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Former teammates say goodbye to Dennis Johnson

3/3/2007 - NBA

GARDENA, Calif. -- Four months after the death of team
patriarch Red Auerbach, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge
reunited in grief Friday to say goodbye to former Boston Celtics
teammate Dennis Johnson.

The trio of Celtics stars joined about 1,000 mourners who shared
tears and laughter during Johnson's 1-hour funeral.

"D.J. was a huge part of championship teams and was a guy that
everybody liked," McHale said. "He was a fun guy, and he had a
personality that fit with us because we had a bunch of guys who
enjoyed each other."

Johnson, who was coaching the Austin Toros of the NBA's
Development League, died of an apparent heart attack after practice
last month. He was 52.

"He was a great basketball player, a guy that was dedicated to
the game, and he showed that by staying in it and going to the
minor leagues to coach and try to move his way up," Bird said.

"It's unfortunate because he had a lot of life left in him, but
it's just something that happened that we have no control over. He
left a great legacy behind."

Several Toros players served as pallbearers for Johnson, a
Compton native who was later buried in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Among the mourners at City of Refuge church were former NBA
stars Michael Cooper and Norm Nixon, Los Angeles Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy and Phoenix Suns assistant Alvin Gentry, whom Johnson
replaced as Clippers coach for the final 24 games of the 2002-03
season.

Johnson was traded to the Celtics in 1983 and helped them win
NBA titles in 1984 and '86. He also helped Seattle to its only
league championship.

"I was the one who benefited the most from D.J. coming to our
team," Ainge said. "I slept a lot better at night, knowing I
wouldn't have to be guarding Andrew Toney, Isiah Thomas and Michael
Jordan."

Johnson spent four seasons as a Celtics assistant.
McHale and Bird went into the front-office ranks after their
playing days.

McHale fondly recalled the trio "laughing about the fact that
we [complain] about the things our players do that we used to do
and how we expect them to be perfect -- when we were never anywhere
near perfect."

Johnson, a second-round pick out of Pepperdine, spent his first
four seasons in the NBA with the SuperSonics. In 1978-79, the
Sonics went 52-30 and won it all -- with Johnson being named MVP of
the finals.

Johnson retired in 1990 and the Celtics, who have captured a
record 16 NBA titles, haven't won one since.

"What made him such a great defensive player was his ability to
go laterally," Bird said. "He had some quickness that people
didn't realize, and he was deceiving."