Lawrence Taylor in Gym Shorts
Images. Oh boy, did Dennis Johnson leave us with some images.
I can see him now, bringing the ball upcourt, those cheeks puffing in and out like some mini-Dizzy Gillespie. I can see him calmly dribbling the ball and then suddenly whipping that bullet pass to Larry Bird on the baseline for an easy two.
I can see him posting up some poor physically overmatched guard, making that turnaround jumper -- on which I swear he was a 70 percent lifetime shooter -- in situations big and small. I can see him lowering that shoulder and blasting to the basket like Larry Csonka heading into the end zone. Could this man drive. "I know DJ thinks it's a big game when he's taking it to the basket," Bird always said.
And who will ever forget the sight of DJ at the free throw line, first bouncing the ball low and hard once for each year he had spent in the league, then taking a deep breath and then softly tossing the ball into the basket? That trademark bounce-per-year ritual will always set DJ apart. Who would dare horn in on that unique statement?
The twists and turns of DJ's career included aspects unknown to the Boston fan. I was privileged, for example, to have an up-close-and-personal look at a Dennis Johnson that perhaps you never really got to see. That would be the frisky young late-'70s Dennis Johnson. The prevailing portrait of the Boston DJ was that of the serious, seasoned, cagey, energy-conserving veteran. By the time DJ was concluding his career, it was impossible for the Boston fan to envision him as a pup.
But the young DJ was a monster on the court. I have never, and I mean never, seen anyone play attacking defense the way Dennis Johnson did for the Sonics in the 1979 Finals against Washington. On a team featuring Jack Sikma, Lonnie Shelton and the mercurial Gus Williams, the riveting presence was Dennis Johnson, who not only averaged 23 points a game in his inimitable little-of-this, little-of-that fashion, but who also played a marauding defense from the big guard spot. There have been many brilliant defensive guards in the 45-year history of the NBA, but the young Dennis Johnson is the only one I would ever describe as destructive.
Among the achievements that earned him the 1979 championship series MVP award were his 11 blocked shots, four of which accompanied his 32-point, 10-rebound overtime effort in Game 4. He was such an imtimidating presence that the Bullets hesitated bringing the ball anywhere near him. He was Lawrence Taylor in gym shorts.
If the true test of a player's greatness is the capacity to adjust and expand his game, then Exhibit A may very well be Dennis Johnson. Remember the stated purpose of his acquisition? He came here as an Andrew Toney deterrent. Yes, indeed. He was the big guard who could score a few points, and in the most important games against the most terrifying individual opponent, he would slay the dragon at the defensive end. Which, by the way, he did.
No one spoke in terms of Dennis Johnson being a lead guard. In fact, the reason Phoenix even made him available was because the Suns thought that in DJ and Walter Davis, they had two non-complementary big guards. Gradually, however, he became a classic floor leader. He became so good at the task of running a team and getting the ball to the right people at the right time that Bird grew wary of playing without him.
But Dennis Johnson had been fooling and impressing people for a long time. He came out of Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., unburdened by press clippings and bereft of college offers. As the ninth of 16 children, he wasn't going to be allowed to sit around the house, so he went to work, driving a forklift in a warehouse. A year and a half later, he enrolled at Harbor Junior College, and he eventually went up the coast a ways to Pepperdine, where, during his one varsity year, he averaged 15 points a game as an undersized forward.
He applied to the NBA as a hardship case and was drafted in the 1976 second round (the 29th pick) by the Sonics. Bill Russell took a liking to him, and if there is one good thing you can say about Bill Russell as a coach, it's that he never went on reputations. The frisky kid from Pepperdine deserved to play, so Russ played him. A more traditional coach might have ignored this untutored kid.
That launched a professional career that culminates tomorrow night with the raising of DJ's No. 3 to the Garden rafters. Can you imagine what will be going through his mind as he thinks about the frightening might-have-beens in his life? Not many go from forklift to a career that includes a playoff MVP, a spot on the first-team All-NBA squad (1980), five first-team All-Defensive citations, five All-Star Game appearances and, most important of all, three championship rings, the last two earned while playing for the team that honors him now.
You undoubtedly have your favorite DJ memories. Mine would include the totality of Games 4 through 7 in 1984, when DJ scored more than 20 points in each game while guarding Magic Johnson better than anyone else could possibly even conceive of; the many traffic rebounds; the get-out-of-my-way drives; and, of course, the inordinate number of clutch jumpers. It never mattered what he had shot from the floor during the course of a game's first 47 minutes. When other throats were drying up and other palms were getting clammy, DJ would say, "Gimme the ball."
The true legacy of a ballplayer isn't his numbers. What makes for athletic immortality is a style and an image. There are a lot of cookie-cutter players, a whole bunch of reminds-me-of guys. I'm here to say that there is no such thing as a "Dennis Johnson type." There is only Dennis Johnson. Unique Celtic. Unique Man.
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