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Dennis Johnson, ex-Celtic star, dead at age 52

(Globe File / 1986)

LOS ANGELES -- Dennis Johnson, a five-time NBA All-Star and integral part of the Celtics' 1984 and 1986 championship teams, died yesterday, collapsing after coaching Boston's NBA Development League affiliate, the Austin Toros, in practice in Austin, Texas.

According to a spokesman for the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, the 52-year-old Johnson suffered a heart attack. Johnson was unconscious and in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived at the Austin Convention Center. Paramedics attempted to revive Johnson for 23 minutes before he was taken to a local hospital and later pronounced dead.

Toros spokeswoman Perri Travillion said she was speaking with Johnson on the sidewalk outside the Convention Center when he collapsed. Johnson was joking about getting a parking ticket.

"We were laughing," said Travillion. "He just collapsed."

Travillion called 911, but Johnson never regained consciousness. According to Travillion, Johnson did not appear to overexert himself at practice and did not complain of any discomfort before collapsing.

As the news spread around the NBA, former teammates and opponents were shocked and saddened. Johnson leaves his wife, Donna, and three children -- sons Dwayne and Daniel, and daughter Denise -- as well as an extended NBA family that remembers the defensive intensity, toughness, and ability to come through in the clutch that he exhibited during a 14-year career spent with Seattle, Phoenix, and Boston. During the playoffs, Johnson hounded Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson on defense and most famously scored the winning layup for the Celtics in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons after Larry Bird stole Isiah Thomas's inbounds pass.

"I hate to lose," Johnson once said. "I accept it when it comes, but I still hate it. That's the way I am."

That mind-set, in part, led Bird to call Johnson the best teammate he ever had. It was a compliment that captured what Johnson meant to the Celtics far better than the 14.1 points and five assists per game he averaged during his career. At the time of his retirement after the 1989-90 season, he was the 11th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points and record 5,000 assists. He was also a six-time member of the All-Defensive first team and one time member of the All-NBA first team. Many former teammates believe Johnson should have been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time," said Danny Ainge, who played alongside Johnson in the Celtics' backcourt for six seasons. "DJ was a free spirit and a fun personality who loved to laugh and play the game."

Bird and Ainge joined a long list of former Celtic teammates, including Cedric Maxwell and Rick Carlisle, in sharing memories of Johnson from their title runs. In addition to his two titles with Boston, Johnson won the 1979 NBA championship with Seattle, being named the most valuable player of the Finals.

Johnson was born Sept. 18, 1954, in Compton, Calif., and played at Pepperdine University before being drafted in the second round by Seattle in 1976. Johnson was traded to Phoenix in 1980 and to Boston in 1983.

"DJ will be remembered as one of the key figures in the resurgence of the NBA in the late '70s and early '80s," said Carlisle. "He redefined the shooting guard position by becoming one of the first true 'stoppers' in the modern era. Dennis had a great passion for the game of basketball as a player, and loved to teach the game as a coach. He will forever be remembered by his teammates and opponents as one of the great winners and money players in NBA history."

Added Maxwell: "That was my guy. We were very close. We were like two peas in a pod. As people would say, I'm shocked. It's like having a brother pass away. You win championships together, go through wars together, and to know he's passed away is amazing . . . I'm just numb. This is a guy I played with. I know. He's a couple years older than me."

Former Celtics coach K.C. Jones, who guided the team to titles in '84 and '86, said, "Larry Bird was totally in awe of Dennis. Dennis was just an awesome player. He played hard and he took the big shots."

A statement from NBA commissioner David Stern cited Johnson's "professionalism," "extraordinary character," and "tremendous passion for the game." Stern said Johnson's loss would be "felt throughout the basketball community." Former Pistons center and playoff foe Bill Laimbeer highlighted the same qualities, calling Johnson a "great player on a great ball club."

"He played with passion and grit," Laimbeer said. "It was fun to play games like that. You always enjoyed it. It made for not only great games, but great entertainment."

As Laimbeer, the Celtics of the '80s, and the Seattle SuperSonics of the late '70s can attest, it also made for championships.

"As far as a person, he was a great competitor," said Jack Sikma, who played with Johnson in Seattle. "He wouldn't let things pass. He would cause some friction if he felt strongly about something, but with our team that was a good thing."

At the time of his death, Johnson had turned his passion fully toward coaching the Toros in hopes of earning an NBA head coaching job. The Toros postponed home games scheduled for tonight and tomorrow night, as the Johnson family finalized funeral arrangements.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report; Shira Springer can be reached at