Bird pays DJ tribute
Carr spearheads center
His No. 3 is retired, engraved on a banner hanging in the Garden. Dennis Johnson helped the Celtics win their last two championships and was working his way back to the NBA when he died of a heart attack in February at the age of 52. He played for Seattle and won an NBA Finals MVP. He played for Phoenix and was a first-team All-NBA selection.
But it was his seven years in Boston that defined his NBA career to many, particularly the former Celtic who called him "the best teammate I ever had" - Larry Bird. And it is Bird, now running the Indiana Pacers basketball operation, who will help memorialize the player universally known as "DJ" by funding a learning center in Johnson's memory. The center is scheduled to open Friday at the YMCA on Huntington Avenue.
"Who better than DJ? He was a big part of my life," Bird said.
The learning center will feature 10 state-of-the-art Dell desktop computers, flat-panel monitors, work stations, and portable, vinyl chairs. The center, like many similar ones around the country, is the brainchild of another ex-Celtic who played with Bird and Johnson, the indefatigable M.L. Carr. He started WARM2Kids in 2000 (the name is an acronym for We're All Role Models) and is looking for celebrities and athletes to share their stories and their money to help those who Carr says "suffer in silence."
The company website (warm2kids.com) has links featuring famous people talking about important emotional topics, from Mia Hamm on adoption to Jason Biggs on self-esteem to Bird on single parenting and suicide (which claimed his father). The learning centers soon followed; the one honoring Johnson will be the 11th. There are two in Dorchester, one at the Daniel Marr Boys and Girls Club named in honor of Red Auerbach and another at the Walter Denny Boys and Girls Club in honor of Francis X. Bellotti, the former Massachusetts lieutenant governor and attorney general. Both were funded by Raymond Tye, a longtime friend of Auerbach's. There are three learning centers in Florida, one in Flint, Mich., and another in San Antonio.
Next year, at least two more are scheduled to open, one in suburban Chicago funded by Celtics coach Doc Rivers in honor of his parents, Grady and Bettye Rivers, and another in Fort Worth that will honor the legendary Robert Hughes, the winningest boys' high school basketball coach (1,333 victories) in the country. The centers are located in Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and Jewish Community Centers and are designed for kids with no access to computers or the Internet. There they can access the company website for all sorts of educational and development content, link to the many celebrities for role model interviews, or simply surf the web to help them with their homework. The centers all have support staff to ensure the kids aren't spending all their time on Instant Messager.
"We look at these as a safe haven for kids," Carr said. "A lot of kids spend a lot of time at Boys and Girls Clubs and at the Y, and what was missing was the equipment. And on the other side, when the kids are in school, there are classes for senior citizens teaching them to use the computers."
Carr approached Bird months ago for help. Each learning center costs $50,000, and it was a price Bird was more than happy to pay. As Carr put it, "you're helping to close the digital divide and you memorialize DJ in the process. It's a win-win."
Said Bird, "It's helping kids and it's in DJ's name and it gives them somewhere to go after school. I saw where Red had one named for him, and it's something I think we need. It's a great idea."
And, Bird added, the fact that the new center will be in Boston is also fitting.
"I would have done it anywhere, but that's where we played together and that's where we won together," Bird said. "So it makes sense."
The opening will feature a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Johnson's widow, Donna, is scheduled to attend along with her mother and her three children, Dwayne, Daniel, and Denise. Bird will not be in attendance, but he is scheduled to provide a video tribute. Former teammates of Johnson also are scheduled to attend, including Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell, and Danny Ainge, all members of the 1984 title team, the first of two championships Johnson won in Boston. The Celtics then will publicize the event at Friday night's exhibition game against the Cavaliers at TD Banknorth Garden.
Carr's long-term vision is to get anyone and everyone to fund a learning center.
"Our goal is to one day have an Antoine Walker Learning Center and a LeBron James Learning Center. We have statistics that show that more than 14 million kids have nothing to do after school. That's when bad things happen," Carr said. "What a small cost to have such a big impact."