Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dennis Johnson. Flawed Human

Until his too early death this week, I had forgotten about the incident where DJ was charged with assaulting his wife. And I couldn't find anything about it on the 'net, except for the fact that seemingly the family had stayed together. Globe columnist Derrick Jackson lays out what happened.

He kept coming to the game

Johnson, who died suddenly Thursday of a heart attack at 52, had a basketball intelligence that seemed destined for a head coaching job. By most accounts, he took himself off the fast track by being arrested for grabbing his wife’s throat, threatening her with a knife and threatening one of his sons in their Orlando home in 1997.

Johnson was also much talked about as a candidate for the Basketball Hall of Fame. ‘‘If someone is a convicted felon,’’ Hall of Fame president Joe O’Brien said at the time, ‘‘we would eliminate them from consideration.’’

We never heard much about this from his wife, Donna. She did not file charges. But one must figure she was strong in the face of Johnson’s fury. The police report said she told him, ‘‘What are you going to do, kill me? Go ahead.’’

Johnson apparently tried to kill the beast within himself. In the following years, he pleaded to anyone who would listen that he went to counseling and repeatedly apologized to his wife and family. He told the Los Angeles Times that he ‘‘needed to correct myself.’’ He understood how to correct the cost to himself professionally. He got on basketball’s version of the warehouse forklift. He died a minor-league coach.

Johnson told the Globe’s Bob Ryan in 2000, ‘‘People say, ‘Why didn’t she leave you?’ It wasn’t that simple. You’ve got to look at it this way: 22 years invested in a marriage vs. 10 very bad minutes. I knew the next year was going to be bad, and I knew it would be at least that long before I worked again, but I decided I’d have to face the music. I did my counseling. And I never hid ... I tried my best to repair the damage I did.’’

That still leaves Johnson — like most human beings — short of sainthood. But it sounds better than politicians who say they take responsibility without showing how they did. It’s a lot better than O.J. Simpson, who tried to peddle the book ‘‘If I Did It’’ about the murder of his ex-wife, for which he was acquitted, and has paid only a fraction of a $33.5 million civil judgment to his ex-wife’s family.

In a nation where nearly a quarter of women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experience violence from an intimate partner sometime in their lives, it is important if Johnson really did turn his 10 bad minutes into nearly 10 more years of a healthier marriage before his death. He hasn’t made the Hall of Fame. But NBA commissioner David Stern on Thursday hailed Johnson as ‘‘a man of extraordinary character.’’

Only Donna Johnson knows for sure. If she agrees with Stern, it is because her husband kept coming to the game.

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