An Appreciation: Dennis Johnson
Posted Feb 23 2007 12:37AM
Larry Bird called Dennis Johnson “the best I’ve ever played with.”
Is there any greater compliment?
The passing of Dennis Johnson was a great loss for the NBA and the D-League family. Not only was he was one of the NBA’s greatest players, easily one of the top 75 of all time and perhaps the most underrated of his generation, but Dennis Johnson the man touched everyone he encountered, teammates and foes alike.
“One of the really, really good guys from the NBA, as a player and as a human being,” said Spencer Haywood who was going to be joined by Johnson this Monday night when the Sonics retire his jersey. “Dennis was always overshadowed. Very quiet, that was his style. That was his game. That was his humanity to basketball. Sometimes he would fly under the radar to get things done that needed to be done.”
Johnson played 14 seasons in the NBA and established himself as one of the NBA’s premier defenders, earning All-Defensive honors nine straight seasons. How good was Johnson on the defensive end? He was the ultimate disruptive force.
“I will submit his performance in the 1979 Finals when from the guard position he blocked 14 shots in a five-game series and earned the MVP award in that series,” said Bob Ryan, The Boston Globe columnist who covered Johnson when he played for the Celtics. “No one has ever seen anything like that in the history of this league before or after. That has never been done. No one brought that particular range of skills to the table from that position.
“He is the only guard that I would ever describe as a destructive defensive guard. He destroyed you.”
Yet Johnson was by no means one dimensional. Far from it. When his team needed him to score, he always answered, hence his 32-point performance in the Sonics’ Game 4 overtime victory in that same Finals series versus the Washington Bullets.
The Sonics appeared in back-to-back Finals in 1978 and ’79 featuring an assortment of frontcourt players such as Jack Sikma, Marvin Webster, Lonnie Shelton, and Paul Silas with Downtown Freddie Brown coming off the bench. But it was the backcourt of Johnson and Gus Williams that pushed that team over the top.
“Oh man, that was speed and determination because Dennis gave you that steadiness, the determination while Gus was just going 100 miles an hour, just flying,” said Haywood. “So you had a perfect balance of guards.”
The speed and determination of Williams and Johnson accounted for more than half of the points in the Sonics’ five-game Finals series victory over the Bullets in ’79.
While Johnson went on to star for three seasons with the Phoenix Suns, earning All-Star honors, he made the ultimate career move courtesy of Red Auerbach when he landed with the Boston Celtics in exchange for Rick Robey in one of the all-time heists in NBA history.
In Boston, Johnson successfully transitioned from premier all-around shooting guard with the Sonics and Suns to point guard on two championship Celtic teams in the ’80s. While no longer the leaper and shot blocker extraordinaire he was when he was younger, Johnson guided the Celtics with a steady hand. A savvy veteran who relied on experience and basketball IQ in producing championship results. A player who endeared himself to the Celtic faithful with his clutch play (see Game 4 buzzer-beater over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1985 Finals) and indelible memories (see a cutting Johnson on the receiving end of the Larry Bird steal in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals for the game winner).
Yet for all that Johnson accomplished, amassing more than 15,000 points, 5,000 assists, five All-Star appearances, nine All-Defensive honors, his legacy as the ultimate teammate may be the most enduring of them all.
“Dennis Johnson was as great a teammate as I ever had,” said Bill Walton who played with Johnson on the 1986 championship Celtics. “Dennis Johnson was there in Portland in April 1978, when I foolishly took a pain-killing injection when I tried to play basketball. Dennis Johnson was there that day when the bone in my foot split in half. Dennis Johnson was also there at the very end of my career. The very last time when I was so anguished by the fact that I could not play again by yet another stress fracture and the fans in the Boston Garden were chanting my name to try to help me get out there.
“All I wanted in life was to be out on that court to help that team try to win another championship. Yet I couldn’t do it because of the broken bone in my foot. And I was willing to do anything and everything to get out there and Dennis Johnson having known what had gone down for all those years, came up to me and put his arm around me and his head right up next to my ear as the tears were streaming down my cheeks and told me, “Bill don’t do it.” That is what a true teammate is all about.”