” Will said.
As a 13-year-old freshman, Will tried out for the Palisades High basketball team. His father and grandfather were both selected L.A. City Section player of the year in high school. Will made junior varsity, and at the start of the season barely played.
“It was very tough,” Will said. “Incredibly tough.”
Kris saw his son’s discouragement. Will was slow to stand up for timeouts and offered his teammates timid high-fives. He went on to start in the season-opening varsity game as a sophomore, but was still preoccupied with proving himself.
Even as Kris disapproved of his son’s attitude, he could relate. He grew up admiring his father’s NBA career as a five-time all-star. As a player he was referred to as Marques Johnson’s son, and asked about his father by reporters, coaches and scouts. His most common critiques were how he fell short of his father’s strengths: He was not as tall as Marques, and he could not jump as high.
“Everyone just looks at you as if you’re like second-rate … kind of a knockoff,” Kris said. “You’re not a real Louis Vuitton or a real Fendi bag. You, you know, look like one, but you’re not one. And that’s kind of how I felt a lot with people.”
Before playing professionally overseas for seven seasons, Kris was an All-Pac-10 honorable-mention selection and national champion at UCLA. But the pride for those achievements would not come at first, not when he compared himself to his father.
“The pressure, it manifests itself to where it makes you feel lesser than, it messes with your confidence,” Kris said. “It gives you a kind of a skewed or altered view of what success is.”
Kris served as Will’s AAU coach and high school assistant coach. He taught his son to focus on his work ethic by exposing him to rigorous training. Outside practice they conditioned on the beach, played pick-up and ran dribbling and shooting drills on an outdoor court near Will’s home in Palisades.
“That’s always been our approach as a family,” Marques said. “It’s always about the amount of work that you’re willing to put in to make yourself better.”
Will used his father’s lessons to push himself on his own. In the mornings before school he ran sprints up his steep neighborhood street. He regularly returned to the outdoor court to shoot and dribble around trash cans alone for hours. On a whiteboard in his room, Will planned his workouts alongside a list of his goals.
“What kept me motivated, I don’t know,” Will said. “I just wanted to uphold the family name.”
Kris noticed a change in his son at the start of Will’s senior year. He was chosen most outstanding player in the Western League and earned first-team All-City honors.
“Instead of playing with this, kind of the weight of the world on your shoulders,” Kris said, “he came out just playing like a man possessed.”
Will said the mental toughness came from conversations with his mother, Melanie Shornick, who told him not to focus on carrying on his family legacy, but instead on embracing his strengths.
“It used to be a lot of pressure,” Will said, adding: “I wanted to be on the same level as them. … But I realized as I got older, I’ve just got to be me.”
While he received no Division I offers, Will was accepted to Oregon, so he traveled to campus with his father to try out as a walk-on. He eventually earned a scholarship and has embraced a role as a reserve. He has played in three games this season and has yet to score.
“Just to see him on the bench,” Kris said, “just to get a glimpse of that curly top and his little chin-strap beard he’s got going … I’m just proud constantly of the kid.”
Will taught his Oregon teammates the drills he learned from his father; they weave around black folding chairs together in the gym. When he saw the Lakers play the Memphis Grizzlies with his mother he took notes on his phone, and spends his free time working out in the gym and studying games he records on TV.
“He’s never taken a shortcut when it comes to basketball,” his mother said. “He just hasn’t. That’s not who he is.”
When Will began his Oregon career, director of operations Josh Jamieson asked him what jersey number he wanted. An easy choice, Will said — No. 54. The number his father and grandfather won national championships with is the one Will wears as he jogs onto the court to build his own collegiate legacy.
“Of course, it would be amazing and super cool if I were to live up to,” Will said, then stopped suddenly, pausing for a millisecond before correcting himself. “I mean, I think I have lived up to the family name.”