DJ wasn’t interested in records; he played to win
Dennis Johnson and I grew to be friendly enough that I felt comfortable telling him I hated him.
He laughed and took it as a compliment. If I was a teenage Laker fan when he played for the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, he must have been doing something right for me to hate him.
He did more than just “right.” He was great -- and a major deterrent to the Lakers. His defense forced Magic Johnson into back-to-back turnovers and killed the Lakers’ last hopes in Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals. His jump shot won Game 4 of the 1985 Finals and forced the Lakers to head back to Boston Garden to exorcise the demons from their decades of losing to the Celtics.
The height of athletic achievement is to be at your best when it matters most. That applied to Dennis Johnson, a three-time champion, the most valuable player of the 1979 NBA Finals, a man whose career playoff averages exceeded his regular-season numbers.
But what defined his life after his playing days was the ordinary but admirable way he kept, well, showing up, always finding some form of work in the basketball world, never abandoning his dream of being an NBA head coach.
He was an assistant coach with the Celtics. He spent the first three years of this decade with the Clippers, which is how I got to know him. He coached in the CBA. He scouted for the Portland Trail Blazers.
A month ago he popped up in a humorous story on the Internet about the Austin Toros’ mascot running onto the court and dunking while the game was being played and the outcome still in doubt. I discovered Johnson was coaching the Toros in the NBA’s Development League when he was interviewed in a local TV story about the incident that was linked in the blogs.
Unfortunately, most people learned about Johnson’s latest job when they read his obituary last week. He died of an apparent heart attack after a Toros practice Thursday, his life cut short at 52.
The hardest thing to believe is that he won’t be showing up anymore. In its own way, his continued persistence was just as admirable as his many clutch performances.
“He was sort of my hero,” said Gary Colson, Johnson’s coach at Pepperdine, “because of the circumstances.”
Johnson was one of 16 children. He was the team’s 10th man his senior year at Dominguez High in Compton and he took a year off after high school to work and help the family. He went to L.A. Harbor College, whose coach called Colson to tell him about Johnson.
“We go watch him,” Colson said. “He’s not great, but he’s got some natural ability.”
He came to Pepperdine, where he averaged 15.7 points a game in his only season. Colson said Johnson wasn’t the best player on the team, just its most resilient.
“During Christmas, his house burns down,” Colson said. “His mom and dad get a divorce. She wants to take him out of school, but we convinced her that he should stay in school.
“A few years later they hung his jersey [number] in Boston Garden. The Cinderella story just amazes me.”
He did it with a stepsister body. His shoulders sagged, all his weight seemed to collect down by his torso. But if you wanted someone to shut down all the high fliers and quick dribblers, Johnson was the man. Six times on the NBA all-defensive first team, and three times on the second team.
Johnson never averaged 20 points in any of his seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns and Celtics. It’s not the numbers that are relevant, it’s the memories: Larry Bird never hesitated to give Johnson the ball in crunch time, which is really all you need to know about him.
“He was a complete player,” Colson said. “Very consistent. Very steady. He didn’t shoot well as a college player, but in the pros he became pretty proficient.”
He always overcame, which is why I’m convinced he would have been a good head coach if given a better shot. His lone chance came when he took over the Clippers when Alvin Gentry was fired in 2003. Some opportunity. The team was 19-39, on its way to yet another lottery. A UPS delivery man would’ve been a better choice, because the players had packed it in. His NBA coaching record stands at 8-16.
The way Johnson discovered he had been relieved of his duties was even less glorious. He was coaching the team’s summer league entry, hoping to stick on full time. Every day he received a faxed packet of information from the team. One day the packet mistakenly included terms of a contract offer to Mike Dunleavy. The official phone call didn’t come until later that night.
Johnson just held his tongue, said the right things the way he always did. He was a good guy to be around, and the fact he’ll never set foot in another NBA arena is the league’s loss as much as anything.
He should have already been recognized as the Hall of Famer he was. He should have had a prominent seat on an NBA bench.
That’s why Colson amended his earlier description: “It’s a Cinderella story that ends sad.”
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.