DENNIS JOHNSON : Reputations, Especially Bad Ones, Are Hard to Live Down, but After Two Seasons in Boston, He Has Accepted the Celtic Ideal, Become a Team Player and Also Evolved Into One of the Best Guards Around
It wasn’t as if Dennis Johnson suddenly turned into the ideal team player when he first put on a Boston Celtic uniform two years ago. Reputations, especially bad ones, aren’t so easily discarded. And Johnson’s reputation was that he wasn’t a team player.
In time, though, Johnson found his niche with the Celtics and grew to accept their idea of how to play basketball.
In his two seasons in Boston, Johnson has shown that not only is he one of the National Basketball Assn.'s best all-around guards but also that he isn’t a negative influence, as he was considered earlier in his career.
No longer is Johnson known as a selfish player who couldn’t live in peace with his coaches and who considered practice unnecessary as long as he was ready for the important games. Certainly, no one with the Celtics is calling him “a cancer on the team,” as Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens once did.
Perhaps it’s not so much that the man they call D.J. has changed. Maybe now, he is simply accepted for what he is by his Celtic teammates. But then, anyone would gladly accept Johnson when he’s playing near the top of his game, as he has been during the NBA championship series against the Lakers.
Going into Game 6 today at the Boston Garden, Johnson, who grew up in Compton and played at Pepperdine, has been the most consistent Celtic, except for Kevin McHale. He won Game 4 last Wednesday at the Forum by sinking a last-second jump shot, and he has totally shut down hot-shooting Laker guard Byron Scott.
The importance of Johnson to Boston’s championship effort last season and bid to repeat this season has not been lost on Larry Bird, the team leader and unofficial spokesman. Bird calls Johnson his favorite player on the team.
“Dennis came here (last season) and his attitude was the same as it was at other places,” Bird said. “It’s not a bad attitude, but he’s moody sometimes. K.C. (Jones, the coach) just ignores it. He knows Dennis is always going to play hard in the game.”
No one has ever doubted that. In his nine NBA seasons, Johnson has been named to the All-Star team five times and has been almost a perennial choice on the NBA’s all-defensive team. Not blessed with either remarkable speed or shooting ability, Johnson still has averaged in double figures for eight straight seasons. In 20 playoff games this spring, Johnson has averaged 17.7 points.
Some have even gone so far as to favorably compare D.J. to another, more famous Johnson, one who smiles a lot and goes by the nickname Magic. K.C. Jones, in fact, says his star guard sometimes resembles a scaled-down version of Earvin Johnson.
“D.J. gives us defense, offense and pushing the ball up the court consistently,” Jones said. “When he does all that, he’s playing like Magic. That’s when he’s playing like 6-8 instead of 6-4.”
Yet, for all his talent, there has been that reputation. It was there in Seattle, where D.J. led the SuperSonics to the 1978-79 NBA title, only to be traded a year later after a season-long feud with Wilkens. It was there in Phoenix, where Johnson spent three unhappy seasons under Coach John MacLeod and was almost given away to the Celtics in a 1983 trade for Rick Robey.
Only now, in Boston, is that reputation beginning to fade. Johnson finally seems to have found a home, and the Celtics are happy to provide it. Still, Johnson shakes his head when asked if he’s finally found happiness.
“I was happy in every place I played,” he said. “I loved it in Seattle. I loved it in Phoenix. I won’t say I love it in Boston because, every place I have loved it, I got traded.”
Johnson laughed, but there was a trace of bitterness there. Clearly, being labeled a malcontent and being traded twice in four years bothered him. And although Johnson won’t deny that people had that opinion of him, he won’t publicly scrutinize himself.
“I’ve been put in a lot of classifications, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “I’ll let you write (what type of player) I am.”
It has been said that Johnson didn’t like Wilkens’ laid-back approach to the game in Seattle. There also were problems because Johnson sought a contract renegotiation after the SuperSonics had won the NBA title. In Phoenix, Johnson reportedly didn’t warm up to MacLeod’s practice rituals, which included aerobics and wind sprints.
It also didn’t help Johnson any when Wilkens made his oft-quoted “cancer on the team” remark in 1980 after completing the trade with Phoenix for Paul Westphal.
When Boston got Johnson for Robey before the 1983-84 season, in one of Red Auerbach’s biggest steals yet, there was again talk that the Suns wouldn’t have parted so readily with Johnson if the reputation didn’t fit.
In a recent article in Inside Sports magazine, however, Johnson said that his feuds with Wilkens and MacLeod weren’t as notorious as people thought.
“Sure, Lenny and I got into some heated arguments,” Johnson said. “Maybe I missed a couple of people or took some shots I shouldn’t have. That’s all it ever was. I certainly never heard Lenny call me a cancer.”
From the start, however, Johnson and Jones have gotten along, and Jones said he never had any qualms about getting Johnson. “Knowing my ability to communicate with players, I had no problem with that,” Jones said. “I took him under my wing. Our guys are a step ahead of jealousies, much more than other teams are. He proved he was a hard worker and a defensive player and got the respect of the players. And vice versa.” Jones suggested that one reason Johnson has been accepted in Boston is that the Celtics are so confident and secure in their roles and abilities that they aren’t bothered by anything temperamental Johnson might do.
Laker Coach Pat Riley, who saw Johnson’s act when Johnson played in the Pacific Division, agreed with Jones on that point. “When he came to the Celtics from Phoenix, he was around a different kind of attitude,” Riley said. “That opened him up, made him more relaxed and allowed him to refine his game.”
Johnson might also have revised his attitude when he joined the Celtics. It’s hard to loaf in practice when you see Larry Bird, one of the game’s best players, going non-stop for two hours. D.J. still isn’t considered an ideal practice player, but he doesn’t need to be.
“I think anybody would feel great being traded here,” Johnson said. “Anybody would want to be part of this team. That’s not the way it is with every team. I don’t have more pressure with this team than any other one, it’s just that everybody seems to notice you.
“The only real difference is that, playing in Boston, for some ungodly reason, they seem to notice you more. Now, I always hear questions like, ‘Why do you play better in the playoffs than the regular season?’ When you’re on a team like Boston, people will say, ‘Well, now D.J. is doing well.’ I think I always have.”
Johnson has referred to Phoenix as the desert, and he would probably call Seattle the rain forest. The point is, Johnson felt he was in the pro basketball hinterlands his first seven seasons. Even when the SuperSonics went to the championship series in 1977-78, losing to Washington, and 1978-79, beating Washington, Johnson said he didn’t receive the recognition he felt he deserved.
“If you don’t play in New York, L.A., Philadelphia, Boston or Chicago, they almost think you’re dead,” Johnson said, laughing.
Then, too, Johnson always has stressed defense more than offense. Defensive specialists in the NBA are valuable and highly coveted, but they don’t make the highlight films.
Johnson can accept that, but he also wants people to accept that he isn’t a one-dimensional player.
“When people speak about me, they notice me all for my defense,” Johnson said. “That’s the amazing thing. I could have a bad offensive game and people will say, ‘Oh, that Dennis Johnson, he didn’t contribute nothing.’ But I think I play excellent defensively all the time. I’m not out there to put a lot of numbers up there every night. I want to play good defense.
“At one time I was a one-dimensional player. I didn’t have much else to mess with, so I just played defense and tried to play it well. I’d just try to recognize what a man does with the ball, his strong point offensively and try to stop that.”
It really wasn’t until Johnson’s third NBA season that he started asserting himself offensively. His scoring average went from 9.2 as a rookie to 15.9 his third season to 19.0 in 1979-80, his final season in Seattle.
Johnson still isn’t the greatest outside shooter, but his shooting these days is better than the 41% he averaged in his seasons with Seattle.
“I knew I was a shooter my first year in the league, when I shot 51%,” said Johnson, pausing to prepare writers for the punch line. “But then, I opted to go farther out than six feet. The next year, I took the challenge to go out to 15 feet and I shot 41%.
"(My shooting) goes up and down. It’s like my personality. I’ll take whatever shot is there. If I think it’s too far, I’ll move it in a little closer. But I will take the jumper.”
Johnson also lives up to his reputation for being temperamental. In interviews, for instance, he gives new meaning to the phrase defensive player. On this day, Johnson was mostly gracious, which was to be expected since he had sunk the winning shot in Game 4 the night before. He stroked his reddish-brown goatee before answering questions and mostly had a smile on his face. But when a reporter asked Johnson if, being from a family of 16, he had any trouble filling ticket requests, Johnson reacted angrily.
“That not a relative question,” he said, curtly.
Said the reporter: “The point I was trying to make was, did you have a lot of friends and family at last night’s game?”
Johnson: “I have friends. Do you?”
Reporter, smiling: “No. Can’t you tell by talking to me?”
Johnson, not smiling: “That figures.”
Reporter: “But, did you have a lot of people watching you?”
Johnson: “Yeah, there were 17,000. They watched me just like they watch the Lakers.”
After that exchange, Johnson returned to politely answering questions. Yes, he finally answered, many of his family--Johnson is the 7th of 16 children--attended the games in Los Angeles. And yes, he visited with many old friends in his time back home.
Whenever Johnson gets the chance during the season, he finds time to visit the old neighborhood. But it isn’t really a big deal, since he lives in the Los Angeles area during the off-season and is a frequent visitor to the local gyms. People don’t look at him as something special. He’s just D.J., another guy from the neighborhood who sat on the bench at Dominguez High in 1972.
Yes, Dennis Johnson, one of the NBA’s best guards, was the 11th man on his high school team. At 5 feet 9 inches and without lots of quickness, he averaged about two minutes a game as a senior and, obviously, wasn’t offered a scholarship to play basketball at the college of his choice.
He was, however, offered a job as a forklift operator at a warehouse. It paid $2.75 an hour, and Johnson was happy because it gave him time to work on his game at night and on weekends. One of Johnson’s brothers ran a recreation team in Compton, and Johnson was the star.
“I was never a player in high school,” Johnson said. “I grew three to four inches after high school.” Johnson might have just ended up a great player in pickup games had it not been for Jim White, the coach at Harbor College. A year after Johnson had graduated from high school, White convinced him to enroll at Harbor and play on his team.
In his second season at Harbor, D.J. led his team to the state junior college championship, winning the most-valuable-player award. Johnson averaged 20.2 points and 13 rebounds that season, but he was best known for his outstanding defense. Despite that, the only scholarship offer came from Pepperdine Coach Gary Colson, a friend of White.
D.J. took it, of course, and Pepperdine qualified for the NCAA tournament Johnson’s first season there. He led the Waves past Memphis State in the first round before losing to UCLA by four points at Pauley Pavilion.
By this time, Johnson had drawn the attention of NBA scouts. Since D.J. was four years removed from high school, he was eligible for the NBA draft in his junior year, but Johnson figured that NBA teams would wait until after his senior season before drafting him.
Wrong. Seattle, coached then by Bill Russell, selected Johnson early in the second round. Johnson was so eager to play that he signed for $35,000, then the NBA minimum salary. So, five years after sitting at the end of the Dominguez High bench and then playing in a recreation league, D.J. was playing in the best league there is.
Even then, that thought never really overwhelmed Johnson. He always has had unshakeable confidence. In the 1977-78 championship series, when Seattle lost to Washington, D.J. went 0 for 14 in one home game and made only 41% of his shots for the series.
But the next season, when the teams played again for the title, Johnson shrugged off the memory of that series. He averaged 16.2 points in the playoffs and was the series MVP.
“That 0 for 14 was good for me, in a way,” Johnson said. “It was part of a growing process. I learned a lot. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again, but I plan not to have it happen.”
So far, it hasn’t.
Last season, D.J. was instrumental in leading the Celtics to the championship. It was said that Boston couldn’t win the title without Johnson, that his defense was necessary to stop Philadelphia’s Andrew Toney, dubbed the Boston Strangler. It also was said that Johnson’s defense was needed to stop the Lakers’ guards.
Instead of letting the pressure affect him, Johnson met it head on. He did everything that was asked of him both seasons and, as a result, the Celtics are in a position to become the first team in 16 years to win consecutive championships.
Last season, he shut down Magic Johnson in the last four games of the final series, D.J.'s defense forcing Magic into several crucial turnovers. This season, he has made Laker guard Byron Scott wonder where his usually potent outside shot has gone.
Bird will tell you that no one--not himself or Kevin McHale or Robert Parish--is more important than Dennis Johnson to the Celtics’ success.
“He does everything,” Bird said. “He’s as smart a basketball player as anyone I’ve ever played with. He knows how to motivate himself and the people around him. The things he does on the defensive end and the way he passes the ball is beyond belief. I’ve never seen anyone play a total game like Dennis.”