1983-84 Boston Celtics
February 18, 1984
Returning to Seattle is always an emotional experience for Celtics guard Dennis Johnson. This is where DJ learned about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. In his third pro season, he was named MVP of the playoffs when the Supersonics won the 1979 NBA championship. Life was easy, and DJ and his Sonic teammates expected to win many more titles before they were through.
One year later, Johnson's coach, Lenny Wilkens, called DJ "a cancer" on the ballclub, and Johnson was dealt to the Phoenix Suns for Paul Westphal after Los Angeles steamrolled Seattle (4-1) in the Western Conference finals. Prior to last night's Celtics-Sonics clash in the Kingdome, DJ reflected on his life and times in the Pacific Northwest. "These were happy years here," he said. "Every single one was happy, although some maybe more than others. "People like to think they'll spend their whole careers in one place. I wished it here, and then I wished I'd stay in Phoenix when I went there. I don't wish for things like that no more."
Has he ever played better than he did in the 1979 championship finals against Washington? "I was young then," said DJ. "I was running on nothing but emotion. I think I had a better year with Phoenix, but I don't think I've had a bad season yet. "When you're young, you think you can win it every year. You don't realize how tough it can be to get back there. We thought we'd do it again, just like Philly thinks that now. It's that old thing about repeating in this league. The same things don't get you up for games the year after you win."
DJ and Wilkens are on good terms again. Celtics general manager Red Auerbach got a very positive character reference on DJ from Wilkens before trading Rick Robey for DJ last spring. "At one point, Lenny thought I was taking too many shots," admitted DJ. "But I'm just me. Sometimes I say some things that could sound wrong, and I have to suffer for it later. I have to get things off my chest, and then that's it. Lenny and I had one or two arguments, but that was the extent of it. And with me, it doesn't matter how upset I am off the court. I still play the same game for my team."
What about Wilkens "cancer" remark? "Some things are said in the heat of battle, and that came one week after we'd lost in the playoffs. He told me there were a lot of things in the papers that were misconstrued. After the trade, I'd come in here three times a year with Phoenix, four times counting the exhibition season, and every time the same stuff would come up. "I think anybody is hurt when they are traded - whether you wanted to leave or not. But some things maybe are for the best. It might have been best for me to leave Seattle then. As of this moment, me and Lenny are friends, but who knows what would have happened if I had stayed."
Johnson scored 15 points and added five rebounds and three blocks in Boston's 125-115 coast opening victory over the Warriors Thursday night. One of his blocks was a sensational come-from-behind jam of a Purvis Short sneakaway attempt. It was a gamble, especially in light of the fact that DJ had four fouls at the time. Immediately after the block, the Celtics went on a 16-4 run, which put the game away. Last night's homecoming is the first of two on the trip for DJ. A week from tomorrow, he'll be returning to Phoenix, where he played from 1980 until last spring, when the Celtics acquired him for Robey on the day before the college draft.
Johnson has turned out to be the strong, post-up, defensive specialist the Celtics were looking for. Auerbach cites DJ as the big difference between this year's Celtics and the 1982-83 edition. Meanwhile, Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo has been doing a lot of tap dancing on the subject. The Suns (23-29) are off to a horrendous start and lack a strong guard to go with Walter Davis and Kyle Macy. The same thing happened to Seattle the year DJ was shipped to Phoenix for Westphal. Westphal got hurt, Gus Williams held out and the Sonics finished last.