Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dennis Johnson, Former Celtics Star (1954-2007)

Hola Amigos,

I'm back at the keyboard after a week in western PA that began with a twelve-hour stay at Logan Airport before being one of the few Jet Blue customers to ackshully fly on Valentine's Day in the middle of that HUGE snow/sleet/icestorm. So it is, with great sadness, that I report the passing of one of the key members of the Boston Celtics championship teams of the 1980s, Dennis Johnson. Yahoo News AP wire excerpt:

AUSTIN, Texas - Dennis Johnson, the star NBA guard who was part of three championships and teamed with Larry Bird on one of the great postseason plays, died Thursday after collapsing at the end of his developmental team's practice. He was 52.

Johnson, coach of the Austin Toros, was unconscious and in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived at Austin Convention Center, said Warren Hassinger, spokesman for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.

"He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time," said former Boston teammate Danny Ainge, now the Celtics' executive director of basketball operations. "D.J. was a free spirit and a fun personality who loved to laugh and play the game. We had spoken at length just the other night about basketball and his excitement about coaching the Austin Toros."

Johnson, a five-time All-Star and one of the top defensive guards, was part of the last Boston dynasty. He spent 14 seasons in the league and retired after the 1989-90 season. He played on title teams with the Celtics in 1984 and 1986 and with the Seattle SuperSonics
in 1979, when he was the NBA finals MVP.

Johnson was a favorite teammate of Bird's, and the two were part of one of the most memorable plays in Celtics history. During the fifth game of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, Bird stole Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass under Boston's basket and fed Johnson, who drove in for the winning layup. Boston won the series in seven games but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers
in the NBA finals.

"Dennis was a great player, one of the best teammates I ever had, and a wonderful person," said Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers
. "My thoughts and condolences are with his family at this difficult time."

Bill Laimbeer, the center on that Pistons team, remembered Johnson as a "great player on a great ballclub. He played with passion and grit," Laimbeer said. "It was fun to play games like that. You always enjoyed it. It made for not only great games, but great entertainment."

In the 1984 finals, Johnson guarded Magic Johnson effectively in the last four games. In 1985, he hit a last-second jumper against Los Angeles that won the fourth game. In 1986, he was part of a team that featured four Hall of Famers — Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton. "He was truly one of the good guys to play in the NBA, and he was a great teammate who was fun to be around," McHale said.

Johnson had a reputation for delivering in big games. "I hate to lose," he once said. "I accept it when it comes, but I still hate it. That's the way I am."

He averaged 14.1 points and 5.0 assists for his career. When he retired, he was the 11th player in NBA history to total 15,000 points and 5,000 assists. Johnson made one all-NBA first team and one second team. Six times he made the all-defensive first team, including five consecutive seasons (1979-83).

Johnson was born Sept. 18, 1954, in Compton, Calif. He played at Pepperdine and was drafted by Seattle in 1976. Johnson was traded to Phoenix in 1980 and Boston in 1983. He is survived by his wife, Donna, sons Dwayne and Daniel, and a daughter, Denise.

DJ was money, pure and simple. He read the floor like few players of his era, and that helped him click on a team that was as scary as any in NBA history. I recently watched a profile of the Celtics 1986 championship team on ESPN Classic. This was during the current team's historic losing streak, and I was struck by the difference between the way the game was played then, and the way it is played now. The Classic footage showed actual passes from leading scorers like Bird and Magic to supporting cast guys like DJ and Michael Cooper, who would just as often pass off to Kevin McHale or Kurt Rambis. These teams found ways to score that involved everyone, not just one or two guys like Jordan or Shaq, and DJ was a part of this flow that is missing from much of today's game. It is my hope that this style of play is not completely gone, and that remembering what DJ did can help bring some of that style back to the NBA.

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