12.25.2016

DJ had Boston Strangler Ranked Just Behind MJ

2/27/2007

You think of the late Dennis Johnson, and you can't help but think of Andrew Toney.

They're just names to anybody under 40, two guys who played in the NBA a quarter-century ago, just as the David Stern Era was dawning - you know, in the pre-Jumbotron, pre-indoor-firework, pre-"Rock and Roll (Part Two)" days.

Back then they didn't even have advertising on the scorer's table, which gives those grainy film clips on ESPN Classic a bare-bones, spartan feel.

All they were selling was the game. The competition. What a concept.

And the competition, especially at its highest levels - 76ers-Celtics, Celtics-Lakers, 76ers-Lakers - was hard-edged. (They didn't have flagrant fouls then, either. But they probably should have.) Everything those three teams did was geared toward beating the others. Toward creating an advantage for oneself, or neutralizing the other clubs' edge.

So when the Celtics engineered a larcenous trade with the Warriors for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in 1980, the Lakers were obligated to go out and get Bob McAdoo a year later. And the Sixers followed suit, signing Moses Malone in '82.

Paper covers rock. Rock breaks scissors. And so forth.

No surprise, then, that exactly 27 days after the Sixers won the 1982-83 championship, Boston acquired Johnson in a trade. (And talk about thievery. All Red Auerbach sent to Phoenix to acquire one of the premier defensive guards of his day - and possibly ever - was backup center Rick Robey.) Everybody knew why Boston needed D.J.

Andrew Toney.

The Sixers guard is a forgotten figure in NBA history, and sadly so, because his feet betrayed him, forcing him to retire prematurely. But he was a Hall of Fame-caliber talent, a fearless assassin who could explode to the rim and shoot it from deep.

Johnson, who died Thursday at age 52, acknowledged that himself in an interview with The Morning Call in May 2006.

"Michael Jordan was very aggressive with the ball, the things he could do and the shots he could make," he said. "I would not put Andrew Toney too far behind him." The very first time Toney saw Boston Garden was as he disembarked from the team bus his rookie year (1980-81). And this is what he said as he looked upon the gritty cathedral where for so many years Russell, Cousy and Bird had held sway: "Where the gym at?" Translation: History, schmistory. Let's go play.

Toney treated the Celtics with similar disdain, torturing them with such regularity that he came to be known as The Boston Strangler (a nickname he actually inherited from World B. Free). They tried one defender after another on him. Chris Ford. Gerald Henderson. Danny Ainge. M.L. Carr. Quinn Buckner.

And finally, D.J.

"I didn't stop Andrew from scoring," he said in that 2006 interview.

Toney's feet very likely slowed him more than Johnson did. Because, in truth, no defender ever really stops an offensive force like that. All he can do is make it more difficult for the player in question. All he can do is work hard, and hope for the best.

"I enjoyed the challenge of putting what I do best against what he does best," D.J. said. "There are no losers in that . . . It's pure gamesmanship." Toney faded away, too soon, in 1988. And now, tragically, D.J. is gone, too.

The game they played disappeared long before either of them.

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