boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

In CBA, DJ learns ABCs of coaching

Time out. 6.7 seconds remaining in overtime. 99-99. The coach of the La Crosse Bobcats turns to Fort Wayne fans Steve Jones and Pete Giokaris, seated in those Jack Nicholson kind of seats adjacent to the Bobcats' bench, and says, "Have you ever had more fun than this?"

"I said, `I remember a game against Detroit when Bird stole the ball,' " Jones answers.

Good response. The head coach of the La Crosse Bobcats is Dennis Johnson, whose personal happiness level rises significantly when Mark Davis tips in a shot at the buzzer to give Coach Johnson and the rest of the Bobcats a satisfying 101-99 road victory over the Fort Wayne Fury. It is the sixth win in seven games for La Crosse, now 13-17 on the season.

You didn't read about it, of course. This has all taken place in the Continental Basketball Association, whose day-to-day activities are not reported in any detail by the major media outlets of America. But it was all very real to everyone concerned, perhaps no one more than our old friend DJ, who is seizing this opportunity to get himself back in the daily world of professional basketball with all the enthusiasm of Gilbert Brown at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

DJ was once in the loop. As an assistant coach in the Chris Ford and M.L. Carr Boston regimes, he was gaining leaguewide respect for both his diligence and intelligence. But he was swept out with the tide when Rick Pitino arrived, and things got exponentially worse on the afternoon of Oct. 20, 1997, when Orlando police responded to a 911 call from DJ's frightened teenage son Dwayne, who had run next door to report that his father had put his hands around his mom's throat and was threatening her with a knife.

This does not look good on your resume.

"Do I feel bad about it?" Johnson inquires. "All the time. It's not something that was pleasant for anybody. People say, `I'm really surprised that anything like that ever happened.' I was, too."

Fact: He did it. Fact: Donna Johnson never filed charges. Fact: The Orange County state attorney's office dropped its case on Jan. 8, 1998, because neither Donna Johnson nor Dwayne Johnson wished to pursue the case. Fact: Donna Johnson and children Denise, 7, and David, 5, reside with DJ in West Salem, Wis. (Dwayne attends school in Florida).

"People say, `Why didn't she leave you?' " DJ continues. "It wasn't that simple. You've 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 I'd have to face the music. I did my counseling. And I never hid. I went out. I went to Magic games. All the time, I tried my best to repair the damage I did."

No one ever has said out loud that The Incident is being held against him.

"If people do hold it against me, that's their problem now." he says. "I'm doing my best to clear my name. But, overall, I really think I'll get back into the NBA."

A star starts over

With or without The Incident on his record, another fact remains: The La Crosse Bobcats represent Johnson's first head coaching job at any level.

And?

"He has a lot of traits many NBA coaches wish they had," reports Bill Klucas, a dedicated basketball lifer who serves as a combination assistant coach/traveling secretary/Yoda for both DJ in particular and the franchise in general. "He has the knack of communication. It's the single biggest thing I found surprising in him, and I think the players find it refreshing, too."

"You always hear - and I said it would never happen to me - `I don't know my role,' " says DJ. "That is a killer for a coach. And it's not just a matter of saying, `This is what you should do,' You've got to say, `What do you think of that?' And one thing I didn't know before I took this job is how much of coaching at this level would be about reassurance."

"He was such an intense player," analyzes cerebral forward Brandon Williams, a Phillips Exeter and Davidson grad who had a December sip of java with the Atlanta Hawks. "I thought he would be more of a bulldog on the sidelines. But we've learned that he really knows how to relate to players. He talks to you the way players talk to each other. He's not that far removed from the game, and he still thinks a lot like a player."

Not that DJ could relate in a true sense to these players. After all, we're talking about a five-time All-Star, a nine-time member of either the first- or second-team All-Defensive squad, possessor of three championship rings, and a man who was continually referred to by Larry Bird as the "best player I ever played with." His inexplicable exclusion from the Hall of Fame is an utter embarrassment. No La Crosse Bobcat of his will ever be half the player Dennis Johnson was.

"I can't put myself in their shoes," he acknowledges. "I was a very good player, and I excelled also because I hustled all the time. That's something a few of these guys have to learn. Every time you're on the court you've got to leave it all on the court."

But the issue isn't developing Dennis Johnsons. The issue is developing spare parts for the NBA. In some sense, every player here is incomplete. He needs either one more skill or a better work ethic or a different attitude in general. These people have all been humbled and wounded, because until this point their athletic lives have been ones of achievement and continual upward progression. And when the big moment comes, and the NBA calls, more disappointment awaits.

"It's very seldom you go there to be a star," DJ points out. "You're going up to be a role player. There lies the problem with a lot of them. They can't handle that."

A CBA squad is notoriously difficult to make into a legitimate t-e-a-m, because every player in the league has the same thought; namely, "What can I do to get me out of here on the next plane?"

"When Jamel Thomas was called up by the Celtics," Johnson explains, "Dontae Jones went crazy. `I've got to call my lawyer and have him get me out of here,' he was screaming. I told him, `Dontae, there are two ways to get out of here. You can walk out, or I can get you out.' "

Every coach in the league tells a similar story. CBA players scour the daily "Transactions," and if a CBA player has received an NBA call-up, it's an instant and major cell phone alert.

"How can they call him up? I kicked his butt in high school! I kicked his butt in college! I kicked his butt in training camp! I need to get me a new agent!"

"It could never be like college or the NBA," assesses Williams, "because everyone's ultimate goal is to get out of here. I don't think anyone ever looks at the 56-game schedule and says, `Let's hope we're No. 1 on April 1.' Everyone is thinking, `I hope I'm in an NBA playoff game on April 1.' "

So a coach's task is to find some way to get 11 unhappy people to put their personal agendas aside for at least two hours a few times a week in order to put something together that looks like a basketball team. If it happens, then the coach looks good, and let's never forget that he has his agenda, too, and it seldom involves buying, as opposed to renting, a house in La Crosse, Yakima, Sioux Falls, or Fort Wayne.

"I'm like everyone else here," concedes DJ. "The only difference is they don't call up coaches at midseason, the way they do players. I wish they did."

Coaching in the CBA is now an acceptable avenue toward an NBA job. Phil Jackson, George Karl, and Flip Saunders are all CBA alumni, and any of them could tell you that if you can coach in this peculiar environment, you can coach anywhere. As Klucas, a true CBA expert, explains, "There are two basic rules in the CBA. The first is that the only constant is change. The second is that this truly is a `today' league. You can lose two players at 4 o'clock. You learn to make adjustments here. Look at Flip Saunders [now coach of the Timberwolves]. He's the personification of it. He loses [Stephon] Marbury, and he goes on.

"Not all those NBA guys could do what Dennis is doing," asserts Klucas. "Norm Van Lier lasted 12 games. And don't even get me started about Rick Barry."

`Complete commitment'

Life in the CBA is far from primitive, but it's not the NBA. Forget charters. Forget first-class hotels. Forget huge meal money. Say hello to 5:30 a.m. wake up calls and Lilliputian three-across jets that afford no leg room to a jockey, let alone a 7-footer. Say hello to Comfort Inns (not that there's anything wrong with that). Say hello to 30 bucks a day meal money.

The arenas, with the exception of the armory in Hartford, are cozy and comfortable. DJ's home court is the La Crosse Center, a perfectly charming 5,862-seat arena in this pleasant city of 50,000 on the Minnesota border in west-central Wisconsin. La Crosse is a classic Wisconsin town, which means that under the heading of "taverns" in the yellow pages, one will find no fewer than 80 listings, plus 59 more in such surrounding communities as Onalaska, Cashton, and, across the river, La Crescent, Minn.

"And they use 'em,' too," laughs DJ, who spends his free time with Donna and the kids at their rental in West Salem. He is still a California-bred Florida resident, who reports that "the cold here just burns your face."

His impact in this community has been, well, enormous.

"We were overwhelmed he would even consider us," says Bill Bosshard, a local bank president who was one of the team's owners until Isiah Thomas bought the entire league last year, and whose wife, Diane, is the team's general manager. "And then when he took the job he made a complete commitment. He moved his family here without hesitation. He said, `If I come, my family comes. We'll be doing this together.' In town, he wears his celebrity status easily. He has no need of an entourage."

"I picked him up when he got here," says Mike Gostomski, another former part-owner, "and took him to a group of about 100 Polish guys, and he was great. He gave a short speech and then said, `Anybody wants me one-on-one, I'll be over in that corner.' He stayed as long as anyone wanted him."

Justin Byers is the trainer, and he still cannot believe he is working with the Dennis Johnson.

"The first dinner we had, I just sat there in awe," Byers says. "At the end, I finally got around to asking him about what it was like to play on all those great teams. Working with him has turned out to be a blast. He is just an amazing man."

CBA coaches don't ordinarily stop traffic at airports. Come on, would you recognize Dan Panaggio, Tyler Jones, or even Darrell Walker? Like it or not, Dennis Johnson is more than the coach of the Bobcats. He is their public face. And he is batting 1.000 in his role as team ambassador, signing autographs by the hour and interacting with the townsfolk as if he had lived here for 20 years.

"With three championship rings and his entire background, I didn't know what to expect," says assistant general manager and play-by-play announcer Ken Koeller. "But Dennis has been a joy. He is a genuine, down-to-earth human being who just likes being around people."

All this is a pleasant bonus for the La Crosse Bobcats, but just being a nice guy isn't going to get Johnson what he wants. He will get one of those coveted NBA head coaching jobs only if he can prove that he merits one. Coaching, not hand-shaking, will get Johnson out of La Crosse.

A lot of people are surprised he isn't in the NBA right now - as a Larry Bird assistant.

"I told someone last year in a lighthearted way, although I do mean it to a degree, that I almost wish Larry hadn't said what he said," sighs Johnson. "It gave people the wrong impression. I loved playing with him, and we never had a cross word, but we weren't close friends off the court. We did talk, and he knew I wasn't interested in being a third assistant, anyway, even if he wanted one. It's not a big deal to me, but so many other people think it is."

The real issue is his learning curve as a head man in a competitive business, and Bill Klucas believes DJ is a coaching keeper.

"He's secure," Klucas points out. "He's not afraid to delegate. I've been around Bird and [Kevin] McHale, and DJ is like them in that they all have what I call `Celtic confidence.' I've worked with Fred Taylor, Bill Musselman, Joe Mullaney, and many others, and from an assistant coach's standpoint DJ is the easiest man I've ever worked with. He knows the game. The only gap on his resume was the actual head coaching experience, the game management. He knew what he needed and he came down here to learn it."

DJ has tried this suit on, and it fits very nicely.

"Can I see myself coaching in the NBA?" he inquires. "Very nicely."

Aside to NBA GMs: DJ has a cell phone, too, and it's a guarantee he'll promptly return your call.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES