Sidney Moncrief is playing hard with grace, just as he does every night in the NBA. Grace, in this case, is his 5-month-old Rottweiler. Sleek and strong like her master, the puppy throws herself against Moncrief's firm hand checks. But soon, like many a scoring guard before her, she gets discouraged. Moncrief looks slightly aghast but only for a moment. "I forgot," he says. "The vet told me you're supposed to let Rottweilers win when they're small." He wraps Grace in a hug. "That's difficult for me."
"Want to make some money?" says Milwaukee Bucks' assistant coach Garry St. Jean at the team's training camp at Marquette University. "Sit here for a week, and every time we scrimmage bet on Sidney's team to win."
It has become a maxim among the Bucks that "Sidney is the guy who won't let us lose." Without a dominating center, Milwaukee has won its division in each of Moncrief's six seasons, with an overall record of 324-168. The classic lines of his game may clash with the popart design of the Mecca floor, but Moncrief is the soul of the Buck machine. Last season, on a team that was supposed to be rebuilding after Marques Johnson and Junior Bridgeman were traded and Bob Lanier retired, Moncrief was again a dynamo—scoring 21.7 points a game, with 5.4 rebounds and a career high of 5.2 assists—and the Bucks won 59 games. At 28 Moncrief is the best pentathlete of the NBA—no one does so many things so well. Moncrief is a relentless rebounder and inside scorer, a reliable outside shooter, a creative passer and a master of the man-to-man, switching and rotation defenses in coach Don Nelson's hefty defensive playbook. This has made him a member of four NBA All-Star teams and three All-Defensive teams, and Defensive Player of the Year twice. Remarkably, however, he has never been in the top 10 in any category. In a sport where coaches strive to find the best blend of specialists, Moncrief has become its most accomplished generalist.
"Nothing stands out with Sidney, and everything does," says Nelson. "It's not one minute, it's 48. It's not one play, it's every play."
October 28, 1985
Moncrief's self-evaluation is: "I think I do whatever I do very well, and I want to be the very best at what I do. Of course," he says, deadpan, hiding his natural gap-toothed smile, "nobody else really does what I do."
Naming the best guard in the NBA comes down to how you define the position, but few will dispute that Moncrief is the very best at defense. Its demands—diligence, toughness and intelligence—have been the building blocks of a personality formed while Sidney was growing up in the government projects of East Little Rock, Ark. Many days, Moncrief was assigned specific household chores he had to complete before his mother returned home from her job as a maid at a Howard Johnson's motel. "As tired as she was, she always took the time for discipline. She never let conditions defeat her. I had to do things right," he says, "or do them over until they were right." When he wasn't working at home, he was often fighting near it, developing his defensive skills early. "In that environment you were always on the defensive," he says, "because you never wanted to show that you could be dominated in any way." Along with this rugged foundation comes a mind that in Sidney's senior year of high school enabled him to overcome three years of academic indifference and get a 3.8 GPA. That raised his cumulative GPA to 2.3 and qualified him for a basketball scholarship to Arkansas.
Moncrief's mental ability has always been on full power when it comes to defense. "In college, you can get up in somebody's jersey and everyone says you're playing great defense," he says. "Do that in the NBA, the man's by you. There is so much more strategy in professional basketball. Each time you take something away from the offensive player, you give him something else. So, to be effective, your teammates have to know what that is, just as you have to know what they're giving the players they're guarding. That's why good man-to-man defense is really team defense."
He delivers tidbits on the scorers he guards as though reading from some inner computer readout. On George Gervin: "Force him right. He has many more moves going to his left." Magic Johnson: "Take away his right. Don't let him shoot a set shot. Make him move when he shoots." Andrew Toney: "Keep him out of the middle, where he can go all the way or hit in-between shots." Michael Jordan: "Finishes his drives on opposite side of basket. Don't foul him in the air." "Actually," says Moncrief, discarding the readout, "you don't play Michael Jordan. You play at him."
Finally, the 6'4", 183-pound Moncrief is blessed with a body that, particularly when he's playing defense, seems to alter its shape on command, like a cartoon character from Saturday-morning television. In one-on-one confrontations Moncrief holds a low, attacking crouch with the discipline of a downhill skier while scuttling like a crab. "No matter how good a move a guy puts on him, Sidney just will not raise up," says Bridgeman, who is now with the Los Angeles Clippers. To get past broad-shouldered screens, Moncrief seems to elongate his slender silhouette to somehow squeeze through. Close to the basket, he relies on his deceptively strong upper body—Moncrief can bench-press 220 pounds—to hold position and force his man away from a favorite post-up spot. And when a shot is going up, Moncrief, with a sleeve length to match his vertical jump of 36 inches, can sometimes reject it or more often alter the shooter's intended arc.
Moncrief also provides what forward Terry Cummings calls "Sid's little intrinsic things." In training camp, for example, Moncrief will mime applause for a well-run drill by fringe player Jeff Lamp or have a few quiet words with first-round draft choice Jerry Reynolds to ease the embarrassment of one of Nelson's rookie reamings. When Moncrief sees backup center Paul Mokeski sitting morosely on the sideline, a chipped bone in his ankle, Moncrief positions himself at three-point distance and calls out, "Mo! Milkshake on this?" Mokeski nods and smiles as the ball swishes through the net. Says another teammate, Kenny Fields, "Sidney is the guy we can all go to. I think of him as older than his years, as someone very wise."
"I want to be the kind of person who anyone would be comfortable around," says Moncrief. "Someone with a common touch. That's the key. I think of Doc. He has more respect as a person than he does as a basketball player. To me, that's really the ultimate compliment an athlete can get."
In Milwaukee, Moncrief is a working-class hero of such stature that his popularity didn't wane two seasons ago when he engaged in blue-collar heresy—renegotiation. Though Moncrief quadrupled his contract with a five-year, $5.2 million deal, he did it without holding out or engaging in a bloodletting with management. He is not in love with Milwaukee's winters, but he donates his time to good causes in a community that is close to its athletes and respects their privacy. "People are friendly in Milwaukee," he says, "and they use a small spotlight."
In Arkansas, Moncrief has been an institution ever since he keyed the Eddie Sutton-coached Razorback teams of the late '70s that put the sports-crazed state back on the athletic map. "Sidney has always had the big valentine," says Sutton, now head coach at Kentucky. "He played so hard it just made the whole state proud." When he is introduced at the numerous clinics and community functions he attends in the off-season, it is often as "the most beloved athlete in the history of Arkansas." Says Arkansas Democrat managing editor John Robert Starr, "Sidney has done more for race relations in this state than anyone in the last 20 years."
Since turning professional, Moncrief and his wife, Debra, have spent each off-season in Little Rock. Their home is a spacious ranch-style house, with a tennis court and swimming pool in the backyard. They met in third grade and were married before Sidney's senior year at Arkansas. Debra has seen Sidney at his lowest point—after tough, exhausting losses, when his knees wouldn't stop aching—but admits she still hasn't gotten to the bottom of her husband's strength.
"There are times I think Sidney is almost too solid. Nothing scares him, and not very much bothers him. He's not unfeeling, but I don't think he knows what real empathy is," says Debra, who is a registered nurse. "He cares, and he can feel sorry for someone, but he can't really feel what someone else does."
"She's right," says Moncrief. "I don't get right down to the core of other people's feelings. My own, either. I don't think in terms of my proudest moment or biggest hardship. That's past. I've just always gone forward. And things have gone so well in my life that if they suddenly went bad, I'd have to learn how to react."
For now, he is hedging against such a time, laying the groundwork for a business career after basketball. With the help of an attorney, a banker and an accountant as advisers, Moncrief is planning his financial future carefully. "Sidney has very sound business sense, and he absorbs information like a sponge," says the attorney. Jay Dickey Jr.
Moncrief has numerous investments in real estate, owns three Arabian horses and is a director on two major corporate boards. He is an advisory director with Savers Federal Savings & Loan in Little Rock, where he worked part-time last summer to learn banking principles, and he holds a full voting position with ARKLA, a public utility with assets of more than $1 billion. Moncrief began working for the utility the summer before he entered Arkansas, digging and installing gas lines for $1.69 an hour. His industry so impressed company president Sheffield Nelson, who also comes from a nonaffluent background, that when Nelson resigned from the company last year in order to pursue a political career, he sponsored Moncrief as his replacement on the board.
Moncrief is the only black and the youngest member on both boards, but he sees his background as an advantage rather than a liability. "People are essentially right when they say that if I didn't play basketball, if I wasn't Sidney Moncrief, I wouldn't be part of the Establishment," he says. "But that doesn't take away from the fact that I am and that it puts me in a position to help people who need it. When there is a cause to fight for, I'll be able to solicit help. Even if I don't get it right away, I'll be adding a viewpoint that needs to be heard in these circles. But right now my main objective is to listen and learn."
Actually, some of Arkansas's liberal power brokers, including Sheffield Nelson, believe Moncrief has the ability and popularity to become the state's first black governor sometime around the year 2000. Governor Bill Clinton recently joked at a fund-raiser for the benefit of Little Rock's Philander Smith College, "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 has heard the talk but at the moment says, "I have no political aspirations at this time." He pauses and adds, "I guess Bill Bradley used to say that, too."