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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Among his former Celtics teammates, Dennis Johnson is remembered for his all-around skills.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Rejoicing, not sorrow, marks Johnson's Hall of Fame nod


Posted Aug 13 2010 10:10PM

Dennis Johnson talked a lot about this moment, his wife said.

How he would have beamed at the news in April of his election to the Hall of Fame, the party he would have had those few days around Springfield, Mass., in mid-April as part of the induction ceremonies -- Donna Johnson could imagine all of it.

So everyone else will do it for him.

DJ is gone, the victim of a fatal heart attack in 2007, but Donna and the family will be the emotion, Larry Bird and other former teammates will be the memories, and anyone who saw him play will be the rooting section.

Dennis was a unique player on unique teams who is being inducted in unique circumstances. That much is obvious.

He died without warning at 52 as coach of the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League, working to make himself an NBA coach just as he came from back in the pack to build the kind of career as a defensive-minded guard few saw coming. Others have been enshrined posthumously, but few who were lost so young and with the memories of a special man still as fresh.

It goes beyond the void, though. DJ is entering the Hall of Fame not out of some emotional tug by voters -- he would have gone in years ago if that was the case -- but because he was one of the great stoppers of his generation and an integral part of championship teams in Seattle (1979) and Boston (1984 and '86).

Oh, and Larry Bird called him the best teammate he ever had.

Not one of the best. Not some schmoozing statement about how it was a privilege to play with Johnson, the kind of canned statements typically released around balloting time.

Larry Legend said, flat out, DJ was the best, and he said it numerous times years before the election.

Good luck finding more of a shining statement.

Johnson started at Harbor Junior College (now Los Angeles Harbor College), spent two seasons there and worked his way up to Pepperdine, where he played one season. He started in the pros as the No. 29 pick in 1976 and built a career that spanned 14 years with the SuperSonics, Suns and Celtics and included being named 1979 Finals MVP and five All-Star appearances. Though first-team All-NBA only once and second-team All-NBA once -- in an obvious hit to a candidacy to be placed among the historic greats of the game -- he was first- or second-team All-Defense nine times.

"The championships just seemed to follow him around," said Bill Walton, the Hall-of-Fame center and former Celtics teammate. "There's a reason for that."

Said Bird in April when the election results were announced: "It's very special. We've been waiting for this day for a long time. I enjoyed playing with DJ as much as anyone I ever played with. We had a connection on the court. He's the best player I ever played with. We just had that connection.

"I'm very happy for Donna and the family. I know this is a special day."

That will lead to a special few days around Springfield.

"This is a very emotional time for me," Donna Johnson said April announcement. "I'm trying not to cry. This has been long going. This is such a great end to a great career. I really feel blessed and I'm so glad for Dennis that this has happened."

If he had been there that day, she said, DJ would be smiling like a champion all over again. And of course he would smile once at the Hall of Fame itself, surrounded by so many family members and former teammates.

Those same people will do it for him now, perhaps accompanied by the occasional tear on the day Johnson had talked about so much but never got to see.

He finally made it.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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