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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dennis Johnson, 1954-2007

Five-time All-Star Dennis Johnson passed away on Thursday, apparently of a heart attack. Much like Pistol Pete Maravich died on the court after playing a pickup game, Johnson collapsed and could not be revived while he was on the court working with one of his NBDL players after a practice. Johnson coached the Austin Toros and longed to get an opportunity to helm an NBA team.

"Bird stole the ball" is one of the most famous calls in NBA history, but without Johnson's timely cut so that Bird could feed him for a layup Bird's theft would have gone for naught in Boston's game five victory over Detroit in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. After that play they shared a brief embrace on the way back to the bench. Bird has long said that DJ was the best teammate he ever had and it is easy to understand why. Johnson was a clutch player, a tenacious defender and a good playmaker. His jump shot was erratic but he had an uncanny ability to make jumpers in big situations, like the one he hit to sink the Lakers in game four of the 1985 NBA Finals. Johnson won the 1979 Finals MVP after leading the Sonics to their only NBA title and twice earned All-NBA honors but he willingly took on a lesser--but still very important--role when Boston acquired him prior to the 1983-84 season. The Celtics needed someone who could at least slow down 76ers guard Andrew Toney, who had earned the nickname "The Boston Strangler" after shooting down the Celtics with 34 points in game seven of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals in Boston. It is not a coincidence that Boston won two titles in the first three years after Johnson became a Celtic. He guarded Magic Johnson about as well as anyone did at that time.

Johnson made the All-Defensive Team for nine straight seasons (1979-87). Though he stood just 6-4 he was an exceptional shot blocker for a guard, particularly in his first few seasons. He blocked 59 shots in 54 playoff games with the Sonics in his first three seasons in the NBA, twice leading the team to the NBA Finals. In game three of the 1978 Finals he blocked seven shots, one off of the NBA Finals single game record that is held by Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

Johnson's relationship with Sonics' Coach Lenny Wilkens soured and he was traded to Phoenix, where he was an effective player for three seasons. Then the Suns traded him to Boston for Rick Robey, who turned out to be a non-factor in Phoenix. TNT's Charles Barkley has repeatedly said that Johnson deserves to be inducted in the Hall of Fame and a strong case can definitely be made for Johnson based on the essential contributions that he made to three championship teams.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:49 PM



At Friday, February 23, 2007 4:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved Dennis Johnson as a player, but it should not be forgotten that he's probably the only player ever who managed to feud with Lenny Wilkens and KC Jones, two of the softest coaches in NBA history.

Also, a minor point: I am not sure if there's any former teammate that Bird hasn't described as "the best he had" at one point or another. Dennis Johnson, Kevin McHale, Cedric Maxwell and even Eric Fernsten.

At Friday, February 23, 2007 4:54:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

DJ feuded with KC Jones? I never heard about that.

Anyway, it was really shocking to learn that DJ passed away at such a young age. I think he gave Magic Johnson more trouble than any defender ever did (including Scottie Pippen). When DJ started guarding Magic in the 1984 finals (and simultaneously started pumping in 20+ every night on the other end), thats when the tide turned and the Celtics took control of the series.

Considering all of his All-Star and All-Defense selections, and his 3 Championship rings and Finals MVP, it's hard to believe DJ hasn't been inducted into the HOF yet. Especially considering Joe Dumars (a slightly less accomplished and very similar player) is in.

At Friday, February 23, 2007 5:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I don't recall Bird calling any teammate other than DJ the best that he ever had. He and McHale were never real close, so I doubt that he said it about McHale. If he said it about Maxwell in '81, that would be prior to DJ being his teammate, of course.

I tend to give "moody" or "malcontented" players the benefit of the doubt if they show that they can contribute to a championship team. None of us are privy to what happened behind the scenes with DJ and Wilkens or with other "moody" players like Aguirre and McAdoo but I have trouble seeing criticism of such players because I am blinded by the championship "bling" that they earned.

I never heard of DJ having any trouble at all with KC Jones. There is a difference between a heat of the moment disagreement--which routinely happens between players and coaches--and an actual feud. I am not aware of DJ ever "feuding" with KC Jones and cannot even recall any memorable heat of the moment exchanges between them, though there may have been one or two.

Pip and DJ actually defended Magic in a similar style--long arms, physical, forced Magic to slow down and turn his back on the offense to protect his dribble. With today's rules, both players would have to play differently.

ESPN's "Sports Guy" made the Dumars-DJ comparison as well and drew the same conclusion.

At Friday, February 23, 2007 6:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe "feud" is too strong a word. I was referring (from memory) to Peter May's "The Last Banner", on the last Celtic championship. I am pretty sure he mentions a clash, maybe a shouting match but I am not too sure, during DJ's early times in Boston.

I just meant that Dennis Johnson must surely have been quite a character, specially in his youth. Still, his contributions to several championship teams are undeniable. I am a Laker fan, and he drove me crazy with his combination of size, physical play and talent.

His departure from the Celtics could have been engineered a bit better if you ask me. Here in Europe there was a rumour of an offer to send him to Il Messagero in exchange for the return of prodigal son Brian Shaw.

I wouldn't make much of his non HOF induction yet; I think he will end up in there sooner or later, and they tend to demur regarding players who don't have an absolutely squeaky clean reputation.

At Friday, February 23, 2007 2:23:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

He should have been in the Hall of Fame years ago. Its a shame. The Hall of Fame is a joke. He was way better than Dumars. Just because he didnt get along with Lenny means nothing. He still got a ring (probably should have won 2 but had a terrible game seven vs. the Bullets). He is one of the most underrated ever. He had no weaknesses. Yeah his jumper wasnt the best but he made up for it in the clutch. His points per game average in NBA finals increased from his regular season average. What a shame he is gone. He was the closest to Walt Frazier than any other guard that I have seen. Seven blocks in a NBA Finals game....only centers do that. You will never see a guard do that again. I grew up a Knicks fan and admired the Lakers from a far and he killed them. But I am very saddened by this news. The good die young.

At Friday, February 23, 2007 4:45:00 PM, Blogger Joe Grossberg said...

"Aaaaaand .... now there's a steal by Bird!" -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43DrapEn5QA

It's "Havlicek stole the ball!"


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