[A few months back, From Way Downtown ran a magazine article about Dennis Johnson as a Seattle SuperSonic. Let’s check in on DJ a few seasons later as a Boston Celtic. This article, which ran on November 5, 1985, comes from a periodical called Boston Celtics Pride. The knowledgable Bob Schron has the byline.]
Dennis Johnson was relaxing after he keyed an important midyear win over Philadelphia in the Spectrum during the title year, 1983-84.
“I want to be the first guard to win NBA championships on two different teams,” the 6-foot-4 player commented. As he spoke, Dennis already knew what the ingredients were for championship play. The Seattle SuperSonics had capped a two-year quest for the NBA title in 1979, and DJ had won the playoff Most Valuable Player award. Public recognition was slow in arriving for the Pepperdine graduate, but DJ was far from being unknown to basketball people.
Johnson played one season for Pepperdine, and it was a dramatic success. The Wave won their way into this second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1976, when the tourney consisted of 32 teams. They upset the highly publicized Bill Cartwright and the University of San Francisco to win the WCAC [league championship], 85-84, in overtime. They proceeded deep in the second round, before falling to UCLA at the Bruins’ Pauley Pavilion. The Bruins, however, outmanned the Wave with a frontline that consisted of Marques Johnson, Richard Washington, and Ralph Drollinger.
This is where DJ first emerged into at least regional recognition. “I stole the ball several times from their star guard Andre McCarter, who supposedly was infallible as a ballhandling point guard,” Johnson recalled in a recent interview. “From then on, people began to know more about me.”
The Celtics’ versatile and talented guard, Dennis Wayne Johnson, possesses many of the vast array of skills which typified one of his teachers, Jerry West. Like West, Johnson can create the play by penetrating, shooting outside, and scoring in the clutch.
“Walt Frazier was somewhat of a model,” Dennis stated. Like Frazier, Johnson is almost impossible to defend solo. And if Frazier brought a dramatic emphasis to defense and passing, Johnson has brought a similar excitement and probably greater consistency. “The thing about DJ is his aggressiveness,” commented Robert Parish. “Without him, we would simply not be a contender.”
“He’s the best player I’ve ever played with,” observed Larry Bird last season.
Dennis Johnson makes teams better. This seemingly would be a simple fact to state, except for doubts created by the fact that the superior talent has been traded twice. Dennis Johnson is a delightful blend; he is a completely committed team player, while at the same time, he is an autonomous man, who retains his privacy in his public occupation.
In his classic, The Breaks of the Game, David Halberstam wrote how extensively Johnson modeled his game after Frazier. Yet Johnson does not concur. “I watched Walt Frazier carefully and genuinely admired his game. But he is not playing now, and only he knew the way he played the game. Only he knew the way he displayed poise.
“I may take tips from players here and there. I always tried to learn. But I think I tried to learn my own game.”
DJ—he is known as DJ to public, team, and friends—was drafted in the second round of the 1976-77 draft by the Seattle team. He was the 29th player chosen, and the selection was immediately disputed by the Los Angeles Lakers. Because he had worked a year after graduating from high school (as a forklift operator in a warehouse) and then had played two years at Harbor Junior College, Johnson was eligible for the draft after his one year at Pepperdine.
The SuperSonics at the time were attempting to fortify their small backcourt of Slick Watts and Freddy Brown. In this draft, the Sonics selected Bobby Wilkerson of national champion Indiana and Johnson; to the surprise of many, Johnson filled the big guard role for Seattle, with Gus Williams, who was obtained one year later.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were aghast. They had intended to select Johnson—West had known about him, and they envisioned a dream backcourt of Norm Nixon and Dennis. LA thought Johnson would be overlooked, but their protest was disallowed.
In Seattle, Johnson first played for former Celtics’ All-World Bill Russell. Blaine Johnson in the book What’s Happening portrayed Johnson as discontented, but the player doesn’t see it that way. “I thought Russell was a very good coach. He played me more than most rookies, 20 minutes per game. And he was always talking to me about specific situations on the court, as well as taking time to talk to me after practice.
“That time is important for a 20-year-old rookie; it was the same type of attention I received from Gary Colson, my coach at Pepperdine. I think Russ quit because he was unhappy with the game.”
But not before Dennis had begun learning some professional pointers extremely well. Another facet of the Russell primer was two-fold, and it would influence events later. First, Johnson learned to understand that the game was a business, too. Second, while a player was on the floor, he should enjoy the game and get the most out of it from both an individual and team standpoint.
The Sonics’ success story began in November of the 1977-78 season. After Bob Hopkins was fired (“He was too aggressive and took each loss too personally”—Johnson), Lenny Wilkens took over as coach of the 5-17 team.
“He called a meeting upstairs in the hotel room in Kansas City and named a new starting lineup. Lonnie Shelton and Jack Sikma at forward; Marvin Webster at center; and Gus Williams and myself at guard.
“There was a team determination immediately. One player did not do everything, and any of my individual results came directly from help on the part of my teammates. My outstanding defense? An extension of team and helping-out defense. I could overplay because of a lot of help from my teammates.
“I firmly believe, I am one-twelfth of any team,” remarked Johnson.
Seattle surged to the top of the Western Conference from that inauspicious start by sweeping away an injured Bill Walton and his defending-champion Portland Trail Blazer team in the playoffs. The Sonics failed in the seven-game series against Washington that season, as Johnson went 0-14 from the field in the finale. But one year later, the Sonics were back. They won a rematch over Washington in five games, and Dennis Johnson was the best player in the series. With Gus Williams, Johnson insists.
The Sonics had bulk and strength underneath with Sikma and Paul Silas, and there have been few backcourts in NBA history which could rival the DJ-Gus tandem in those years. Both were superstars, and they complemented each other perfectly. Gus would handle the ball, sprint-fly to the basket, and still score from outside. Dennis played defense, scored, jumped, and, when the championship was won, flawlessly defended the star forward of the Bullets, Bobby Dandridge.
From that apex, the Sonics fell into disunion. They had a strong 1979-80 season as defending champions, but it was the 25-year-old Johnson’s contract-ending season, and he apparently pressed too hard. “I told Lenny and the people around Seattle that Dennis was a good kid, quality,” commented Paul Silas. “Oh, Dennis and I had our shouting matches, but I felt all along he would be a positive force on any team in the league.”
The Sonics were dethroned by Los Angeles in the Western Conference Final, and months later Johnson was traded to Phoenix in exchange for Paul Westphal. “It was like getting fired,” Johnson observed. “I was lucky enough to have a contract for another job, but for me, there were no last words, and it was final. There was no trying to talk anybody out of it.
“I may have been dissatisfied with the numbers in the contract, but I liked Seattle, and I liked Lenny, even if we did have our hassles. [Note: Wilkens reportedly referred to DJ as a “cancer” on the team.] Looking back on it, I think in any relationship, there is a time to take, there is a time to accept, there is a time to forget.”
And as Dennis Johnson boarded the plane to Phoenix, he remembers realizing, “I had reached a turning point in my career. It was a business, and I was determined to fit even better.”
Johnson believes that his three seasons in Phoenix were “probably my best.” He averaged 17.4 ppg., took over the point guard alongside Walter Davis, and was First Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defense.
John MacLeod was a different coach from Colson, Russell, Wilkens, and later K.C. Jones, but Johnson adjusted and called MacLeod a “master.” “My game improved. I learned how to post up better, push the ball up the floor, read defenses. But he also worked us very hard, sometimes I think, unreasonably.”
Johnson periodically protested. “There may be different opinions, and I have the right to question,” Johnson declares.
Johnson was traded to Boston for Rick Robey, a trade which fit both team’s needs. “When I came here, the significant statement for me was when Red Auerbach said, ‘because we have Dennis Johnson, I believe we will win.’”
Johnson combined with Gerald Henderson in the backcourt and joined with Larry Bird in a superstar collaboration. Johnson had an All-Pro season in 1983-84 and set a career high in assists last season after Henderson was traded. In the 1983-84 playoffs, he fought off a serious shoulder injury and sparked the playoff win over the Knicks. In the finals, when he took the defensive assignment against Magic Johnson, the series changed. In seven games, the Celtics had title 15.
Dennis Johnson has matured through the seasons. His emotions now do not erupt at coaches, they are channeled into his superlative all-around game. He is able to reflect back on his shutout from the field in the lost 1977-78 championship with the Sonics. “It hurt, because I did not make my one-twelfth contribution. I did not carry my share of the load.
“I can talk about it now. But I was unreachable that day. There was not too much anybody could have said to me that day.”
And those were the youthful seasons, the times when a fledgling player seeks recognition. This is not what is sought after by the player now. “We get recognition when we win, and that’s what’s important. The people I have to please are my teammates. That matters most to me.”
Yet, if Johnson is settled now, he reserves his rights with the public’s vehicle: the media. “I recognized that people in the media have a job to do, like athletes, who also have a job to do. Some days, I’m mad after a game, and it’s harder to talk. I think I have the right, the right to not say much.
“That would be the best way to report my not speaking. ‘He (Johnson) refused to talk,’ and report the game and why I might have not wanted to be interviewed. Sometimes the game circumstances are overlooked.”
Dennis Johnson: team player and individual. Asked to give an assessment of his own career, Johnson concluded, “A player who likes the game, enjoys the game . . . When I finish my career, I want people to say this essentially: Not that he was a great player or that he was a pleasant person, but that when he was on the court, good or bad, that he played—and played hard.”