Dennis Johnson was a professional U.S. basketball player who played in the ‘National Basketball Association (NBA)’ -- the premier basketball league in North America and arguably the most popular basketball league in the world. He initially started out as a shooting guard, tasked with stealing the ball from the opposition in defense and score points for his team on the attack. Later, when he was moved into the point guard position, his defensive capabilities and decision-making abilities came to the fore thus allowing him to control the game and produce decisive plays that contributed to many game-defining moments in big matches. He combined his bulk, long leap and fast hands to block and steal the ball off his opponents whether be it in the air or ground. And combined with his intuitive reading of the game, he could initiate successful attacks or score from distance and rebounds, almost at will. It is for these reasons that past NBA greats and sports journalists alike consider him to be one of the most defensively astute and versatile players to have played in the NBA.
Childhood & Early Life
Dennis Johnson was born on September 18, 1954 in San Pedro, California USA. He had fifteen other siblings and was part of a large family supported by the humble earnings of his father who was a bricklayer.
He attended Dominguez High School where he initially took a liking for baseball and even played in the Little League. His interest in basketball grew once he started learning the basics of the game from his father.
He worked different jobs soon after finishing high school, and utilized his free time playing alongside his brothers in street basketball tournaments. During one such game, the coach of Los Angeles Harbor College, Jim White noticed his talents, and convinced him to enroll and play for the college basketball team.
After junior college, he received sport scholarships from just two universities in California, namely Pepperdine University and Azusa Pacific University, of which he accepted the former. In his very first year, he helped Pepperdine Waves qualify for the prestigious NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) basketball tournament.
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Just a year into Pepperdine University, Dennis Johnson skeptically applied for the 1976 NBA Draft. To his surprise, he was the second-round pick of Seattle SuperSonics franchise, who signed him on a four-year contract. That season, he was sparingly played and averaged only 9.2 points per game.
The Sonics started the 1977-78 season badly, culminating in the appointment of Larry Wilkens as the new team manager. This proved fateful for Dennis as he was made the starting shooting guard for the team. Paired with Gus Williams, the duo powered their franchise into the Playoffs, only to lose to the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals.
His improved average of 3.5 assists and 15.9 points per game in the 1978-79 season helped the Sonics top the Pacific Division, make it past the Playoffs and into the Finals. Playing the Bullets again in the Finals, his prolific scoring was instrumental in getting his franchise the 1979 NBA Title.
The 1979-80 season saw him average 4.1 assists and 19 points per game despite his team losing to the LA Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Off court, his relationship with coach Wilkens soured due to constant clashes resulting in him being exchanged end season for Paul Westphal and a couple of other draft picks with the Phoenix Suns.
In his debut season for the Suns, he scored at an average of 18.8 points per game in turn helping his new franchise register 57 wins and top the Pacific Division. They however, narrowly lost to the Kansas City Kings in the Western Conference Semi-final series.
By 1981, he had established himself as one of most voracious defenders in the NBA as well as the main scoring option for the Suns. That season, he produced his career best scoring average of 19.5 points per game.
With a dip in his on-court performances during the 1982-83 season, his off-court clashes with coach John MacLeod unfortunately increased. Understandably, the Suns traded him to the Boston Celtics for Rick Robey and two other draft picks once the season ended.
In his very first season with the Celtics, he helped them make it to the 1983 NBA Finals, where they faced off against rivals, LA Lakers. In that series, he successfully stifled the opposition scorers in Games 2, 4 and 7 allowing the Celtics to become NBA Champions.
His third year with the Celtics saw them top the Eastern Conference league table with 67 wins, significantly backed by his tally of 6.7 assists and 17.8 points per game, combined with his all-round gameplay. They went on to beat the Houston Rockets 4-2 in the 1986 Finals to lift their 16th NBA title.
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The 1989-90 season was Johnson’s last for Celtics and the NBA. He announced his retirement as a player from the game at the end of that season. He was 35 years old at the time.
From 1990 to 1993, he continued with the Boston Celtics working as a scout and was appointed their assistant coach in ’93.
Between 2000 and 2003, he worked in different coaching capacities for the Los Angeles Clippers. He later coached the Austin Toros in the ‘NBA Development League’.
Major NBA Moments
Playing for the Sonics in the 1979 NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets, his tally in that series alone was 23 points per game; his 32 points scored in Game-4 overtime is worth special mention.
Playing for the Celtics in the 1984 Finals against bitter rivals LA Lakers, he stifled Laker’s famed point guard, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson with such success that the latter’s errors directly led to a 4-3 win for Celtics and the 1984 NBA title.
In Game-5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons, he received a pass from Larry Bird on the sprint and scored in the last second to win the game for his team.
Awards & Achievements
Dennis Johnson was a three-time NBA Champion, once with the Sonics in 1979 and twice with the Celtics in 1984 and 1986.
He made the NBA All-Star team five times, four times consecutively from 1979 to 1982 and again for the 1984-85 season. It showcases the 24 best players across NBA that season chosen from a combination of player, media and fan votes.
He made it into the NBA All Defensive First Team six times, five times in a row from 1979 to 1983 and again in 1987. This is an annual NBA honor bestowed upon the best defensive players of that season.
He was named the 1979 NBA Finals MVP (Most Valuable Player) for his heroics in the series.
He was inducted into the ‘Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’ in 2010 posthumously.
The Boston Celtics decided to retire his Number 3 jersey permanently and raise it to the rafters on 13th December 1991.
A learning center in the Central Branch of YMCA in the Greater Boston area was dedicated in his name on 26th October 2007. The center saw completion thanks to donations from M.L. Carr and Larry Bird.
Family & Personal Life
Dennis Johnson was married to Donna Johnson and the couple had three children namely Daniel, Denise and Dwyane.
Dennis Johnson suffered a heart attack while overseeing a practice session of the Austin Toros on 22nd February 2007. Although he was rushed to a hospital, the doctors were unable to revive him, and he was declared dead. He was aged 52 at the time of his passing.
While playing for the Seattle SuperSonics, announcer Bob Blackburn referred to Dennis Johnson as ‘DJ’ to distinguish him from his teammates Vinnie Johnson and John Johnson. That nickname stuck with him for life.