By Dan Shaughnessy
April 05, 2010

The Boston Celtics were staggering in the spring of 1983. They were only two years removed from a championship season and had Hall of Fame-bound superstars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Incredibly, they were swept out of the second round of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks.

The 4-0 embarrassment infuriated Red Auerbach. Bird, too.

Coach Bill Fitch was sent packing, even though he'd won a championship and just completed a 56-win season. Fitch was replaced by Celtics oldie/goodie, K.C. Jones. Bird went back to Indiana and committed himself to being the best basketball player in the world.

Then Red got Larry some big-time help. One day before the 1983 draft, Auerbach shocked the basketball world, acquiring Dennis Johnson from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Rick Robey.

In a lifetime of great deals, this was one of Red's best. The Celtics won two championships in three seasons after Johnson came on board. He played seven seasons with the Green, had his number 3 retired in 1991 and, on Monday, was finally named to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

Too bad he didn't live long enough to enjoy the honor. Johnson died of a heart attack in 2007 at age 52.

What a life. What a career.

He grew up on the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles, one of 16 children. He didn't make varsity until his senior year of high school and went to work driving a forklift in a tape warehouse after he got his diploma. He played ball in local leagues and was "discovered" by Jim White, coach of Los Angeles Harbor College. From there, Johnson went to Pepperdine. The Seattle SuperSonics drafted him as a "junior eligible" in 1976, and in 1979, he was named MVP of the NBA Finals for the world champion Sonics. He was 25 years old. He copped the MVP one year after going 0-14 from the floor in a Game 7 Finals loss.

That was Dennis Johnson. His game was defense and clutch play. He was never a fluid shooter. But he could score. And he wanted the ball at the end of the game.

Johnson had maturity issues early in his career. Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens called him a "cancer'' and he was dealt to Phoenix for Paul Westphal. In five seasons with Seattle and three with Phoenix, Johnson was an All-Star four times.

And Red Auerbach got him for Rick Robey.

Robey was a nice guy, a 6-foot-11 lug who won an NCAA championship at Kentucky in 1978. But he was not a starter and he was no Dennis Johnson. He played only three NBA seasons after the deal, never averaging six points.

In Boston, Johnson emerged as a Hall of Famer. Bird called him the greatest teammate he ever played with. It was no accident that Bird won the MVP in each of the first three seasons after Johnson came to the Celtics. The Celtics made the Finals in Johnson's first four seasons.

Teamed with Danny Ainge and sometimes Gerald Henderson, Johnson brought stability to the Boston backcourt. He was the floor leader. Most important, he was a physical (6-2, 175 pounds) guard who could put a body on Philadelphia's Andrew Toney and the indomitable Magic Johnson. DJ was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team six times.

That's why Red got him. He knew the Celtics were not going anywhere unless they could get past the Lakers, and DJ was a guy who'd regularly banged up against Magic while playing in the Western Conference. In Johnson's first season with the Celtics, Boston beat L.A. in an epic seven-game series. Two years later, the Celtics won another championship.

There were never maturity issues in Boston. His scoring went from 19 points per game to 12 per game four seasons after the trade, but he knew he didn't need to score on a team with Bird, Parish and McHale. Johnson became the consummate teammate, a true leader.

His basketball instincts were spectacular. Hoop fans remember Bird's historic steal of an Isiah Thomas pass at the end of Game 5 in the '87 Conference Finals against Detroit, but it was Johnson's cut to the basket and layup that finished the play.

He was funny, too. I'll never forget sitting at the courtside press table during a game when Johnson came over to say something while he was bringing the ball up court. Slightly annoyed that he could hear my colleague Bob Ryan bellowing about some great play made by Bird, Johnson dribbled over our way and said, "Hey Bob, keep it down, will ya? We got a game going on out here!''

When the champion Celtics visited the White House on a smoking-hot day in June of '84, Johnson turned to Ronald Reagan and asked, "Mr. President, how do you stand out here and don't sweat?''

DJ had a free-throw superstition. Before each foul shot, he'd bounce the ball one time for each year he'd been in the league. In 1990, that meant bouncing the basketball 14 times before every free throw.

After retirement, Johnson was a Celtic assistant coach for four seasons. He was in interim head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers (who hasn't been?) for 24 games in 2002-03 and was coaching the Austin Toros in the NBDL when he died suddenly in 2007.

It's a shame he never lived to enjoy this honor. Everybody he played with, everybody he played against, knows that Dennis Johnson belongs in the Hall of Fame.

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