NEW YORK, Feb. 22, 2007 -- Dennis Johnson, a three-time NBA champion as a member of the Seattle Supersonics and Boston Celtics and the head coach of the D-League's Austin Toros, passed away today from a heart attack. He was 52 years old.
During his 13-year playing career with Seattle, Phoenix and Boston, Johnson established himself as one of the best defensive guards in the league. "D.J." combined his bulk with rocket-launcher legs to frequently win battles against players nearly a foot taller.
His quick hands and feet made him a constant threat to strip the ball from opponents. He always seemed to be in the middle of the action. He could post up, crash the boards for rebounds and tip-ins, hit from the outside and lead the fast break. And he could pass with the best of the league's playmakers.
Johnson was named to five All-Star teams and nine straight All-Defensive Teams. He was a member of three NBA championship squads, and his postseason heroics earned him a reputation as a money player. He was imbued with a contagious competitiveness. "I'm a winner," he once said. "I put my heart into the game. I hate to lose. I accept it when it comes, but I still hate it. That's the way I am."
In 1978, Seattle squandered a three-games-to-two lead against the Washington Bullets, losing in seven games. The following year, they would not be denied.
Johnson improved his scoring to 15.9 points per game and made his first appearances on both the All-Star and All-Defensive teams. In a rematch against the Bullets in the 1979 NBA Finals, Seattle dropped the first contest but won the next four to claim the team's first championship. Johnson, who scored 32 points in a Game 4 overtime victory, was named Finals MVP.
Johnson would play one more season in Seattle before being sent to Phoenix for All-Star guard Paul Westphal. D.J. would make two consecutive All-Star appearances of his own for the Suns. In his first year in Phoenix, Johnson guided the Suns to a Pacific Division title over the Lakers.
Johnson was traded following the 1982-83 season to Boston, where he would win two more championships, including one as a member of the 1986 Celtics team many consider to be one of the best teams in NBA history.
Johnson's postseason heroics -- his shutting down of Magic Johnson in the 1984 Finals; his buzzer-beating jumper to win Game 4 in the 1985 Finals against the Lakers; and his game-winning basket off Larry Bird's steal in Game 5 of the 1987 conference finals against Detroit -- placed him among the best-loved Celtics.
Johnson retired at age 35 after the 1989-90 season as the 11th player in NBA history to amass more than 15,000 points and 5,000 assists. In Sports Illustrated, teammate Bird, who was not known for lightly tossing around compliments, called Johnson "the best I've ever played with."
Johnson stayed on as a scout for the Celtics and became an assistant coach in 1993 and became an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers in February 2000. He also coached in the D-League and was coaching the Austin Toros, the Celtics' D-League affiliate, at the time of his death.
What the NBA Commissioner Says
NBA Commissioner David Stern released the following statement this evening regarding the passing of Dennis Johnson:
"Whether he was leading his teams to NBA championships or teaching young men the meaning of professionalism, Dennis Johnson’s contributions to the game went far beyond the basketball court. Dennis was a man of extraordinary character with a tremendous passion for the game and his loss will be felt throughout the basketball community. On behalf of the entire NBA family, I extend my deepest sympathy to his wife Donna, his children Dwayne, Denise and Daniel, and their entire family."
What the Basketball World Says
"I'm shocked and saddened after hearing the news about D.J. He was truly one of the good guys to play in the NBA, and he was a great teammate who was fun to be around. My sympathies go out to his wife and kids. He was way too young to pass away."
"I was deeply saddened to learn about the sudden passing of Dennis Johnson. I had the great privilege of playing alongside DJ in the backcourt for six seasons and two championships. He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time. DJ was a free spirit and a fun personality who loved to laugh and play the game. He was a good teammate and a good friend."
"We had spoken at length just the other night about basketball and his excitement about coaching the Austin Toros. DJ was in good spirits, so his passing comes as a shock."
"He will be sorely missed by the Celtics Family."
“Dennis was a great player for the Sonics. He helped us win a championship and was the MVP of the Finals. But more importantly, he was a tremendous person. He seemed to be enjoying coaching in Austin, and was in great spirits. He’s left us way too soon. Sometimes, recognition comes slowly, but Dennis will go down as one of the true leaders in Sonics history, and he was recently honored as a member of the Sonics’ 40th Anniversary Team. All of us at the Sonics and Storm family send our sympathies to his wife and children.”
“Speaking for our entire organization, I want to say how saddened we are to hear this shocking news. Dennis was a joy to be around and a terrific person. He will truly be missed by the many people whose lives he touched. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family.”
Southwest Basketball and Austin Toros owner David Kahn issued the following statement on the passing of Toros coach and NBA great Dennis Johnson:
“On behalf of Southwest Basketball and the Austin Toros family, we are deeply saddened by the passing of our head coach, Dennis Johnson. Dennis was a remarkable man and an excellent role model for our young players and front-office staff. He instantly commanded respect based on his past accomplishments in the NBA, but earned far more from us with his unpretentious demeanor, his dedication to the job, and his community service in Austin. He was a delight to be around, with a one-of-a-kind laugh that, like him, deserves a spot in the Hall of Fame. We share our sympathy with Donna and his children, and want them to know they will always be a part of the Toros family.
What the Columnists Say
He was the guy who would miss 11 straight shots, then come down the court with everything on the line and drill the game-winner without blinking.
That's how I will remember Dennis Johnson, the freckle-faced bulldog who joined the Celtics in 1983 and was a pivotal member of the 1984 and '86 championship teams. DJ's role was often diminished amid the long shadows of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, yet he was the one Bird singled out as "the best teammate I've ever played with."
A hardcore gym rat who always treated basketball as if it were life-sustaining, as if it gave meaning to everything else he did, D.J. died after suffering a heart attack following an Austin Toros practice.
A guy who played with the hunger of a club fighter living from paycheck to paycheck, Dennis Johnson, who was the coach of the National Basketball Development League team in Austin, is dead at age 52.
And all the 40-, 50-and 60-somethings, who watched the Sonics make consecutive trips to the NBA Finals and win it all in 1979, are mourning him today as if he were kin.
There have been players with more natural skills than Dennis Johnson, but they don't compare to him.
That's because Johnson went out and made himself a great basketball player. He did the work. He took advantage of every ounce of talent he had.
And how good was he?
Well, there's the three NBA titles. All-Defensive honors year after year after year. And five All-Star appearances.
But Larry Bird probably said it best.
"Dennis Johnson is the best I've ever played with."