Dennis Wayne Johnson was straight outta Compton, the 8th of 16 children. He was used to noise and he was used to traffic. Thus, it was not surprising he was so good in noisy, sold out gyms.
“Now there's a steal by Bird! Underneath to DJ who lays it in!!...Right at one second left! What a play by Bird!! Bird stole the inbounding pass, laid it up to DJ, and DJ laid it up and in, and Boston has a one-point lead with one second left! Oh, my, this place is going crazy!!!”
That is the text of Johnny Most’s play by play call of perhaps Larry Bird’s greatest individual play; Bird’s steal of a rushed Isiah Thomas inbounds lob pass in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Most was 63 years old at the time but he sounded 73 and looked 103. Forty packs of cigarettes a day will do that. But, it’s also one of Most’s greatest calls. You have to remember watching that play almost 33 years ago to understand how implausible it all was. Most called it as if he was watching it in slow motion. In reality it was a lightening strike.
But, what is most forgotten about that play is Dennis Johnson’s instinctual cut to the basket and difficult right handed layup on the left side of the basket, high off the backboard and in. It was quiet brilliance in a mosh pit of bodies and mayhem. That was Dennis Johnson. And that’s why he is Hall of Famer. But, why did it take 20 years?
Walt Frazier, while stylistically different, is a comparable player to Dennis Johnson. Yet, it took Clyde (who played his last three years in Cleveland) just seven years to get into the Hall of Fame while it took DJ twenty. It also took Joe Dumars seven years. I love Joe Dumars, I mean really loved him as a player, but he just didn’t have the overall responsibility that Johnson and Frazier had.
The two, Frazier and Johnson, are conveniently side-by-side on the all time points leaderboard at #105 and #106. Both were great defensive players, big time performers, and multi-champions. (3 for DJ, 2 for Frazier). Frazier shot more and thus scored more. He also played in the media market of the world for one of the most celebrated and romanticized NBA teams; the Knicks of the early 70’s. Johnson started in career in Seattle and won a championship there in 1979 (He led the Sonics in blocked shots at 6’4”!) .
Following four years in Seattle, Johnson played three more in Phoenix. This will not get you Madison Avenue endorsements. Then in June of 1983 he was traded to Boston who already had a big three. Johnson was destined to be a little overlooked, like a child with 15 brothers and sisters. This must be why it took Johnson twenty years to make it to the Basketball Hall of Fame and it took Frazier only seven. Even if one concedes that Frazier is a better player, he wasn’t better by thirteen years. No way.
We can assume it’s because Dennis Johnson was arrested in 1997, seven years after he retired, and charged with aggravated assault on his wife. Johnson was charged with domestic violence. His wife was not injured. "If someone is a convicted felon," Hall of Fame president Joe O'Brien said at the time, "we would eliminate them from consideration." Johnson’s wife did not press charges. When Johnson died in 2007 of cardiac arrest at age 52, NBA Commissioner David Stern called Johnson, "a man of extraordinary character." Johnson told Bob Ryan in 2000, “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 tried my best to repair the damage I did."
If Dennis Johnson was born in 1990 instead of retiring in 1990 and was entering the NBA draft this summer, ESPN’s Jay Bilas would describe him on draft night thusly; “I like Dennis Johnson out of Pepperdine. He’s only had one year of big time college experience, a late bloomer, so he make take a couple of years before he gets going. After high school he worked in warehouses and drove forklifts! He’s only 6’4” and not a great shooter but he is a terrific athlete. He’s very athletic with extremely long arms. He has a barrel chest which helps him body up defenders. I think he has tremendous upside because he is tough and he can really jump. He should be a great defender in the NBA. The question is, can he play guard in the NBA? He has a lot to prove so I would expect him to improve. Late bloomers never stop trying to improve.”
And that he did. So much, Larry Bird said he was the best teammate he played with. That might not have really been the case but Bird knew DJ had lived a tough life filled with constant scrapping. Johnson was overlooked and Bird was probably just trying to balance the injustice. After all, DJ was the one who cut to the basket in 1987.
Plus, Larry Bird saw in Johnson what he saw in himself; smart, tough, ultra competitive, and above all, a worker. It’s one reason why both Bird and Johnson won three NBA championships each and why the two, linked by the most exhilarating play in Celtic history, are now, finally, linked in the Hall of Fame.
Justice. And Peace.