1983-84 Boston Celtics
He has always carried a label of being a free spirit in the purest sense. In good years and bad, it is what made Dennis Johnson's approach to playing professional basketball different. When Johnson came into the NBA in 1976, it was thought that the Seattle SuperSonics had goofed in making a 6-foot-4 shot-blocking guard from tiny Pepperdine (Calif.) College their second-round draft choice. But in seven seasons, that same Dennis Johnson has developed into the prototype of the big defensive guard that almost every NBA club now feels it must have.
While playing in Seattle and then Phoenix, Johnson became known as the complete two-way player. His defense frequently overshadowed his offensive production. But he always seemed to have the ball when the big shot was needed, and usually he hit it. It is hard to find fault with a man who has been named to the All-NBA defensive team a record tying five seasons and has averaged over 15 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists a game. Yet, one owner, Sam Shulman of Seattle, and two coaches, Len Wilkens of Seattle and John MacLeod of Phoenix, have either publicly or privately complained of Johnson's "attitude."
Such are the contradictions in the life of the man called D.J., who does not deny there have been problems but quickly adds that people don't judge books solely by their reviews and the same should be true for an NBA player. "Sure, I've had some personality problems," says Johnson, who will be making his home debut as a starter for the Celtics tonight. "But they didn't come from a coaching or player standpoint. It came from management.
"It can happen easily. Somebody is going to say that Dennis Johnson has been on three teams and that means he must have a problem. But how many teams has Tom Nissalke coached, or Bill Fitch? What's the deal there? They don't have a problem?" It is still difficult to fathom how the Celtics, of all clubs, were able to land a player with the talents of Dennis Johnson. He was acquired in June for backup center Rick Robey in a deal that raised more eyebrows in Phoenix than in Boston. He had apparently won his three-year battle with Suns management and was at peace with the world.
Johnson played well enough in his three years in Phoenix, a club that has replaced Philadelphia as the perennial NBA bridesmaid. But the peace he thought existed was a mirage. It had been well known but never publicly acknowledged that for two years the Suns felt they had a man clearly cut from the wrong mold, and that they had made a mistake in trading Paul Westphal to Seattle for him.
"Attitude" is a catch-all phrase in the NBA and usually means a player is not well liked by his coach. Johnson's record has been one of excellence on the court and does not contain even a hint of a drug problem, the current professional sports sickness. His "attitude" problems mean his relations with front offices over money and over basic philosophy, as in Seattle, where Wilkens once called him a "cancer" to the Sonics.
Johnson had been the MVP of the 1979 NBA playoff finals, won by Seattle. But even before Wilkens' "cancer" outburst, the Sonics were unhappy because Johnson had demanded and won a five-year contract, which still has two years to go. Wilkens and Johnson feuded, with Wilkens claiming D.J. was uncoachable and uncooperative. After Johnson was traded to Phoenix in 1980-81, that one quote haunted him. When he sought to renegotiate his contract in the summer of 1981 - the year Magic Johnson was given a million-dollar contract - he found resistance from the front office and finally had to bury the hatchet publicly to quiet newspaper stories that he was holding out.
Johnson knew his actions didn't endear him to management, but he still felt that his performance in the last two years had redeemed him in the eyes of the fans and his peers. One source close to the Suns, however, indicated that while MacLeod publicly praised Johnson, he didn't like his off-court manner and training habits. Johnson admits his "attitude problem" did exist at one point. He agrees that his run-in with Shulman was a classic example of how not to conduct player-owner relations, and things went downhill from there. When Johnson left Seattle in a huff, the whole experience left bad feelings on both sides.
But things were different after his trade to Boston, as the Suns were roasted by their media. Johnson had heard that the Suns were looking for a trade to beef up inside, but he said there was no hint that he would be the bait, particularly since the Suns are still minus a big defensive guard and have shifted Walter Davis to the backcourt. "At Seattle," said Johnson, "I just wanted a raise and he (Shulman) didn't want to give it to me. At times it left me bitter and left him bitter. I admit that it affected me in a different way and did carry over into my playing. But not totally.
"When I got traded, everybody, I guess, took a cue from that. I may have given that impression, I may not have. To prejudge or not to prejudge is an individual right. But nobody really asked me anything at that particular time. People automatically made judgments about me, and I let them think they were right. I didn't say anything. I let it be whatever they wanted it to be. But in the last three years, I've proved them totally wrong."
The trade to Boston did catch Johnson by surprise.
"My wife and I were shopping for a new home," he said. "I was surprised and shocked. I was bitter for the minute. But I'd faced it once and thus it wasn't all that hard to deal with this time. I said it means go to Boston, find me a place and get settled. "The first trade was one in which I was made the biggest focal point. But it was nothing that really bothered me beyond the first two or three months I was at Phoenix. I faced everything as best I could. I had my family behind me. I probably grew there mentally more than any place."
Johnson feels he has already won a measure of acceptance in Boston, especially from his teammates. He reported to training camp with the rookies, and coach K. C.Jones rewarded his hard work by giving him a starting job opposite Gerry Henderson. "I'm the type of player that can't have too bad a year. I'm not a pure shooter, " said Johnson. "Nobody counts on my shot going in every time like a Larry Bird or a Robert Parish, but I can shoot. The thing I do best is play defense, and I can't afford to slack on that even a little bit. My game is flexible."
But so are the Celtics.
"Between K. C., the other coaches and the players, I've probably been made to feel more welcome than any team I've ever been on since I left Seattle," Johnson said. "My trade happened real quick, but they made me feel welcome. "The day that one guard can dominate on defense is probably over. But I plan to get back as close to it as I can this year. It's going to take a lot of hard work."