Commentary

DJ redefined NBA stardom

Alongside Bird, McHale, Parish and Ainge, he quietly raised the bar

Updated: April 4, 2010, 11:19 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPNBoston.com

"The fact that Dennis Johnson is not in the Hall of Fame is a disgrace to the sport of basketball and I am embarrassed." -- Bill Walton

Those were Big Bill's thoughts 15 years ago or so, when Dennis Johnson was first eligible for the Hall of Fame. Year after year, DJ waited for a call that never came, that never had a chance of even being made. He was deemed unworthy.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird and Dennis Johnson
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty ImagesLarry Bird once called Dennis Johnson the best teammate he ever had.

And then he died in February 2007.

But his wife, Donna, and his family and friends, including Walton, a Hall of Famer in his own right, will finally see a basketball injustice undone when Johnson is announced as a member of the Hall of Fame, Class of 2010, on Monday. Yes, it took way, way too long. Yes, it's a travesty that DJ himself didn't live to see it happen.

But to those who watched him play and were able to appreciate the singular greatness of the player, it is an honor richly deserved and long overdue.

"It really doesn't come as a surprise to me," said former Celtics general manager Jan Volk. "The surprise is that it took so long. Anyone who ever played with or against Dennis Johnson knew that no one competed harder. And the bigger the game, the better he played."

Johnson didn't have dazzling numbers, Hall of Fame numbers if you will. He averaged 14.1 points a game. But numbers never defined DJ. He was a certifiable terror on defense (still an overlooked talent in Hall of Fame voting) and was as disruptive a force as any guard in his era.

Think about this: In the 1978 NBA Finals, Johnson blocked seven shots in a game. The NBA Guide has DJ as 10th all time in blocked shots in the NBA Finals, tied with likely 2010 inductee Scottie Pippen. None of the nine ahead of him is a guard. DJ was 6-foot-4!

Then there was his tour de force in the 1984 NBA Finals, once Celtics coach KC Jones came to his senses and decided that it might be a good idea to have his best defensive player (DJ, duh!) guard the dangerous Magic Johnson over the last four games. All DJ did was score 20 or more points in each of the last four games while containing Magic Johnson as well as you could contain Magic Johnson in those days. And the Celtics prevailed, winning banner No. 15.

Johnson was also a self-made man in the basketball sense. He was one of 16 children raised in a tough neighborhood in Compton, Calif. He didn't make the varsity at Dominguez High until he was a senior and he sat on the bench most of the time. (He called himself "a bencher.") College was out of the question and he figured at the time that he had as much a chance of playing in the NBA as he did of becoming a brain surgeon.

He drove a forklift in a tape warehouse. He worked in a liquor store as a stock boy and cashier. But he played competitively in local leagues and caught the eye of a community college coach, who was intrigued by what he saw. Jim White of Harbor Community College is the man who put Dennis Johnson on the path to a career in basketball, plucking him off the streets of San Pedro and offering him a spot on his team. The rest, as they say, is history. It's an astounding story.

Johnson always had a defiant streak in him and White saw it firsthand. He kicked DJ off the team three times. But Johnson always came back and played enough -- and well enough -- to get noticed.

Harbor won the state title in his second season there. That was good enough to get him a scholarship to Pepperdine, where he played one year before entering the 1976 NBA draft. He was taken by Seattle in the second round, starting a remarkable career that spanned three teams (the Sonics, Suns and Celtics) and included the following: all-NBA first team (1981), all-NBA second team (1980), and from 1979 to 1987, either first-team or second-team All-Defense. He was MVP of the 1979 NBA Finals. He was a five-time participant in the All-Star Game. He won three rings, two with Boston.

You always had to deal with the complete package with DJ. You had to accept that he played with a Grand Canyon-sized boulder on his shoulder, the result of his having to continually prove himself. You had to deal with the attitude. Lenny Wilkens, John MacLeod and Jones all had their moments with DJ. You had to deal with the fact that there were always a couple of games a year where he basically went through the motions. In his mind, those were "DJ preservation" games, saving himself for what he knew was going to come: the real games.

Volk Anyone who ever played with or against Dennis Johnson knew that no one competed harder. And the bigger the game, the better he played.

-- Former Celtics GM Jan Volk

Larry Bird said Johnson was the best teammate he ever had. Who knows if Bird was serious, or if he understood the need to stroke DJ. But there was no denying Johnson came up big when the games meant the most. He never feared taking the last shot. And lest we forget, it was DJ who made the move to accept the pass from Bird off that famous steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. DJ was at half court when Bird made his move to steal the lazy inbounds pass. Then, he made a reverse layup with Joe Dumars threatening him.

Bird and DJ had symmetry between them that manifested itself at opportune times (like that play) as well as on mundane occasions, like in one regular-season game, when DJ found Bird under the basket for a layup with a 30-foot bullet.

After Bird, McHale and Walton, there is no one more deserving of the Hall from those great Celtics teams of the 1980s than Johnson. Yes, I would even put him ahead of Robert Parish, a 2003 inductee. He was that good.

It's just sad that it took the Hall of Fame this long to acknowledge what many of us knew all along. Better late than never, I suppose, but it would have been great to see DJ himself be there for it.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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