By Neil Beldock
Sadly, the world lost Dennis Johnson way too early. On February 23rd, 2007, at the age of 52, Dennis “DJ” Johnson collapsed and died of what was diagnosed as a heart attack after coaching the Celtics D-League affiliate.
A teammate revered by his Boston Celtic cohorts, I recently began to ponder the question as to how good was Dennis Johnson. Was he a superstar and all-time great?
Said Celtic great Larry Bird: “The best player I ever played with was Dennis Johnson”.
Hyperbole or absolute truth?
Added Danny Ainge who shared the backcourt with Johnson for 6 seasons: “He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time”.
And K.C. Jones, who coached Johnson and the Celtics, had this to say: “Larry Bird was in total awe of Dennis. Dennis was just an awesome player. He played hard and he took the big shots”.
Perhaps what former teammate and current NBA coach Rick Carlisle had to say about Johnson sums up his game best: “DJ will be remembered as one of the key figures in the resurgence of the NBA in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He redefined the shooting guard position by becoming one of the first true “stoppers” in the modern era. Dennis had a great passion for the game of basketball. He will forever be remembered by his teammates and opponents as one of the great winners and money players in NBA history”.
Pretty lofty praise from some pretty heady people when it comes to basketball. So was Dennis Johnson truly a superstar and one of the all-time greats?
His journey to where he wound up, whether you consider him an all-time great or not, is certainly an amazing and unpredictable journey. Early on, no one would have predicted that Dennis Johnson would have a career in the NBA, let alone wind up being considered one of the great players of all time.
Dennis Johnson was born on September 18, 1954 in Compton, California. He was the eighth of 16 children in the family.
At no point in time during his early years were there any signs that basketball could be an integral part of his future. As a 5 foot 9 inch guard for Dominguez High School in Los Angeles, Johnson rarely played, playing only a few minutes per game.
Upon graduating from high school it appeared that Dennis Johnson’s basketball career was over, but then something totally unexpected occurred; In what seemed like an overnight occurrence, Johnson grew from 5 feet 9 inches tall to 6 foot 3 inches tall and filled out physically as well. A physical late-bloomer if ever there was one.
While playing summer league ball in Los Angeles, Jim White, who coached Los Angeles Harbor Junior College, saw Johnson playing and was impressed. He convinced Johnson to enroll and play basketball at Harbor Junior College.
Early on, upon entering Harbor Junior College, things did not go well. Johnson lacked discipline, clashed with Coach White, and was thrown off the team three times.
If he was going to succeed in basketball, just as he had been a late-bloomer physically, he would have to display the same late-blooming qualities both mentally and emotionally as well.
Fortunately for DJ, he did once again display late-blooming qualities.
By his second year at Harbor he blossomed into a star averaging 18.3 points and 12.0 rebounds per game, and led Harbor Junior College to the California State Junior College Championship.
But four-year colleges were unimpressed. Johnson, upon graduating from Harbor Junior College, would receive only two scholarship offers. Azusa Pacific, a Division 3 school, and Pepperdine University, a low-level Division 1 school were the only four-year schools to recruit Johnson.
He chose to attend Pepperdine University located on a hillside in beautiful Malibu, California, a location renowned for developing world-class surfers, but not so much big-time basketball players, let alone basketball players who would find their way to the NBA.
In his one season playing for Pepperdine, Johnson averaged 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He also established himself as a lock-down and physically tough defensive player.
But Johnson still remained a relative unknown quantity with little chance of having a post-college playing career until, after leading Pepperdine to a top 20 rating, he got the necessary exposure by playing in the NCAA Tournament.
On the heels of tough defensive play, very much orchestrated by Johnson, Pepperdine upset Memphis State in their first-round game. Next on the schedule was UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
Although losing the game, Pepperdine did put a scare into UCLA as a result of the tough defense they played. And at the core of that tough defense was the efforts of Johnson in making life miserable for UCLA’s highly regarded point guard Andre McCarter.
There happened to be a scout from the Seattle Supersonics at that game who was enamored by the defensive capabilities of DJ. He described Johnson’s play as being “rough and tumble”.
After his first year at Pepperdine, even though he was somewhat skeptical that an NBA team would draft him, Johnson made himself available for the 1976 NBA draft claiming hardship status.
Apparently the impression he made on that Seattle Supersonics scout was an everlasting impression. The Supersonics drafted Johnson in the 2nd round with the 29th pick of the draft.
Through the most unlikely of paths Dennis Johnson, in 1976, found himself to be an NBA player.
But circumstances once again presented challenges for Johnson. He found himself buried behind two veteran guards in Slick Watts and “Downtown” Freddie Brown.
In limited opportunities, he did nevertheless show promise averaging 9.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in just 20 minutes per game. And, as was always the case in college, he played excellent defense as evidenced by averaging 1.5 steals per game in just those 20 minutes of action (on average).
Johnson’s big chance arrived early in his second season. After starting the season with a 5-17 record, the Supersonics fired head coach Bob Hopkins and replaced him with an all-time legend and backcourt great in Lenny Wilkins.
Wilkins saw promise in Johnson and traded Slick Watts to open up a starting spot for Johnson. And Johnson didn’t disappoint. With increased minutes to on average 27 minutes per game, he showed promise finishing the year averaging 12.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
Most importantly, under the guidance of Wilkins, Johnson began to show leadership qualities which helped guide the Supersonics to the NBA Finals before losing to the Washington Bullets in 7 games.
And it was during the 1978 playoff run where stardom began to emerge. During that playoff run to the NBA Finals, Johnson upped his game averaging 16.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while also registering 1.0 steals per game.
His emergence and metamorphosis to stardom really took off in his third year. During the 1978-79 season Johnson posted solid numbers of 15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. His defense remained stellar and for the first time in his career he was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First-Team.
But in what was becoming a continuing trend, come crunch time and the playoffs, Johnson would up his game even more. During the 1979 playoffs Johnson averaged 20.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. And of course his defense was once again stellar as evidenced by his average of 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks per game from the guard position. Johnson had emerged as the clear and unquestionable leader of the team.
Oh, and by the way, behind Johnson’s outstanding play and leadership, the Supersonics just so happened to win the NBA Championship in 1979 with Johnson collecting the Playoff MVP award.
Stardom, on it’s way to superstardom had arrived for Dennis Johnson. But so too did some of those negative traits seen early in his collegiate career. He began to clash with Wilkins.
Johnson’s fourth season in Seattle was a very good one on the court as he continued to grow as both an offensive and defensive force. His numbers continued to rise across the board.
But Coach Wilkins was growing tired of what he deemed to be moody and erratic behavior from Johnson. So when the Phoenix Suns, looking to become a more physical team and improve their defense, approached the Supersonics and offered one star guard straight up in a trade for another star guard, Johnson was on his way to Phoenix with Paul Westphal was on his way to Seattle.
Johnson’s three years in Phoenix (1980-83) were a mirror image of his years in Seattle; Excellent all around play and success on the court as evidenced by his numbers which, for his three years in Phoenix, were 17.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. He also led the Suns to winning records in each of his three season with them and directed them to two Western Conference Semi-Final playoff appearances.
But his play regressed in Year 3 in Phoenix. His average fell to 14.2 points per game and the Suns were eliminated in the 1st round of the playoffs. And, much like what had occurred in Seattle, clashes with his coach would persist.
With his reputation in apparent disrepair, and his game seeming to be in a state of decline, after 3 years, Phoenix had enough and was ready to unload Dennis Johnson. But who would be willing to take a gamble on a perceived problem child with perhaps eroding skills?
Enter the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics were looking for help in the backcourt. Specifically, defensive help. After winning the NBA Championship in 1981, they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs the next two years. They had struggled matching up with the 76ers backcourt of Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney.
If the Celtics were to regain championship status, better defensive play in the backcourt would be needed. They felt that Dennis Johnson would be an excellent fit and that the overall leadership and stability within the organization would enable them to handle the (perceived) issues surrounding Johnson.
Prior to the 1983-84 season the Celtics shipped Rick Robey to the Suns in exchange for DJ. It would turn out to be one of the greatest trades in the storied history of the Celtics.
With teammates such as Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge, Johnson was not looked at as needing to be the team leader, but rather to fall in line and execute that which the Celtics would ask of him.
The Celtics asked Johnson to provide steady play offensively, and just be the player he had always been defensively. Johnson, looking for personal redemption, embraced the role the Celtics were asking him to assume.
Bird and DJ connected immediately with Bird saying about Johnson: “Probably the one guy who is as intense or more intense about winning than me”.
Johnson’s acquisition by the Celtics would pay immediate dividends.
With DJ providing exactly what the Celtics were asking from him, they won the NBA Championship in Year 1 of his tenure with the Celtics. The next three years would see a return to the NBA Finals each year while flip-flopping championships with the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Magic Johnson led Los Angeles Lakers.
A big part of the Celtics being able to compete with and beat the Lakers was that Johnson’s stellar defensive abilities were able to limit Magic Johnson to certain degree, or at least enough to allow the Celtics to emerge victorious in 2 of the 4 successive years they matched up in the NBA Finals.
And Johnson still showed a penchant for being willing and able to take and make the big shot when asked.
Dennis Johnson played for the Celtics for 7 seasons, from 1983-1990. His numbers over his 7 seasons with the Celtics, though not spectacular, grossly misrepresents the impact he provided. If ever an “intangible” value could be attached to the play of a player over and above his numbers, DJ and his Celtic career would be the case study.
Johnson retired after the 1989-90 season.
During his career he was a 3-time NBA Champion, a 1-time NBA Finals MVP, a 5-time NBA All-Star, a 6-time All-NBA Defensive 1st Team selection, a 3-time All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team selection, a 1-time All-NBA 1st Team selection, and a 1-time All-NBA 2nd Team selection. His career averages were 14.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He also averaged just under 1 blocked-shot per game.
But it was perhaps his intangible value(s) which truly defined the greatness of Dennis Johnson.
He is described as being a player who was “one of the best defensive guards in the league with quick hands which made him a constant threat to strip the ball from opponents. He always seemed to be in the middle of the action. He could post-up, crash the boards for rebounds and tip-ins, hit outside shots, lead the fast break, and he could pass with the leagues best playmakers”.
In 2010, three years after his untimely death, Dennis Johnson was selected as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
So there you have it. All the evidence has been presented. It’s clear that Dennis Johnson was a great, great player. But was he a superstar and all-time great? I leave the decision to you…………….