Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
The late Dennis Johnson.
(Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty Images)
Dennis Johnson, you may have heard, was a late bloomer. He stood 5-feet-9 in high school and sat on the bench. He grew to 6-foot-3 and became a five-time NBA All-Star.
That’s some leap and he still hasn’t landed. Almost 40 years after leaving Dominguez High in Los Angeles to drive a forklift, DJ is about to touch down, posthumously, in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Class of 2010 ceremony, set for Aug. 13 in Springfield, Mass., is sure to include warm memories, a sprinkling of laughter and probably tears. DJ’s life produced many thrills, his passing broke many hearts. He left too soon -- three years ago at age 52 -- and those closest to him still feel the loss.
"I still haven’t gotten over it," says Jamar Smith, a 6-9 forward who played for the DJ-coached Austin Toros from 2005-07. "I was real close to him. It’s still difficult."
At the enshrinement, they’ll talk about the ferocious D he played on Magic Johnson. About the Finals MVP award he won with Seattle. About the two championships he won with the Celtics. About Larry Bird calling him the greatest teammate he ever had.
But that will only be part of the story. The icing with lit candles atop a three-tiered cake. The lesser known story – perhaps the most inspiring story – is the hard work DJ poured into players in the NBA’s Development League.
Take Jamar Smith, a raw talent from Maryland with NBA potential. Smith spent one training camp with the Spurs in 2006 and wound up back in Austin. DJ improved Smith’s game and confidence, and built something else. Friendship.
Once, while Smith was waiting to move into an apartment, DJ opened his own place to Smith. When Smith left for his new spread, he found the washer and dryer weren’t working. With DJ’s permission, Smith returned, threw in a load of laundry and left. When Smith came back to finish, he found his shorts, t-shirts, socks and underwear folded neatly on a bed.
"I was in shock," Smith says. "And it happened a few more times."
That’s one picture of DJ’s heart. Here’s another: Every time Smith turned around, DJ was talking to a fan, signing an autograph, shaking the hand of someone who recognized him from his NBA days. "He never turned anyone down," Smith says. "And he probably did more community outreaches to kids than any of the players."
More than anything, DJ knew how to connect with people, especially players. The Toros lost their first 12 games of the 2006-07 season, and desperation set in. Dale Osbourne, then an assistant Toros coach, recalls asking DJ to shake things up, to cut some players.
"I was panicking," Osbourne says, "and DJ was saying, ‘We’ll stay the course.’"
The next day, DJ convened a team huddle. He announced that no one would be released but that Osbourne wanted to cut half the players. DJ stepped back as guys shot dirty looks at Osbourne. Just when Osbourne thought something ugly might happen, DJ stepped in. “Just joking," he said.
Later, DJ approached Osbourne and hugged him. "Coach,’ DJ said, "I’m always going to have fun."
Whatever else DJ did, it worked. The Toros won their next nine games. Optimism soared. Then, after a pickup game with Jamar Smith at the Austin Convention Center, DJ walked outside and collapsed.
Osbourne rushed to the hospital, where he found one of DJ’s relatives sobbing on the floor.
"Then I hit the floor," he says, "and started crying."
News of DJ’s death spread quickly with numbing disbelief. What? How? When? No one could comprehend the loss.
A three-time NBA champion left behind a wife, three children and so many siblings. DJ was the eighth of 16 children born to a social worker and bricklayer in Southern California. Tributes poured in from around the country. A clutch playmaker, they said. One of the great defensive guards in history. The Toros remembered him a bit differently.
They still do.
“The greatest guy in the world,” Osbourne says.
Jamar Smith would say “Amen.” When the Toros were losing, DJ steadied the team. When player confidence faltered, DJ offered encouragement. When Osbourne suggested cuts, DJ insisted on patience. Yes, DJ wanted to coach in the NBA. But how could he do his job in the D-League and develop a player he cut?
“I only worked with him four months,” Osbourne says, “but he’s one of the finest individuals I’ve ever known.”
The values DJ preached Osbourne followed as interim coach. No one felt like playing after DJ’s death and losses began mounting. But no one got cut. “We stayed together as a family,” Osbourne says. “That’s what DJ would have wanted. After a while we came together and missed the playoffs by two or three games.”
In Boston, a YMCA branch Learning Center was dedicated in DJ’s name. In South Texas, the Toros host a high school boys and girl’s All-Star classic that bears his name. In the D-League, there’s the Dennis Johnson Coach of the Year Award.
He touched some lives, all right, and not just in Boston, Seattle and Phoenix, where he played in the bright lights of celebrity. In the long shadows of obscurity, Dennis Johnson found a home, a place to develop men and build dreams. That's worth celebrating, and when Hall of Fame ceremonies commence, D-Leaguers will do just that.