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Where's DJ?

Picking one ex-Celtic is nice, but another deserves it, too

NEW YORK --It will be interesting to see whom Kevin McHale selects to accompany him en route to his Hall of Fame presentation Oct. 1. Nils Lofgren? Kent Hrbek? Danny Schayes (A few of us remember the night in Denver he scored the game's first 11 points in about 30 seconds)?

Kevin McHale was not about basketball obsession. There is no doubt that he was a competitor. Given a choice between the W and the L, he had no choice. He was a big W man all the way. But through it all he had as much sheer fun as anyone who's ever played for the Celtics, or any other NBA team. He could think about anything except basketball until they threw the ball up, which used to upset Larry Bird, who, of course, was Mr. Business the second he walked into the arena. With Kevin it was, you know, different strokes, etc.

Too bad it won't be Larry, but he and Kevin were never buddy-buddy. They were like two little rival empires who just happened to work under the same corporate umbrella. Larry thought Kevin could have worked harder, and should have been an MVP at least once. Kevin thought Larry needed to get a life. So be it.

They were both quintessential Celtics, and now Kevin will join Bird, John Havlicek, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Frank Ramsey, Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy (we'll forget about those sorry seven games with Cincinnati if he will), and, of course, Bill Russell as players who have entered the Hall of Fame playing for the Boston Celtics, and only the Boston Celtics. No other team has anything close.

Each year it is customary to say that so-and-so ``leads'' a group of people into the Hall of Fame. There is no doubt that the leader of this year's class is Kevin McHale. There were 19 names on the ballot and just one was lit up in neon. We will never know officially, but it's difficult to imagine that McHale was not a unanimous choice.

As happy as I am for Kevin, I am equally saddened for Dennis Johnson. Now one would think that a member of the voting body would be someone deeply interested in the sport. One would think that each voter would be able to look beyond the obvious, which, in this case, is DJ's 14.1 points per game career average. One would think that someone entrusted with a vote would understand that the mark of a truly great player is to leave a singular impression on the game. There have been a lot of great scorers. There have been some great defenders. There have been some great passers. There have been some great rebounders. But there have been only a select handful of players who have combined all the above skills to a significant degree, who have clearly demonstrated a great capacity to excel when it matters most and who also have brought a personal stylistic flair to the game.

Dennis Johnson was one of those players.

A truly great player is a ``type.'' He becomes a frame of reference. In the nine years since his retirement there have been no ``Dennis Johnson types'' to come along. There have been no big guards who could stick the key jumper, take it aggressively to the hoop, defend maniacally, make the big pass, and come up with the big thought (never forget that if DJ, watching from damn near midcourt, hadn't cut to the hoop, Larry would have been standing there on one leg falling out of bounds with nowhere to go after making the steal in Game 5 of the 1986-87 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit) to the degree that Dennis Johnson did. There is no way to quantify toughness, but it matters and DJ was uncommonly tough, physically and mentally. Dennis Johnson's continuing exclusion from the Hall of Fame is an embarrassment to the organization.

Jo Jo White also was nominated, but Jo Jo White, while a fine NBA player, was not a Hall of Famer. He just wasn't. He's Dwight Evans.

While there may be hope for DJ, there is rather less selection hope for another special guard of the '70s and '80s. Maurice Cheeks has even less to offer by way of sheer scoring prowess (11 ppg career), but he shot over 50 percent from the floor nine straight years while never attempting more than 11 shots per game in a season, and he could always score if he had to. He just never viewed that as his job.

With all due respect to Magic Johnson, who could play any position on the floor, Mo Cheeks was the point guard's point guard of his day. He ran a team flawlessly and made all the requisite open jumpers. Defensively, he had the amazing capacity to double-team without ever getting burned on a ball reversal. He was a great ball hawk, and no one went coast to coast with more reliability on a turnover. If the Spurs had the vintage Mo Cheeks in their lineup, this series already would be over.

The most controversial selection will be John Thompson, about whom few people are neutral. Those who don't like him will hold the '88 Olympics against him forever, without recognizing just how good the Soviets were. This was, in fact, an easy call. Few coaches in the past 30 years have been more influential. He was the first great black coaching presence in Division 1 basketball, and there is no way of knowing how many doors he opened by his success at Georgetown. Whatever anyone thinks of his methods, let the record show that the Hoyas had won three games the year before he came and had never been a player on the national scene.

Fred Zollner was an NBA pioneer who has long deserved recognition. Billie Moore was one of the first giants of the modern women's coaching game. But the truly heartwarming choice to go into the Hall of Fame this year is Wayne Embry.

An All-Star level player, a great executive, and simply a superior human being, Wayne Embry has been a great NBA treasure for the past 40 years. The phrase ``role model'' gets bandied about in our national dialogue every day of the year. Well, here is a principled man with humor and dignity who would serve as a role model for anyone, regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, political persuasion, or eating habits (Wayne's got to be tipping 'em at three big ones these days).

And Wayne Embry, I suspect, knows he should be going in with Dennis Johnson.