Growing up in Los Angeles, Marques Johnson lived a “charmed” life.
Both his parents were schoolteachers. His father was an assistant basketball coach at Crenshaw High School, and his mother had a master’s degree in library science from USC.
“For me as an L.A. kid, I grew up on UCLA basketball and USC football – I’m ashamed to admit,” said Johnson, jokingly. “And so when I had the opportunity to come to UCLA and play basketball on a scholarship that was offered in 1973, it was a no-brainer for me.”
That commitment to attend UCLA made Johnson more fortunate than most students in low-income communities in Los Angeles, about one-fourth of whom go to college, according to Kenny Rogers, CEO of the Fulfillment Fund. The Fulfillment Fund, started at UCLA in 1977, is an organization that focuses on individualized mentorship and college counseling of high school students, many in the Los Angeles Unified School District area.
Embraced by the Wooden-era basketball of UCLA, Johnson nevertheless faced a set of challenges. The “6-foot-5, kind of chubby” recruit competed as a freshman in 1973 alongside strong players like Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes on a team that had compiled a 60-0 record over the previous two seasons. Guarded by Wilkes in his early practices, the discouraged Johnson wasn’t able to get a shot off for a whole week, he remembers.
“At the time basketball had been so easy for me for so long … but coming here wasn’t like that. I kind of had to earn my stripes and pay my dues initially,” Johnson said.
A year later, a much more acclimated and physically developed player, the then-rising sophomore contracted hepatitis, lost 20 pounds, and was sent to the UCLA hospital under the care of Dr. Gary Gitnick, who would later found the Fulfillment Fund. There, Johnson was nursed back to health.
As was traditional at the time, those who ran a large lab, as Gitnick did, would customarily hold a holiday party for their staff.
“These were, in those years, fairly lavish. You’d invite your employees, your faculty and their families. You’d have a caterer. And often you’d have live entertainment,” Gitnick said. “But you paid for it out of your own pocket.”
Gitnick decided to change it up. He opened up his holiday party to disabled students, inviting them from the five main special-needs schools in Los Angeles at the time. He convinced Disney to put on a show and Mattel to give out toys. But after a few years, Gitnick didn’t sense an impact.
“Six months after the party … the toy was probably broken and the party was probably gone.” Gitnick said. “In fact, I was wrong. The woman who we hired to head our disabled program, which became only part of a bigger program, remembered when she was five years old coming to the party here.”
Gitnick soon expanded his program to a year-round venture. He held events with various motivational speakers who were blind, quadriplegic or deaf in order to inspire students in similar situations to pursue education, eventually founding the Fulfillment Fund to guide all teens through the college process.
“Morally, if you’ve got something that’s working, that’s changing people’s lives, you’ve got to touch as many lives as you can,” Gitnick said.
Johnson went on to win an NCAA title at UCLA his sophomore year, the last basketball championship under the legendary coach John Wooden.
Johnson continued a professional career in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, finishing off his last few years with the L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors, and retiring before 1990.
Recently, Rogers contacted Johnson about speaking at the Fulfillment Fund’s Destination College program – a day-long program that coaches students through the many facets of the college application process – asking him if he was familiar with Dr. Gitnick.
“Am I familiar with Dr. Gitnick? He saved my life,” said Johnson, chuckling. “Other than that, I don’t know who he is.”
Johnson addressed the crowd of more than 1,000 students inside Royce Hall for Saturday’s Destination College as a mentor, speaking of the challenges he faced growing up.
But the former basketball player had a mentor of his own when he struggled during his time at UCLA – Wooden.
“He (Wooden) used to say, ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’ He had all these little quaint sayings that I wasn’t feeling when I was here. Yeah, this old dude … talking all these poetic sayings and all that, Pyramid of Success and everything,” Johnson said. “He knew that … a lot of stuff that he was saying was going in one ear and out the other, but he wanted to see what we were doing 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”
And although Johnson’s challenges may not parallel those of the students the Fulfillment Fund supports, Rogers insists the message is the same.
“(Johnson) faced his own set of challenges and fears along the way. But to be honest, we all do, no matter where we come from or whatever walk of life we enter in,” Rogers said. “It’s not about challenges and fears, we all face them. You need to keep your eye on the prize and face those things and ask for help and get connected.”