Kevin Pelton, SUPERSONICS.COM
In the NBA, the name Dennis Johnson is synonymous with winning. In 14 NBA seasons, Johnson's teams advanced to the playoffs 13 teams. Three of those teams won NBA championships, with three more advancing to the NBA Finals.
There was once a time, however, when Johnson was considered anything but a winner. In the first of those six Finals appearances, Johnson and the Seattle SuperSonics were taking on the Washington Bullets. After the Sonics went ahead 3-2 in the series, the Bullets won game six in Washington to send the series back to Seattle for a deciding game seven. With home court in their favor, the Sonics were expected to take their first championship. Instead, the Bullets pulled out a 105-99 victory and returned to Washington as NBA champions. There were a number of reasons why the Sonics lost game seven, but none was more obvious than the play of Johnson, who shot 0-for-14 in the deciding game.
Dennis Johnson was key to the Sonics Championship run.|
Johnson's teammates consoled him in the locker room, telling him, "This could happen to anybody." But Johnson wouldn't hear it, believing he had cost his team the championship. Johnson didn't wallow in self-pity. Instead, after returning to his California home shortly after game seven, he began working with an even greater resolve.
"I started working on my shot, I started working on playing every day," he recalled in a 2003 interview. In addition to becoming physically stronger, Johnson enhanced his mental resolve. "On top of being confident, I had a cocky air about me," Johnson explained of his attitude upon returning to training camp. "I honestly believed that that stuff that happened on that floor that day was never going to happen again."
A year later, the Sonics returned to the summit, again taking on the Bullets in the NBA finals. This time, they would not be denied. After the Sonics had already gone ahead in the series two games to one, Washington coach Dick Motta tried a ploy he thought would turn things around: He called out Johnson.
"As you get closer and closer, these games get bigger and bigger," Motta said. "Let's put it on Dennis Johnson. Let's just see."
It didn't make a difference.
“Never paid attention to it," Johnson recalled. He just continued playing at a championship level. On the strength of 32 points in an overtime victory in game four and a 22.6 point per game scoring average for the series, Johnson ended up being named NBA Finals MVP after the Sonics completed a four-one victory. For both Johnson and the team, it was a complete turnaround from the previous season.
Starring in the NBA Finals was perhaps the furthest thing from Johnson's mind after he completed his collegiate career at Pepperdine. Little-used in high school, Johnson ended up at Harbor Junior College, where he grew seven inches and led the team to the state JC title. He then moved on to Pepperdine, where he played one year and averaged 15.7 points per game. After the season, Johnson declared hardship for the 1976 NBA Draft. By his own admission, only two NBA executives knew of Johnson - Sonics coach/general manager Bill Russell and Lakers general manager Jerry West. "I believe I probably would have been picked by L.A. at the time if the positions would have been switched," Johnson explains. Thankfully for the Sonics, they picked Johnson with their 29th pick, before the Lakers had a chance.
Even after being selected by the Sonics, Johnson faced an uphill battle to establish himself in the NBA. With Fred Brown and Slick Watts already in place, the Seattle backcourt was hardly a weakness. Worse yet, the Sonics drafted another guard, Bob Wilkerson, in the first round of the same draft. "My objectives were really just to make the team," recalls Johnson of his first training camp. He did that and more. With Russell paying particular attention to his rookies, Johnson ended up playing 1,667 minutes in 81 games. He averaged 9.2 points per game and shot better than 50% from the field.
Year two for Johnson brought a shakeup of the Sonics' personnel along with a new coach. Russell quit and was replaced by assistant Bob Hopkins, while trades changed the face of the team, particularly up front. "I hoped I could get a little bit more playing time," Johnson said of his attitude entering the season. After starting the season in reserve as the Sonics got off to a disappointing 5-17 start, Johnson was a major beneficiary when Hopkins quit and former coach Lenny Wilkens took the helm. Wilkens immediately changed his starting lineup, making Johnson and Gus Williams his new backcourt.
Johnson believed the move showed Wilkens' faith in his team, saying, "If you come in and you make lineup changes and you’re taking out guys who were playing a lot of minutes, you better be pretty confident in what you’re doing. Lenny was that.” Wilkens' faith was rewarded; with Johnson a starter, the Sonics turned their season around to advance to the Finals. He finished the season as Seattle's fourth-leading scorer at 12.7 points per game.
Johnson was honored in the summer of 2006 as part of the Sonics & Storm Legends Tour.|
Motivated by the sting of his 0-for-14 effort in game seven of the 1978 Finals, Johnson came back for the 1978-79 season a different player. He made the All-Star team for the first time in his career and averaged 15.9 points per game, good for second-best on the team. He then capped his season by being named Finals MVP.
Johnson was also named first-team All-Defense for the first time in his career during the 1978-79 season. Known for his defense throughout his career, Johnson would be named to nine consecutive All-Defense teams all told. At 6-6, he was strong enough to battle against big guards and quick enough to chase around smaller ones, making him one of the NBA's finest defenders.
After two straight Finals appearances, Johnson and the Sonics were hoping for more of the same during the 1979-80 season. While the team won 56 regular-season games - the most in Sonics history - they proved little match for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 Western Conference Finals, being easily eliminated 4-1. A lot of that had to do with a special Lakers rookie by the name of Magic Johnson, but something was different amongst the Sonics as well. Johnson believes now that the team - himself included - began worrying about contracts and lost its focus. Certainly, in Johnson's case, it couldn't be proven from the stats. He improved his scoring average again to 19.0 points per game and added better than five rebounds and four assists a night. For his efforts, Johnson was again an All-Star and was second-team All-NBA.
For whatever reason, that performance wasn't enough for Sonics management. After the season, Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns for Paul Westphal. In announcing the deal, Sonics owner Sam Schulman complained that Johnson was "moody" and had a detrimental effect on his teammates. Though Johnson was upset to be traded, the characterization didn't bother him.
"You honestly have to know when you're traded in this league, they don't say that it's because you were a nice guy," he said philosophically.
During Johnson's first season in Phoenix, the two teams went in opposite directions. The Sonics, who also were without holdout Gus Williams, slipped to 34-48 and missed the playoffs while Johnson's Suns won the Pacific Division. He would play two more seasons in Phoenix before being traded to the Boston Celtics. It was with the Celtics that Johnson would leave his lasting mark on the NBA. A part of two more championship teams in Boston, Johnson was a critical player for the Celtics because of his defense and ability to come up big in the playoffs. After seven seasons in Boston, Johnson retired at the conclusion of the 1989-90 season as one of the NBA's most respected players, and his number three was retired in Boston.
After completing his playing career, Johnson took a scouting position with the Celtics. He later moved onto the Boston bench as an assistant coach. After a short stint as head coach of the CBA's LaCrosse Bobcats, Johnson became an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers and served as interim head coach during the 2002-03 season. After scouting for Portland, Johnson coached the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League until his untimely death on Feb. 22, 2007 at the age of 52.
In more than 20 years in the NBA, Johnson was a part of a number of organizations and had frequent success. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate whatsoever when asked where Seattle fits in that career. "Absolutely the number one," he said in 2003. "It's where I won the first championship, it's where I was first drafted, everything first happened to me here. It's where I first got married, everything."