DJ made all the plays ... big and little
He was a green and white blur, taking Larry Bird's pass in stride and hitting the layup that gave the Celtics Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons.
That's how a lot of Celtics fans will always remember Dennis Johnson -- the player on the tail end of one of Larry Legend's career-defining plays, sealing a hard-fought win over the Bad Boys in the kind of playoff series they don't make anymore. The kind where the word "hate" isn't sportswriter hyperbole.
Of course, Bird is best remembered for that play. You remember hearing Johnny Most wailing "Bird stole the ball!" at the top of his delirious cigarette rasp. You remember seeing the roof explode off Boston Garden and the thuggish smarm suddenly wiped off the Pistons' faces as they realized the series and their ticket to the Finals had just slipped away.
But remember this: Unless DJ reacted and instinctively headed for the basket, Bird would have needed to sink a jump shot at a tough angle for the win. Instead, DJ made a little play that turned into a big play. And that improbable win allowed the Celtics, by this point running on grit, pride and fumes, to preserve their home court advantage and ultimately produce one of the franchise's most satisfying playoff series wins.
It was a "basketball IQ" play -- the sort of little things that spell the difference between an athlete playing basketball and a basketball player, like boxing out, following your shot, making the extra pass, waiting for rebounders before launching a ridiculous 3-pointer. You know, stuff American players don't do anymore. Those kind of plays and players don't sell gear -- that's why "Bounce Pass" and "Pick and Roll" aren't characters on the And 1 Mix Tape Tour -- but they do make good teams better and great teams champions. And Dennis Johnson as I remember him -- as a teenage fan of the Celtics and the game, in that order, in the 1980s -- had a tremendous basketball IQ.
So why weren't his accomplishments better remembered until Thursday -- when it was too late? How does a guy who scored more than 15,000 points and dished more than 5,000 assists manage to do that? And why the heck is he not in the Hall of Fame?
Perhaps he did his job so well and so routinely that he was taken for granted. Perhaps he was a victim of timing, playing for back-to-back finalists in Seattle that are all but forgotten because they predated the NBA's golden age, and on a Celtics team that produced multiple Hall-of-Famers. Perhaps it was the way he did his job, delivering assists and playing solid defense, without flash or pretense, that he's not mentioned with the other greats of his era or appreciated in this era.
But that's unfortunate, because Game 5 against the Pistons was hardly the only time DJ came through in the clutch. He was MVP of the 1979 NBA Finals, giving Seattle its only NBA championship. He knocked down a game-winner in Game 4 of the 1985 Finals, a series the Lakers eventually won. And consider this: Before his arrival in Boston, the Celtics were swept out of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks. With DJ they went to the next four Finals, winning a pair.
He also deserves to be remembered as one of Red Auerbach's finest steals. When Red passed away last year, we were reminded how he brought Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to Boston. But remember this: Red sprung DJ from the Phoenix Suns for Rick Robey and draft picks. It's probably the worst trade the Suns ever made. And yet it's largely forgotten -- until now.
On a team loaded with star power and the greatest frontcourt in pro basketball history, Johnson was the glue, the guy who played lock-down defense, found the open man and made teams pay for leaving him open for the 18-footer. He had an uncanny connection with Bird -- how many times did they run that play where Bird would sneak back door and DJ would lob the ball for an easy bucket?
Bird himself called DJ "one of the best teammates I ever had."
I can't top that.
Greg Sukiennik is a news editor at ESPN.com.
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DENNIS JOHNSON: 1954-2007
Name: Dennis Wayne Johnson
Born: Sept. 18, 1954, in Compton, Calif.
College: Pepperdine University
Drafted: Seattle SuperSonics, 1976 (29th overall)
NBA teams: Seattle (1976-80), Phoenix (1980-83), Boston (1983-90)
Career highlights: Won NBA titles with Seattle (1979) and Boston (1984, '86) ... Voted NBA Finals MVP in 1979 ... All-NBA First Team (1981) ... All-NBA Second Team (1980) ... All-Defensive First Team (1979-83, '87) ... All-Defensive Second Team (1984-86) ... Five-time NBA All-Star (1979-82, '85)
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