Bob Ryan

DJ was one of a kind

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 6, 2010

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INDIANAPOLIS — It’s about time they listened to Larry.

Didn’t Larry Bird explain Dennis Johnson to the world a quarter-century ago? Didn’t he surprise people by saying, without qualification, that “Dennis Johnson is the best player I’ve ever played with.’’? That’s what he said, time and time again, and he never felt an apology was necessary to either Kevin McHale or Robert Parish, future Hall of Famers themselves.

Long, long after it should have been done, and, sadly, three years after his death at the age of 52, voters at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame affirmed Larry’s praise by making Johnson a member of the Class of 2010, as announced yesterday at the Final Four.

“I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster since we received the news,’’ said his widow, Donna. “I’ve been happy and sad. Happy, of course, because he’s in, but sad because he won’t be there.’’

Bird was present at the announcement in his role as representative for the 1992 Olympic team, the One and Only “Dream Team,’’ which will be joined in the team category by the legendary 1960 Olympic team that was coached by the great Pete Newell, and whose key players included Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, and Walt Bellamy, who was the team representative.

But Larry was equally happy for DJ. His opinion of his old teammate has not changed over the years.

“I played with a lot of great players,’’ Bird said, “but if I had to play with only one of them it would have been DJ. I just had a connection with him. The backdoor cuts and many other things. We never needed any conversation on the court. No need for talking. He just always knew what we needed.’’

DJ’s résumé includes two championships with the Celtics and one with the Sonics. It includes nine selections to the All-Defensive team. It includes five All-Star Game appearances. It includes the MVP award in the 1979 Finals, when, among other things, he blocked 14 shots in five games from the guard position. There have been many great defensive guards, but Dennis Johnson was the only one I’d ever call destructive.

But as is the case with any legitimately great player, his essence cannot be gleaned from a résumé. As much as any great player I can think of, it can truly be said that there was no one like him.

It wasn’t one thing; it was everything. Ninth of 16 children. A nobody coming out of high school. Drove a forklift before going to junior college. Second-round Seattle pick out of Pepperdine who caught the eye of coach Bill Russell. Zero-for-14 in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals as the Sonics lost to Washington and the aforementioned MVP a year later. Successful three-year tenure in Phoenix, but saddled with label of being a handful. Traded to Boston for Rick Robey (there were other minor matters).

The red hair. The freckles. The classic two-guard body. The conversion to nominal floor leader, although you’d never really confuse him with a point guard. The cheeks puffing out, a la Dizzy Gillespie, as he brought the ball upcourt. Those deadly poke-check steals. The power drives. The line-drive jumpers. The dribbling of the basketball to signify how many years he’d been in the league before every foul shot. The off-the-dribble, halfcourt bullets to a cutting Bird along the baseline. The overdue switch to guard Magic Johnson after Game 3 of the 1984 Finals, after which he neutralized him while scoring 22, 22, 20, 22 points in Games 4, 5, 6, and 7, respectively. And, yes, the nights he’d occasionally take off, always doing it for a home game against a team the Celtics were going to defeat and always having the courtesy to announce his intentions internally beforehand. That’s part of the Dennis Johnson package, too.

“He was a big-game player,’’ Bird maintained. “He always shot better in the playoffs and he always took it hard to the hole in big games. People forget he won before he came to Boston, and once he came, we got to the Finals four years in a row.’’

So what kept him from this honor for so long? I guess we’ll have to ask all those voters who, year after year, just didn’t seem to get it. Was it because his career average was “only’’ 14.1 points a game? Maybe he should have shot more, even if it wasn’t necessary. He certainly couldn’t have done much more at the defensive end.

And it did matter to him. “He’d ask me if I thought he’d get in, and I told him, sure,’’ Bird said. “This is a big day for his family.’’

“We do wish he were here,’’ acknowledged Donna Johnson. “But I’m so blessed I’ll be able to stand in for him.’’

“I played with some great players,’’ Bird reiterated. “But DJ was the easiest to play with.’’

That endorsement should have had DJ in the Hall long ago, don’t you think?

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