For a guy who sat on the bench in his senior year of high school and was barely noticed by college recruiters, Dennis Johnson was an unlikely NBA hero. A born fighter who didn’t have the greatest natural skills, Johnson battled his way from mediocrity as a prep player to greatness as a pro.
During his 13-year playing career with the Seattle SuperSonics, the Phoenix Suns, and the Boston Celtics, 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.”
The glamour of NBA stardom was a long way from Johnson’s childhood in Compton, Calif. He was the eighth of 16 children, the son of a bricklayer and a social worker. Johnson’s father, who was not a great shooter, taught young Dennis the ropes of the game. (Johnson would later joke that this explained his somewhat erratic jump shot.)
As a 5-foot-9 guard at Dominguez High School, Johnson played only a minute or two each game. After graduation the coach at Harbor Junior College saw him playing street ball, noticed his tough defense, and asked him to enroll. Johnson traded in his warehouse job for the classroom. Two years later and seven inches taller, Johnson averaged 18.3 points and 12.0 rebounds and keyed Harbor to a state junior college title.
Johnson received only two scholarship offers, from Pepperdine and Azusa Pacific. He packed his bags for Malibu. In his only season at Pepperdine, Johnson averaged 15.7 points and helped the Waves crack the Top 20 and make the NCAA Tournament. Playing tough defense, Pepperdine beat Memphis and then put a scare into UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. In that game, Johnson was all over slick Bruins playmaker Andre McCarter. Seattle scouts excitedly scribbled notes about the rough-and-tumble guard who jumped center. After that season Johnson applied as a hardship case for the 1976 NBA Draft.
Doubtful that any pro team would be interested in him, Johnson was shocked when the SuperSonics made him their second-round pick. Already in the Seattle backcourt were Don “Slick” Watts and “Downtown” Freddie Brown. Johnson barely made the team. He scored 9.2 points per game in limited duty as a rookie.
Then a coaching shakeup gave Johnson his big break. Bill Russell left after the 1976-77 season, and replacement Bob Hopkins lasted only 22 games in 1977-78. In stepped Lenny Wilkens to take over the 5-17 team. Wilkens promptly traded Watts to New Orleans, gave Johnson a starting job paired with the smooth Gus Williams, and directed Seattle to an immediate 12-game home winning streak. The Sonics finished at 47-35 and bolted into the NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets after eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champion Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets. Seattle squandered a three-games-to-two lead against the Bullets and lost in seven games.
Johnson and the Sonics would not be denied the next year. Johnson improved his scoring to 15.9 ppg 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.
In 1979-80, Johnson pumped in 19.0 points per game, the second-highest scoring average of his career. He made his second All-Star Game appearance, and he was named to both the All-NBA Second Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team. The Sonics fell off their championship pedestal, however, losing to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. After the season the Sonics traded Johnson to the Phoenix Suns for All-Star guard Paul Westphal.
In his first year in Phoenix, Johnson guided the Suns to a Pacific Division title. He averaged 18.8 points that year and was selected to the All-NBA First Team, joining Julius Erving, Larry Bird,Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Gervin. The Suns were upset by the Kansas City Kings in the conference semifinals.
In 1981-82 Johnson tallied a career-high 19.5 ppg. He made his fourth straight All-Star Game appearance and continued to terrorize the league with his voracious defense. After tailing off a bit in 1982-83 to 14.2 points per game, Johnson was traded to Boston for Rick Robey. The 6-11 Robey played only three more years, peaking at a mere 5.6 points per game in 1983-84. Johnson, meanwhile, went on to achieve more stardom and win two championships during his seven seasons with the Celtics.
Johnson’s steadiness helped bind together a team of stars that included Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. In his first year in Boston, the Celtics won their 15th title and in his third year, they won their 16th. 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. In 2002-03, he had his lone stint as an NBA coach, guiding the Clippers to an 8-16 mark in 24 games of work. He also was a coach for the Austin Toros in the NBA Development League.
Dennis Johnson died after coaching a practice with the Toros suffering from cardiac arrest on Feb. 22, 2007. He was 52 years old. Three years after his death, Johnson received a basketball player’s ultimate honor when he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.