From 1976 to 1990, Dennis Johnson didn’t just play in the NBA. He left a mark. But now we can finally say DJ is a Hall of Famer. By earning his place among the 2010 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class this week, the late Dennis Johnson will finally be recognized for his contributions to the game of basketball, which were about so much more than numbers. DJ was a winner, a clutch player, and most importantly, a terrific teammate.
Before joining the Boston Celtics in ’83, DJ had been with Phoenix, and before that, Seattle, where he had two appearances in the NBA Finals — winning both the championship and the Finals MVP in ’79. 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-foot-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. Ironically, the negativity around DJ turned out to be a blessing.
After the Celtics were swept in the 2nd round of the ’83 playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks, franchise architect Red Auerbach knew he needed to upgrade the Celtics backcourt. In a trade that sometimes gets forgotten about in the annals of all-time steals, the Celtics traded reserve big man Rick Robey to Phoenix for DJ. All of a sudden the Celtics had a big physical guard that could check Andrew Toney of the Sixers, Marques Johnson of the Bucks, and more importantly, Magic Johnson.
Some questions did linger: Would DJ sacrifice his game for the good of the team? Would DJ complain about not getting enough shots? Would DJ and Larry Bird get along in the locker room? Basketball for many is 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.
Plain and simple, if Celtics don’t get DJ, there are no more championships in the 1980s for the Green, period. From ’84 to ’87 Boston was 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 L.A. to end Game 4 in ’85, to his outstanding performance in the ’86 Finals, to his legendary layup off of Larry’s steal in ’87 against the Pistons. But it was his consistency as a very smart, very tough money player that best paints the picture of who he was. Basketball for some is a numbers game, which usually translates into individual accomplishment, not winning. Dennis Johnson was about winning, which is why he was considered to be a great player and now a Hall of Famer.
DJ aged, as did the Big Three, and after the 1990 season he called it a career. Soon after, DJ 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. 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 NBA’s D-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.
In February of 2007, DJ passed away at the age of 52 from a heart attack following his practice with the Austin Toros. We all knew the legacy he would forever leave regardless if he ever got the call to Springfield, but now it is official.
Dennis Johnson will finally be given the credit he deserved for the career he had and the impact he made on his fans, his teammates and the game. Somewhere he is smiling as Springfield awaits him.