DJ Pokes his Head in at Rookie Camp


Summer 1983

Dennis Johnson says, "I still haven't found out why Phoenix traded me and I probably never will." In a magnanimous gesture of good faith and public relations, DJ is practicing with the Celtics' rookies at Camp Milbrook this week. He looks like the same guard who led the Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA championship in 1979. Like a lot of folks, Johnson has trouble making sense of the pre-draft deal which sent driftwood Rick Robey to the Suns in exchange for one of the NBA's finest guards. Casual fans, cynical sportswriters and hoopology PhD's have had a lot of time to think about the trade and it still doesn't add up.

DJ is a 6-4, 28-year-old guard who was the MVP of the 1979 playoffs. He's a four-time All-Star and has been named to the league's All-Defensive Team in each of the last five seasons, a feat matched only by Walt Frazier. In his seven NBA seasons, he's averaged 15 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 77 percent for the line. He missed only 15 of 574 regular-season games since joining Seattle in 1976.

Robey, meanwhile, averaged 14 minutes and 4.2 points per game in 1982-83 and spent the second half of the year in Bill Fitch's doghouse. For reasons still buried in the vast heart of Fitch, Robey ceased to exist after January. How were the Celtics able to get DJ for Robey? "Phoenix figured they'd never won anything without a big man and they had to have a big man," says legend-in-residence Red Auerbach. "To get, you've got to give - especially with me, heh, heh."

Skeptics still think Phoenix will have the last laugh. Fair or unfair, Johnson has been branded as immature and a disruptive force. Why else, it is asked, would a player of his talents be traded twice during his prime? "We checked it out very closely," says Auerbach. "Lenny (Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens) had nothing but good things to say about him."

Wilkens had plenty of bad things to say about DJ when the Sonics dealt him to Phoenix for Paul Westphal in 1980. Johnson was labeled a pouter. Seattle officials still remember DJ sulking on the sidelines, while his teammates went through a shooting practice a few hours before the Sonics were eliminated from the 1980 playoffs by the Lakers. DJ was traded a month later.

Johnson and Wilkens have settled their differences and Wilkens was trying to re-acquire DJ when Auerbach stepped in. "I talked with Lenny," says Celtics' coach K. C. Jones. "He said he had some difficulties with Dennis out there, but that after the trade Dennis sat down and talked things over in an apologetic tone. As far as I'm concerned DJ comes to play and is a worker. He volunteered to come to this camp."

The Suns claim they've had no trouble selling the trade to their fans. Says Phoenix GM Jerry Colangelo, "It was imperative for us to come up with another strong player. Last year, we won 50 games and fell short in the playoffs again. We're tired of that. It was in our best interest to get another big man. "We knew we were giving up a very good player in Dennis Johnson, but there were things about his game that didn't necessarily fit in with Phoenix. We had moved Walter Davis to the off guard and Dennis had to sacrifice his game to a degree. Put it this way: When you go after a big man it costs you, but this was a price we were willing to pay."

K. C. likes what he's seen of DJ in Marshfield. It's easy to picture Johnson teaming with Danny Ainge, Gerald Henderson or Quinn Buckner. It's a comfort knowing the Celtics might finally be able to hold Andrew Toney under 40 points. "DJ's a super player, says K. C. He's one of the premiere clutch players in the league. He brings the ball up beautifully and sees the court. He makes the pass to the big guys underneath. And now we have someone to deal with the (George) Gervins out there."

DJ is one of 16 children and grew up in Compton, Calif. He played high school ball with Ken Landreaux (of the Los Angeles Dodgers) and matriculated at Harbor Junior College and Pepperdine before joining the Sonics as a second-round draft pick in 1976. He is married, has a three- year-old son, and is presently looking for a house or apartment in the Boston area. He has been very cooperative with the Celtics' front office, the media, and the autograph- seeking fans in Marshfield.

His presence at a rookie camp says something. "I wanted to come here to prove something over to myself," he says. "This gives me the extra drive I need. "The trade is past history and there's nothing I can do about it. I have to thank Phoenix for sending me to a well-rounded team. I know what Boston can do, and with me as an addition, I think I can help take things further.

"I'm ready to go. They're going to get the best of me."

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