Remembering DJ

From 1976 to 1990 Dennis Johnson didn’t just play in the NBA, he left a mark. With the recent inductions to the basketball hall of fame which included Michael Jordan, John Stockton, David Robinson, and Coaches Jerry Sloan and Vivian Stringer it got me thinking again about the late Dennis Johnson not being considered to be part of that special club. But rather than argue that he most certainly should be in Springfield I’d rather take the time to celebrate his career through the eyes of first a boy that became a fan, then a player and then a coach. In case you were wondering, those eyes are mine.

Even though I am from New York I grew up a Celtics fan. My father is from Brooklyn and he started watching basketball a few years before Red Auerbach found a way to grab Bill Russell in 1956. He in turn passed that down to me. In 1981 at the age of three I was reportedly watching the epic Celtics 76ers conference final, in which the Celtics came back from 3-1 down to win the series and eventually the championship, the 14th in franchise history. But my first real memories began in 1984, the first year the Celtics were lucky enough to have Dennis Johnson in green.
DJ had been with Phoenix and before that Seattle where he had two appearances in the finals, winning both the championship and the Finals MVP in 1979 in the Sonics triumph over the Bullets. The NBA was very different back then. The games were frequently showed on tape delay, sponsorship was barely an idea and the league was not thought of fondly by much of the American public. But that all changed very quickly the next year with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entering the league.

Unfortunately for the Seattle fans and players the team was soon broken up and DJ landed in Phoenix where his game continued to flourish as he became an All-NBA player and developed a reputation as one of the best defensive players in the league. At 6’4” he could check point guards or wing scorers. He was also a tough rebounder for a guard who could score on the dribble going to the tin or from the perimeter. There was also some negativity surrounding DJ in Phoenix as he was rumored to be a tough guy to get along with in the locker room as well as rumblings about marijuana use. (Let me just say that in the late 70’s and early 80’s there were so many guys doing worse things than smoking marijuana it is almost amusing that this was made a big deal.) Ironically the negativity around DJ turned out to be a blessing.

The Celtics had not just been eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1983 eastern conference semi-finals, they were swept. When you have a team made up of Larry Bird, Kevin, McHale, Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell and you are swept in the playoffs just 2 seasons removed from a championship you know there are going to be changes made, Red did just that. First, he fired Coach Bill Fitch and named K.C. Jones as the new head coach. Then he looked at the roster, what was it that they were missing? They had the best front line in the league but their back court was both small and slow. Veteran Nate Archibald had broken down as he had not been in the same since 1981, Quinn Buckner was a reserve guard at best that couldn't score and while Gerald Henderson and a young Danny Ainge were serviceable role players they needed a stud back there. For the past two post seasons the Celtics were victimized by bigger scoring guards like Andrew Toney of the Sixers and Marques Johnson of the Bucks. Red knew the only way to get this team back to championship form was to get a guy that could slow those guys down and mesh in offensively with the Big Three. He knew DJ could be had, but what he was able to trade for him was simply incredible. All it took was reserve center Rick Robey, a Kentucky standout that was neither skilled enough or athletic enough to be more than a big body that came off the bench in the NBA. Red had done it again, acquired elite talent for something much less, the man was a Jedi master.

But questions lingered, would DJ sacrifice his game for the good of the team? Would DJ complain about not getting enough shots? Would DJ and Larry get along in the locker room?

Basketball is sometimes a game of sacrifice and the willingness to accept a role. There can only be one floor general but there can be many crucial pieces to the puzzle and DJ became just that.

As I was growing up watching the Celtics and developing my own game I took notice to how DJ played at both ends. But in middle school I thought I was Larry Bird. I would get 30 points a night in my town leagues and being captain in middle school and the leading scorer was not good for my big ego, plain and simple I thought I was the man. After starring on my JV as a freshman I made a very good varsity team as a sophomore but in order to get any time I had to do three things very well: Play defense, take care of the basketball and knock down open shots. There was no better player for me to draw from than Dennis Johnson.

If the Celtics don’t get DJ before the 1983-1984 season there are no more championships in the 1980’s, period. From 1984-1987 the Celtics were in the finals all four seasons, capturing two championships. DJ had many moments we have all seen time and time again on the highlight reels from going nose to nose with Magic, to his game winning jumper in LA to end game 4 in ’85, to his outstanding performance in the 1986 finals to his legendary layup off of Larry’s steal in 1987 against the Pistons. But it was his consistency as a very smart, very tough money player that I think does not get recognized enough. Basketball for some is a numbers game, that usually translates into individual accomplishment, not winning. Dennis Johnson was about winning which is why he will forever be considered a great player and Celtic.

As my career as a player moved on I realized I was never going to be Larry Bird or even the best player on my team. My best friend was an All Long Island player as he dropped 28 points per game at the 2-guard position. I had to figure out how to contribute playing opposite him at small forward. We were very good, and had been playing together for a long time. I was part of something special but I needed to take on a role so we could be a better team, I was thankfully able to do so and we went 15-3 and won a conference championship. I can easily say watching DJ as a kid allowed me to be able to do that. Whether I had to defend the opposing teams top perimeter scorer, get on the boards with the 4’s and 5’s or knock down jumpers on the weak side, I did it, because it was about team, just like the Celtics.

In 1988 when the aging Celtics officially passed the torch onto the hungry Pistons it was evident that the era was coming to a close. One of the best late DJ memories came in the historic Game 7 of the conference semi’s featuring the 4th quarter duel between Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird. DJ, like the rest of the Celtics were beat up and tired as they had no bench. Johnson was running on fumes and mid way through the 4th quarter he caught an elbow to the side of the head and I’ll never forget Brent Musberger describing the blood running down the side of DJ’s face like he was a boxer. DJ of course never left the floor and the Celtics prevailed to move on before falling to the Pistons in 6 games, which was essentially the end of it all.

DJ retired after the 1990 season and almost immediately had his number 3 raised to the rafters. Soon after came the retirement of Bird and McHale, the departure of Parish as well as the tragic loss of Reggie Lewis in 1993. DJ soon came aboard as a scout and then as an assistant coach through 1997. Following that he spent some time away from coaching as there weren’t many offers out there for him. His peers were confused, fans were confused, I was confused. The player Larry Bird described as “the best I have ever played with” who made his reputation on his high basketball IQ and crunch time play was for some reason not what organizations were looking for as a head coach. But in 2003 he returned to coaching with the Clippers as an assistant coach and after filling in for Alvin Gentry at the end of the 2003 season it looked like he was on track to soon be a head coach but it would have to be in the developmental league first. Just as he did as a player with the Celtics he made the sacrifice and coached first for the Florida Flames and then for the Austin Toros for two seasons before time shockingly ran out.

On February 22nd 2007 I was getting my high school team ready for its final game of the season. I am not going to lie, we had had a tough year and were not in playoff contention. Over the course of the last two weeks of the season my biggest concern became player development along with us consistently competing regardless of the outcome. I had a good feeling about our effort the previous game and felt confident we could end the season on a high note. While in pre-game my phone kept vibrating in my pocket but I simply ignored it. However, it continued as we were on the court for warm-ups and I couldn’t help but step to the side and check my cell. And there it was, DJ had passed away. I had countless missed calls and text messages from friends. He had suffered a heart attack as he was standing outside the convention center in Austin joking about getting a parking ticket.

At 52, Dennis Johnson passed away, he was on his way into work, to do a job he loved, involving the game he loved. I immediately had to step out of the gym to compose myself. A couple of my players saw me walk outside and they came over to see what was going on. I immediately sent them back to the floor as I was not going to make a big thing out of it before the game. But then suddenly as we were a minute or so from tip-off and huddling at the bench I felt obligated to memorialize DJ right then and there. My players were well aware that I was a life long Celtics fan, they were also pretty sure something was wrong. The message was simple, “guys, I just found out one of my childhood hero’s a former Celtic passed away, he was a team guy and always brought it every night, I expect all of you to do the same, like you are playing the last game of your lives, lets leave it on the floor.” That’s all I had to say, the look and the tone said more than the words as my guys played their best game of the season. The fact that I can draw on that story makes me feel very fortunate as both a Coach and life long Celtics fan. The game and the Celtics are so much more than a sport and a team. Dennis Johnson was a man that was a perfect example of a player that did so much more than just play basketball, he mattered to the sport, his peers and the thousands of fans that watched him play. We’ll always remember and respect the great Dennis Johnson. Hopefully one day the hall of fame will realize a special piece is missing.