Marques Johnson is admittedly a ham - the life of the party on cue.
Turn on the microphone and his personality revs up like a jump-started automobile. Listening to Sonics radio and television broadcasts can be a frantic ride, so Johnson requires that seat belts be fastened at all times.
The 40-something color commentator has a knack for pushing the pedal to the floor. One thing is for sure, Johnson’s racy vocabulary and comedic flair make sitting through a Sonics game a memorable one.
“He’s said some things that knocked me out,” Sonics play-by-play announcer Kevin Calabro said of his partner. “I remember when (Jim) McIlvaine set a screen on a guy. Marques said something like, ‘McIlvaine set that screen so hard that it shook his family tree. He shook his family tree so hard an old grandad woke up.’ Then he goes into this grandad routine, ‘Who’s that who shook my tree. Was that McIlvaine?’
“If he’s rolling like that, I’m going to stay out of the way.”
The advertisements that declare the Sonics are coming to your home fit Johnson to a T. He is a comfortable piece of furniture by now to the thousands of listeners who enjoy his down-home manner.
“I just try to be myself and act like I’m sitting in my living room with two or three of my homeboys having a beer and watching basketball,” Johnson said. “I try to stay away from a style because I did that early in my career. And when I listened to myself I sounded like every other color commentator out there.
“I don’t like to burden people with a lot of meaningless stats,” Johnson said. “I like human-interest stories like why Bimbo Coles is called Bimbo. It’s because his older brother used to sing to him, ‘Bimbo, Bimbo where you want to go, yo’ when he was younger. It’s things like that that I think people are just as interested in as they are in Bimbo’s high school scoring average back in 1927.
“Most of the stuff I say, I don’t remember saying until somebody brings it to me maybe a week later. I said something about Tyrone Hill - all he needs is a cape and he’d be like Doctor Death… . To me this is more like entertainment. It’s a way to kind of try a new schtick. I try to put a new twist on the color analysis thing.”
Johnson occasionally works national games for CBS and ESPN. However, he finds the so-called high-profile gigs a bit restraining.
“It’s not fulfilling at all. I had a producer in my ear telling me how to say stuff every other minute,” said Johnson, who called the UCLA-Washington men’s basketball game for CBS. “After that, I knew I’d be satisfied the rest of my career doing local TV with the Sonics or whoever, and not worry about the network stuff, which is the goal of everybody. To me, it’s being able to express yourself and have some fun.”
Most national broadcasts are so strait-laced, many times producers simply didn’t warm up to Johnson’s lingo. His references might germinate from Richard Pryor jokes, movies, music, just about anything.
Referring to a point guard who doesn’t have a lot of assists, Johnson might say, “You can’t get him to pass the salt at breakfast.” Sonics players often approach Johnson and rib him about his comments.
“I try not to slam somebody,” Johnson said. “Unless it’s (Toronto’s) Oliver Miller because he’s fat and overweight. We got on him so bad in Detroit, it was like he’s a donut away from 300 (pounds).”
KJR radio program director Tom Lee can’t help but feel lucky to have Johnson. Former Minnesota coach Sidney Lowe originally had the job but took an assistant coaching position at the last minute. That left the station scrambling before the 1994-95 season, until Johnson did an on-air tryout during a preseason game in San Diego.
There’s no telling how Lowe might have panned out. But the station covets Johnson, and there are no regrets.