Dennis Johnson was a calm 24-year-old when he sat up in his bed in his hotel room in Washington. It was after the first game of the 1979 National Basketball Association finals. The calm might have seemed peculiar. His Seattle SuperSonics had lost the first game to the Washington Bullets. The year before, the Sonics lost to the Bullets for the title, with Johnson shooting 0-for-14 in the deciding seventh game.
No one knew it then, but the Sonics would sweep the next four games for the title. Johnson, normally known for his defense, was named the Most Valuable Player. In the game that gave his team a commanding 3-1 series lead, he scored 32 points. Those 32 points surely stemmed from that 0-for-14 performance.
That 0-for-14 was good for me, in a way, Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. It was part of a growing process. In a 2003 reflection about the 0-for-14 on the Sonics website, Johnson said, I started working on my shot, I started working on playing every day.
From that hotel bed in 1979, Johnson told me about how he worked himself up from a 5-foot-9 high school benchwarmer and a $2.75-an-hour forklift operator to a 6-4, minimum-wage guard for Seattle (reports of his first-years salary varied from $35,000 to $50,000). He told me that when he talked to Sonics owner Sam Schulman about renegotiating his contract, he told Schulman, Were on our way to winning the championship. You just keep coming to the game.
Just keep coming to the game.
Johnson would win two more championships with the Celtics. His number 3 retired to the Boston Garden rafters. But the game was not over.
Johnson, who died suddenly Thursday of a heart attack at 52, had a basketball intelligence that seemed destined for a head coaching job. By most accounts, he took himself off the fast track by being arrested for grabbing his wifes throat, threatening her with a knife and threatening one of his sons in their Orlando home in 1997.
Johnson was also much talked about as a candidate for the Basketball Hall of Fame. If someone is a convicted felon, Hall of Fame president Joe OBrien said at the time, we would eliminate them from consideration.
We never heard much about this from his wife, Donna. She did not file charges. But one must figure she was strong in the face of Johnsons fury. The police report said she told him, What are you going to do, kill me? Go ahead.
Johnson apparently tried to kill the beast within himself. In the following years, he pleaded to anyone who would listen that he went to counseling and repeatedly apologized to his wife and family. He told the Los Angeles Times that he needed to correct myself. He understood how to correct the cost to himself professionally. He got on basketballs version of the warehouse forklift. He died a minor-league coach.
Johnson told the Globes Bob Ryan in 2000, People say, Why didnt she leave you? It wasnt that simple. Youve got to look at it this way: 22 years invested in a marriage vs. 10 very bad minutes. I knew the next year was going to be bad, and I knew it would be at least that long before I worked again, but I decided Id have to face the music. I did my counseling. And I never hid ... I tried my best to repair the damage I did.
That still leaves Johnson like most human beings short of sainthood. But it sounds better than politicians who say they take responsibility without showing how they did. Its a lot better than O.J. Simpson, who tried to peddle the book If I Did It about the murder of his ex-wife, for which he was acquitted, and has paid only a fraction of a $33.5 million civil judgment to his ex-wifes family.
In a nation where nearly a quarter of women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experience violence from an intimate partner sometime in their lives, it is important if Johnson really did turn his 10 bad minutes into nearly 10 more years of a healthier marriage before his death. He hasnt made the Hall of Fame. But NBA commissioner David Stern on Thursday hailed Johnson as a man of extraordinary character.
Only Donna Johnson knows for sure. If she agrees with Stern, it is because her husband kept coming to the game.