Thursday, February 22, 2007

Basketball great Dennis Johnson is dead

Former Boston Celtics guard Dennis Johnson passed away this evening after conducting a practice for his D-League basketball club in Austin, Texas. He was 52.

All reports state that Johnson seemed fine during and immediately after the practice. But while he was standing outside the team's facilities joking over a parking ticket with a team employee he collapsed and never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead a short time later.

Johnson played in the NBA for 14 seasons, won 3 NBA titles and is considered to be one of the greatest defensive players of all time. After earning the Finals MVP trophy for Seattle in 1979, the man affectionately known as DJ was traded to Phoenix, where he spent three seasons before being traded to Boston in 1983. He was well known for shutting down the best player on the other team, and his handcuffing of Laker great Magic Johnson in the 1984 Finals is the stuff of legend.

Growing up a Celtic fanatic I remember DJ as being the calming influence on those dynastic teams of the '80s. Bird was The Man, McHale was the Second Banana, Chief was smokin' his peace pipes and Ainge was like a pre-neutered pit bull. But DJ was like the cool uncle of the group, always guiding the team with a firm hand, dishing the rock at the appropriate times to the proper superstar or hitting a huge money shot/clamping down on the opponents' hottest hand when necessary. As a fan you just felt more comfortable with DJ on the court, a true mark of a great player.

Interestingly enough DJ had not been elected to the Hall off Fame as of this past year for reasons that have been contemplated by columnists everywhere. This omission comes despite the fact that the man averaged 14 points & 5 assists for his career, made 5-All Star teams, 6-All Defensive first teams and with Bird helped complete one of the most historic basketball plays of all time...

... I can still remember the game like it was, well not yesterday but just a few years ago: Boston vs. the HATED Pistons, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals Game 5. The Celtics trailed 107-106 with just seconds to play. As Isiah Thomas prepared to inbound the ball it appeared as if the C's were headed to Detroit for Game 6 facing a 3-2 deficit. Then The Play happened, and the sound of Johnny Most calling it will echo in the ears of basketball fans for decades to come:

"and there's a steal by Bird...underneath to DJ- he lays it in!"

Bird gets all the credit for the steal, but what would he have done had DJ not come streaking in from mid court and hit the slicing, reverse layup that won the game and propelled the Celts to a hard-fought 7-game win?

That play would mark the beginning of the end for the Celtics dynasty. The previous spring #1 draft pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose 2 days after the draft, and after DJ helped Boston advance past Detroit they lost to the Lakers in the '87 Finals; the team has not made it back to the championship since.

In the ensuing years age, malaise and tragedy would combine to derail the Green Machine. Playoff one-&-done appearances became the norm, a coaching carousel produced no "next Auerbach', Bird retired before the '92-'93 season and then beloved guard Reggie Lewis died suddenly in 1993. This season started with the death of the architect, Red Auerbach, and has seen the team lose a franchise-record 18 consecutive games en route to another possible #1 draft pick.

But Celtics fans will always have the great memories, and when it comes to that category DJ was responsible for more than his fare share, including one of the greatest memories of all time.

RIP, DJ. You will be missed, but you will not be forgotten.

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