On Basketball

Already enshrined in Seattle

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / August 14, 2010

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SPRINGFIELD — The deepest and most cherished memories of Dennis Johnson are in Celtic green. A mature Johnson arrived in Boston, followed Nate Archibald as point guard, and helped exalt what was already a great team.

Johnson may not have arrived last night in the Basketball Hall of Fame, three years following his death, had it not been for those two NBA titles earned with the Boston Celtics. DJ, who was acquired from the Suns, emerged as the Celtics’ on-court leader, facilitating the sophisticated offensive system while leaving his bravado in Phoenix.

Johnson sacrificed his game, his offensive skills, and a pride that helped carry the Seattle SuperSonics to the 1979 championship — the city’s lone major sports title until the WNBA Storm took the championship 25 years later.

The time Johnson spent in Seattle cannot be discounted in adding to his legend. Johnson entered the NBA as a freckled-faced unknown who declared after his junior season from Pepperdine University, a school known more for its picturesque location in Malibu than its basketball team.

The four seasons Johnson played in the Pacific Northwest were filled with triumphant times and humbling moments. He immediately became a salve for the sensation that became Magic Johnson. How a 6-foot-4-inch, 185-pound man could contain a 6-9, 230-pound magician was beyond belief, but Johnson established his reputation as a defender during his time in Seattle.

He called himself a “choke’’ after a 0-for-14 performance against the Washington Bullets in Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals. And the next season, he shot 45 percent with 20 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in leading the Sonics to their only title, legitimizing a city that had been abandoned by baseball’s Pilots after one year, while the Mariners and Seahawks were still laughingstocks.

Although the city no longer has the Sonics, losing them in a bungled two-year malady that robbed a 41-year regime in Washington, Johnson’s place in team history is secure and revered. There is a photo of a leaping Johnson, both fists balled, with fierce grin, gold chain dangling, as the Sonics clinched the 1979 NBA title.

There may not be a picture that best describes the pinnacle of Seattle sports. The Seahawks reached Super Bowl XL in 2006, but lost to Pittsburgh, 21-10. The Mariners won a record 116 games in 2001, but lost to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

DJ was Seattle royalty. The cornerstone of an emerging franchise, but just as quickly as Johnson ascended, he clashed with Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens, who labeled Johnson a “cancer’’ in 1980 after the Sonics were eliminated by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Things were never the same in Seattle. The Sonics remained a threat throughout the ’80s, but never rightfully challenged the Lakers as they did in the late 1970s. They didn’t have a DJ to check Magic Johnson. They didn’t have that swagger or that aura.

They never waited for DJ to mature. He was just 25 when he left Seattle for Phoenix, the same age as some free agent small forward who held the NBA world hostage this offseason with a 60-minute special to announce his free agent decision.

Johnson was brash, cocky, and immature, but it was that same brashness that led him to the NBA from a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. It was the same brashness that helped Seattle, hardly the most imposing team of the late 1970s, reach consecutive NBA Finals.

His fierceness was unrefined and still with plenty of sharp edges, but Johnson spent his first four seasons building the framework for what would be a splendid final seven in Boston.

Ironically, the player who occasionally grated on coaches spent the final several years of his life waiting for his opportunity to become a permanent NBA coach. Just like his playing career, Johnson had to earn every chance as a coach. Players with Hall of Fame credentials generally don’t coach in the NBDL, but Johnson did, and having talked to many of the players he coached during his tenure, he made an impact.

History has a way of righting itself. Those wounds that were so deep years ago heal and the scars blend into the skin. That’s the way it was for Johnson and Wilkens, who could coach more great teams yet never again win a title.

The two will forever be linked. Their time together in Seattle captures a team that no longer exists. That isn’t lost on Wilkens.

“I’m really happy that Dennis is going into the Basketball Hall of Fame,’’ he said. “He really certainly is very deserving. He represented Seattle extremely well. We miss him and I’m thrilled that he is being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was special.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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