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The inimitable Celtic

New Hall of Famer Johnson had a style all his own

Dennis Johnson (left) celebrates a victory with teammate Greg Kite during the Celtics’ glory years in the 1980s. Dennis Johnson (left) celebrates a victory with teammate Greg Kite during the Celtics’ glory years in the 1980s. (1985 File/Associated Press)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / August 13, 2010

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He wasn’t always beloved.

Headstrong from the start, he continually tested the patience of Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens to the point where the Sonics were happy to trade him to Phoenix one year removed from being a Finals MVP and a mere weeks after being named to the All-NBA second team. And despite protestations to the contrary, the Suns never would have traded him to Boston three years later had there not been some issues during his time in Phoenix.

This is the guy Larry Bird has identified for the last quarter-century as the teammate with whom he was most simpatico? The answer is yes, and thus when you add it all up, it is safe to say Dennis Johnson was a very complicated person.

He was a complex human being, for sure, but he was also a unique package as a basketball player. Twenty years after his retirement, no NBA executive, coach, player personnel director, teammate, or rival has ever been moved to say after watching a young player, “Hey, he reminds me of Dennis Johnson.’’ DJ played the guard position in his own inimitable way, and we await the first facsimile.

He was different from the start. Reddish hair? Freckles? True enough. He was pretty much a nobody at Dominguez High in Compton, Calif. Ignored by recruiters, he went to work. Yeah, work. He drove a forklift. He worked in a liquor store. He knew all about time clocks, lunch breaks, and, we can surmise, goofing off. At that point, Johnson had a better chance of becoming the UN Secretary General as he did of being enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Oh, and don’t forget that he was one of 16 children. The word “entitlement’’ was not in his vocabulary.

A man named Jim White practically dragged DJ into Harbor Community College in San Pedro. Johnson’s team won the well-respected state junior college title in his second year and he was off to Pepperdine, where he played one year before entering the 1976 NBA draft. A Sonics scout spotted him, but it was the Seattle coach/general manager who saw something in Dennis Johnson a lot of people didn’t.

But then, Bill Russell was always ahead of the game, wasn’t he?

Johnson was raw as a rookie, and that’s being exceedingly polite. What he had to offer was good size for a guard (6 feet 4 inches), plus a body any running back would be proud of. He was an erratic shooter, but he was quite willing and able to take it to the hoop. He would bang on the glass. Most of all, he would guard you. Any wonder why Russell liked him?

Russ gave Johnson 21 minutes a game, during which he averaged a respectable 9 points while letting people know that having him defend you would be very annoying, if not downright depressing.

By Year 2, he was a starter on a team that would go to the seventh game of the Finals. It was, to say the least, a memorable experience. In losing Game 7, he shot 0 for 14 from the floor. Less remembered was his 4-for-16 performance in Game 6, also a losing effort. People had their laughs at his expense, all right.

A year later, he would be the Finals MVP.

He earned that prize by scoring a healthy 21 points per game during Seattle’s five-game revenge conquest of the Washington Bullets. At the other end, he put on an unsurpassed display of defensive intimidation from the guard position. In addition to being a human version of Velcro, he blocked an unimaginable 14 shots. It was the beginning of a long run in which he would become basketball’s first and only destructive defensive guard.

Perfect stopper
Starting in 1979, and ending in 1987, DJ was a five-time member of the All-Defensive first team and a three-time second-team selection. Defense was his calling card. He did it his way, using what can only be termed a poke check. This unorthodox maneuver, frowned upon by most coaches, was his signature defensive move.

The Celtics, almost frantic in their search to find someone who could guard Philadelphia’s menacing Andrew Toney, had something Phoenix needed, and that was the big body of Rick Robey. So the teams made the exchange following the 1983 season, with draft picks also going in both directions.

The Celtics were under no illusions. They knew that DJ was still said to be somewhat temperamental. But Red Auerbach was confident that a locker room containing Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Cedric Maxwell, and Quinn Buckner could keep him under control.

There was an early flare-up when DJ misunderstood coach K.C. Jones’s intentions in removing him in the fourth quarter of an early-season game against the 76ers, but K.C. made it clear who was boss and DJ got the message.

This is not to say that DJ ever became submissive. He simply took the cue and got more and more professional, but in a DJ way. That meant he reserved the right to submit a minimum effort every now and then, perhaps because his body needed a rest or perhaps because his mind did. He always picked a home game the Celtics would be likely to win by 25. It was all accepted as part of his charm.

What the Celtics learned for themselves was the meaning of that stellar 1979 Finals performance. DJ liked the big stage, and he had an inner mechanism that enabled him to perform at his absolute best when it most mattered.

“I know DJ is really up for the game when he takes it to the basket,’’ Bird would say.

Bird also famously declared DJ to be “the best player I ever played with,’’ varying the specifics as the years went on, but never deviating from the essential sentiment.

DJ had a fine 1983-84 regular season, but he saved his best for the Finals against Los Angeles. When an embarrassing 137-104 Game 3 loss put the Celtics in a 2-1 hole, changes had to be made. For some reason, Jones had resisted putting his best defensive guard on Magic Johnson. That ended in Game 4 when DJ was given the task.

In the final four games of that series, DJ neutralized Magic while scoring 22 (with 14 assists), 22, 20, and 22 as the Celtics won championship No. 14. The Big Game rep was now chiseled in cement.

No ordinary player
The Celtics were not an easy team for a guard. Clearly, everything revolved around the frontcourt, starting with Bird and continuing with Parish, Maxwell, and McHale, then the league’s reigning Sixth Man. The Celtics were meant to be an inside-first team, and it could be an intimidating experience for guards, who inevitably worried about whether it was right and proper for them to take a shot.

DJ never gave it a thought. He was confident enough in his abilities and sufficiently proud of his stature to establish the proper balance between fulfilling his duties to get the ball inside and affirming that he would be an offensive threat, too. An ordinary player might have been forever scarred by that 0 for 14 in the ’78 Finals. DJ’s response was to get himself a Finals MVP 12 months later, and to demonstrate on a nightly basis thereafter his scoring prowess.

A perfect example of his fearlessness and poise came in Game 1 of the 1986 series against the Bulls, when he was 0 for 6 in the first half and missed his first shot in the third quarter. He then hit his last seven shots of the quarter, the last six being jumpers.

One of the reasons the Suns claimed they traded him was that a backcourt of DJ and the 6-6 Walter Davis did not feature a point guard. DJ most certainly was not a point guard — not in Seattle, not in Phoenix, and not in Boston, either. He was a big guard who could get the ball upcourt and who could deliver it when called upon. A team with Larry Bird doesn’t need a point guard.

But if he was not a point guard, he was still a man who could read Bird, and vice versa. What would any of us give, for example, for one more look (OK, five or 10 looks) at that glorious collaboration in which DJ would be sauntering upcourt, just minding his own business, when he would suddenly whip a 50-foot bullet pass off the dribble to Bird, who had sneaked from left to right along the baseline? It got to the point where you couldn’t believe they’d get away with it one more time. But there was always one more time, and one after that.

DJ always just knew. Think about the Bird steal from Isiah Thomas in 1987. After securing the ball, there Bird was, tottering on one leg, ready to fall out of bounds. That would have ended the story had not DJ, who was behind the key when the play began, instantly sized up the situation and cut for the basket, making a contested backhand layup for the winning points.

This may not be the time to ask why it took the Hall of Fame voters so long to recognize a great player who was totally sui generis in style and approach, or to bemoan the fact that he is not here to enjoy the honor. But it is the time to remind everyone that with every passing day the image and reputation of Dennis Johnson as a one-of-a-kind player is more secure.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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