What is the best way to judge a basketball player?
Championship rings? MVPs? All-League selections? Hall of Fame status?
No, the best way to judge a basketball player is to ask yourself, "How did he play the game? Did this man leave a legacy? Was there anyone else like him?"
Dennis Johnson was such a player. He was utterly sui generis.
He was a unique sight, to be sure. There was that reddish hair and the freckles. And I can close my eyes and still see him making one of his patented poke-check steals, or bringing the ball upcourt, the cheeks puffed out like a blowfish, surveying the situation. No one ever said he was poetry in motion. He was a hard dribbler, a hard driver, and a hard shooter. Yes, a hard shooter. His line-drive jumpers attacked the basket. And the defense . . . oh, baby, the defense.
A year after going 0 for 14 for the Sonics in a losing Game 7 of the 1978 Finals, DJ was the championship series MVP. That in itself is quite a juxtaposition in fortunes, speaking volumes for the man who pulled it off. But that wasn't the most noteworthy thing about his achievement. He got the award in part for scoring 22 a game in Seattle's conquest of the Washington Bullets and in part for his defense. You could argue that he might have merited the MVP honor for his defense alone, given that, in addition to tying up the Washington guards in general, he blocked 14 shots from the 2-guard position in that five-game series.
Dennis Johnson was -- and I have never used this word to describe another backcourt player -- a destructive defensive guard.
So whatever was going through K.C. Jones's head during the 1984 Finals against the Lakers, we'll never know. For some reason, the mentor did not put his best defensive guard on Magic Johnson in the first three games. But he did put DJ on Magic after a Game 3 rout put the Celtics in a 2-1 series deficit, and the results were rather dramatic.
I'm not going to say that DJ outplayed Magic, but he neutralized him defensively while scoring 22, 20, 22, and 22 points himself in the final four games. Larry Bird was the MVP, and Cedric Maxwell had the celebrated jump-on-my-back Game 7 performance, but the man who had set the tone for victory was Dennis Johnson.
I don't recall exactly when Larry raised all those eyebrows by anointing DJ "the best I've ever played with," but it was clutch performances like those that Larry obviously had in mind when he made his proclamation. DJ had an inner toughness and a general obliviousness to pressure that appealed to the great No. 33.
DJ's path to NBA stardom was completely typical. The average NBA player of DJ's day was, at the very least, a big high school star, and, very likely, an acclaimed college player. Dennis Johnson, the ninth of 16 children, was a nobody at Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif. Unrecruited out of high school, he went to work at a General Dynamics plant, driving a forklift.
After a year and a half in the Real World, he enrolled at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College before earning a scholarship at Pepperdine. He came out after his junior year as a hardship pick and was selected by Seattle in the second round of the 1976 draft. Fortunately for him, the coach was Bill Russell, a man who had no interest in pedigree. Russell took a liking to the well-built 6-foot-4-inch guard, who lacked finesse but who brought a pleasing physicality to the 2-guard position.
By the time DJ arrived in Boston prior to the 1983-84 season, he had acquired a reputation. When you have a "reputation," it's not a good thing. He was said to be headstrong and petulant. Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens, the beneficiary of DJ's extraordinary performance in those '79 Finals, had even labeled DJ a "cancer."
He played well enough after being traded to Phoenix (for Paul Westphal) to earn one All-NBA first-team selection and three first-team All-Defensive berths. But the Suns were willing to trade him, along with a first- and a third-round pick, to Boston for Rick Robey and a pair of second-rounders. This turned out to be like getting Manhattan Island for 10 bucks, not 24. In Boston, DJ was no longer a problem child; now he was a talented eccentric on a team of talented eccentrics.
It was hoped that DJ could be the much sought-after Andrew Toney deterrent, and he turned out to be that, plus a whole lot more. The other Celtics guards had seemed oddly spooked by the Big Three, afraid to play their own games. Not Dennis Johnson. He didn't give a damn. He got the ball inside while still taking the shots he wanted to take. It was a tricky balance, but DJ pulled it off, and he did so while reinventing himself as a point guard.
He and Larry were always on the same wavelength. At least once a game DJ would be bringing the ball upcourt at a three-quarters pace as Larry made his way along the left sideline. Larry would make a 90-degree cut to the right and -- bang! -- DJ would deliver a 45-foot laser from midcourt, off the dribble. The NBA has not seen anything like it since.
Their greatest collaboration, of course, came on May 26, 1987. Game 5, Eastern Conference finals. The truth is that Larry gets far too much of the credit for stealing the ball. It was a great and vital steal of an inbounds pass with the Celtics trailing by 1 and time running out, but if it weren't for DJ's quick thinking in cutting to the basket, Larry would have been left perched on one leg, like a flamingo at Hialeah, falling out of bounds with the basketball.
Where was DJ when the play began? At midcourt. But he sized up the situation immediately, took Bird's pass, and made a difficult backhand layup with Joe Dumars coming from the right side and a retreating Isiah Thomas coming from the left. Larry Stole The Ball, yes, but DJ Made The Play. Never forget that.
In dealing with the truly great ones, you must accept the whole package, and in DJ's case, this meant you realized he would be taking occasional nights off. About three or four times a year, always at home and always against an opponent the Celtics could beat with Johnny Most or Glenn Ordway in the starting lineup, DJ would announce in the locker room that he would not be participating in the offense. But no one ever had to worry about DJ's preparedness in any certified Big Game. That's when Dennis Johnson was at his best.
His exclusion from the Hall of Fame is, quite frankly, a monumental injustice. If it's because the voters don't realize how singular a player he was, they need to do some homework. If it's because he had one horrible aberrational day in his personal life, a 1997 domestic incident for which he was eternally apologetic and remorseful and for which he was forgiven by his wife, that is horribly unfair. DJ, like all of us, was a flawed human being. He deserves a mulligan. I am here to say he was a good person.
I am also here to say that I have seen every great basketball player of the last 50 years, and I have seen only one person play the game in the manner of a Dennis Johnson. That building in Springfield is a Hall of Shame without a Dennis Johnson plaque hanging on the wall. But no matter. DJ left us with the indelible memory of a unique basketball player, and that is enough.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.