Thursday, February 22, 2007

RIP Dennis Johnson: The Best Player Larry Bird Ever Played With

Celtics 1985-86 championship starters (from left) Larry Bird, Johnson, and Kevin McHale at the Boston Garden.
(Globe File Photo)

Like all basketball fans, I was shocked to hear of Dennis Johnson's untimely death today. I was peripherally aware of Dennis Johnson when the Celtics acquired him in 1983. He had been the NBA Finals MVP in 1979, but I was a new college graduate that year and I don't even think I owned a TV that June. Plus he played in the west, so he only played the east coast teams twice a year. I knew DJ as a tenacious defender, a player who was always on the NBA all-defensive team. He was recognizable with all those freckles.

The Celtics had won the NBA championship in 1981, but Tiny Archibald retired at the end of 1983 season. Danny Ainge and Gerald Henderson were no Tiny Archibald, so Red (Auerbach, also recently RIP) went out and pulled another rabbit out of the hat. DJ arrived in Boston with a mixed reputation. He had been traded twice in three years, and Seattle had traded him the year after he was MVP of the NBA Finals, which was weird in itself, and it was rumored he was a problem in the lockerroom. (David Halberstam painted an unflattering portrait of DJ in Breaks of The Game, the best book ever on basketball, as well.) That's the context in which Larry Bird started talking about DJ as the best teammate he'd ever had. He was telling Celtics fans, this guy is your guy.

And if DJ was Larry's guy, he was our guy. And he played like Bird. They shared that hypercompetitiveness and confidence. If Larry wasn't taking the final shot in a game, you wanted it to be DJ. He could have shot 1 for 12 in the game, but if he took a shot with the game on the line he made it. He wanted to take that final shot. He loved to win, and he hated to lose, and he took the game into his hands in those situations. You had to love a player like that.

DJ had a very distinctive style. He always played low to the ground, and when he went for the ball he went in underhanded. He would put a body on a guy when he did it, but unlike everyone else going in and slapping at the ball overhand, DJ hardly ever got called for fouls no matter how much contact there was.

It's a sad day for Celtics fans, and for basketball fans everywhere. Even those who hated DJ respected him. Thanks for the memories, DJ. We'll never forget you. Dennis Johnson Career Statistics

Randy Hill, FoxSports: DJ overcame obstacles time and time again

WaPo: Former NBA Star Dennis Johnson Dies

Dennis Johnson Through the Years: Boston Globe Photo Gallery

Yahoo Slide Show: Dennis Johnson

YouTube: The Play Johnny Most: "Now there's a steal by Bird. Underneath to DJ, he lays it in. Right at one second left. What a play by Bird! Bird stole the inbounding pass. Laid it off to DJ, DJ, laid it up and in. And Boston has a one point lead with one second left! Oh, my, this place is going crazy!"

ESPN Page 2: Ex-hoopsters who should be in Hall

2. Dennis Johnson (23 letters)
I hate the Celtics. I drove in Boston once and one rotary was enough to make me eternally despise all things New England. All things, that is, except Dennis Johnson. While Kevin McHale mugged people down low, Larry Bird practiced his career-long imitation of Rick Barry, and Danny Ainge played basketball as well as any other Blue Jay, Dennis Johnson played defense.

The Hall's lack of Dennis Johnson ranks as one more example of non-white Boston athletes screwed by their sports. Rather than whining about Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach should join Page 2 and recognize that Dennis Johnson belongs in the Hall.
Greg Allison
Las Cruces, N.M.

If I may quote Basketball Jesus, "The best player I ever played with was Dennis Johnson." -- Larry Bird. 'Nuff said.

Get DJ in the Hall.
Shane Papatolicas
San Francisco


Anonymous said...

I too was shocked by the news of DJ's death....I always won bets with people about where he played his college ball (1 season at Pepperdine) most people never had a clue because, well, he was a hardship case in '76 and had little or no publicity like the non-stars of today like "Mello" or "Lebron". (who I predict will NEVER WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP.) For me it gives more perspective about my age and how precious life is....I just turned 47 and to hear that one of your basketball idols (who doesn't carry the Larry Legend quote about DJ around in his memory lexicon of basketball) is gone at 52 is absolutely shocking. I still remember vividly the backcourt of Gus Johnson and Dennis Johnson with "Downtown" Fred Brown coming in to hit ridiculously deep three balls to rally the 'Sonics.

I was bartending once in 1989 and a guy sat down with his wife and another couple. This fellow was about as tall as me, jet black hair and had a conspicuously large ring on his finger. I serepticiously wiped down the bar in front of his hand and noticed the "NBA" on it. Stood up straight; pondered and said to him. "Hey, you're Joey Hassett!" He responded "Yes I am, do I know you?" And I followed.."Well, six-five, white, black hair, NBA Championship ring....about four-five years older than're Joey Hassett."

He laughed and I probably bored him with my fascination for basketball, my play as a college player and vain failed attempt at professional ball in England, my fan appreciation of his college play with Kevin Stacom at Providence College.

I also asked him what I really wanted to know. What was it like to play with Dennis Johnson. He told me that he was still close with Dennis, (Joey's career now was in television in Denver covering the Trail Blazers) and that Dennis was an amazing teammate to play with.

I had not thought about that night or what we talked about for a long, long time. Makes the loss of DJ even more upsetting to me now that I think about it.

truth said...

I wish I wrote as well as my commenters!

Anonymous said...

Nice story about DJ. I am a long time Celtic fan and was always amazed at DJ's 'quite' contributions (compared to the big three) that played a huge part in their championships. It is a shame to lose someone of his quality at that age. I was hoping he might make it back to the NBA as a coach. Man, enjoy every minute.

One problem with your story though - Joey Hassett was working in R.I. in 1989 as an investment adviser (he was my father's) so chances are he was not a television commentator in Denver at that time. He has been doing color for Providence College basketball for years, so maybe he was in the area for that.