D.J.’s greatness extended to his final team
BOSTON – The last man Dennis Johnson ever guarded still wants to make sure it’s understood that he hadn’t worn out his coach. Practice had been over for the Austin Toros, and Jamar Smith, released out of the San Antonio Spurs’ training camp, worked alone on his shot. D.J. wandered over to him, balancing a barrage of inspiration and insults like he always did with his players.
“That isn’t your spot,” Johnson teased Smith. Soon, the coach stretched out his arm, contesting his jumpers. Smith had come to believe so much in himself, because D.J. believed so much in him. It hadn’t been the greatness of Johnson’s pro career, his reputation as a Hall of Fame talent. For this young kid, it had been his coach’s gentleness, his patience, his insistence on imparting the wisdom of an extraordinary basketball life.
“He was not running around that day,” Smith said. “When he got the ball, he was just standing there, just shooting it … ”
He was 52 years old Feb. 22, 2007, in the Austin Convention Center, coaching his second season for the Toros in the NBA Development League. Two years ago, Smith had been an undrafted NBA prospect out of the University of Maryland, arriving in town weeks ahead of his teammates. Without an apartment until the first of the next month, with nowhere to stay, Johnson invited Smith to stay with the coach’s wife and four children.
After Smith moved out, he still had to wait for his washing machine to get hooked up. He stopped over to the Johnsons to throw a load into theirs. When Smith returned, he discovered that Johnson – cast to the bush leagues as a five-team NBA All-Star, a three-time world champion, an NBA Finals MVP, the most underappreciated player in the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers Finals of the 1980s – had thrown his clothes into the dryer, folded them neatly and stacked them in a basket.
“Here was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, who would do that for … me,” Smith said. “It just showed the kind of humble man he was.”
And so, after that practice, D.J. had thrown up his hands in the face of Smith, until the player swished three, four, maybe five straight. Johnson laughed, and with a dismissive wave, said, “I ain’t messing with you no more.” He walked outside to his car with the team’s publicist, Perri Travillion, and teased her that the police had spared him the parking ticket they had tagged on her windshield.
Together, they laughed. And then, he gulped, “Catch me!” and collapsed onto the sidewalk. Dennis Johnson died of cardiac arrest.
When Magic Johnson thinks of the Celtics-Lakers battles in the 1980s, it isn’t just Bird that comes to his mind. “My rivalry was really with D.J.,” Magic said. He called him, “one of the best individual defensive players probably to ever play in the league,” and has never gotten over the way Johnson systemically took him out of the ’84 Finals. Larry Bird called Johnson the best teammate he ever had.
Johnson had 15,000 points and 5,000 assists with the Sonics, Suns and Celtics, one of just 11 players ever to do so. With the Suns in ’80, he was first-team All-NBA with Kareem, Dr. J and Bird. He was the Finals MVP in 1979 with the Sonics, and an immense part of two Celtics titles in ’84 and ’86.
Before arriving in Austin in 2005, he had run out of assistant coaching jobs and scouting jobs. He had a short run as an interim coach with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2003, but it never turned into something bigger. Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge had been NBA coaches and GMs. Even M.L. Carr had a turn running the Celtics.
Nothing like that came for D.J., and no one ever heard him gripe about it. He belongs in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, but the politics of that process constantly rewards too many undeserving owners, executives and broadcasters. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe and Peter Vescey of the New York Post made impassioned public cases, but D.J. never had the relentless orchestrated campaigns that these days are getting others elected.
Whatever happened, Johnson coached his last team in Austin without nostalgia over what had been, without bitterness of what never was. The Toros never heard him talking about Bird and Magic, about winning Game 5 of the Finals in ’85 with a jumper, about catching that pass off Bird’s steal in ’87 and beating the Pistons with a twisting layup in the conference finals.
It wouldn’t be long until his players understood the reason why: For him to help them chase a dream the way that he did, they needed to hear the stories of his own personal grind. He never talked much about the glamorous Big Eighties, but his own improbable passage in the Seventies.
Johnson told them about how he had never gotten off the bench in high school, how he had been working in a warehouse when a junior college coach discovered him in a Los Angeles playground game. He told them about getting picked in the second round of the 1976 NBA draft out of Pepperdine, and how he was the last player to make the Sonics roster that season.
“He always talked about the grind of making it,” Toros guard Cheyne Gadson said. “If you wanted to know a lot about the Celtics days, you’d have to look it up. But he wanted us to understand how hard it was to get from Pepperdine just into the NBA.”
On the long D-League bus rides, Johnson sat in the front row. Never sleeping, he considered his responsibility to make sure the driver stayed awake. Whatever the job, he did it. He had so little ego, so much pride. For over a decade, he had been an assistant with the Celtics and Clippers. He did advance scouting, a grueling, thankless job that most ex-NBA players – never mind past stars – leave to the video coordinators and ex-college student managers on the way up.
When the Toros hired him, he moved his wife, Donna, and his children to town. He immersed himself. He did every community event for the team. He spoke to every 4-H club, and rotary and biddy league basketball camp. “I don’t remember him ever turning one down,” Toros president Mike Berry said.
Before Johnson’s first training camp, the Toros had a typical minor-league tryout. Beyond a sprinkling of prospects, these were mostly weekend warriors and playground players willing to drop a modest entry fee for a brush with greatness.
“For every single guy who wanted to talk to him, D.J. took time that day,” Berry said. “He must have stayed an extra two or three hours, until he had a chance to talk to them all. Whoever you were, Dennis was going to give you his time. He had that much respect for people, for the game.”
They still revere him in Austin. He had been there simply a season and a half, but as San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford said, “That community holds so much affection for him.”
Only now, the memory of rushing out of that gym and onto the sidewalk that fateful February day, watching D.J. die, never leaves Jamar Smith. “Coach Johnson was almost like a second father for Jamar,” Gadson said.
For months, Smith struggled to sleep. He’ll always hear his voice, remember his lessons, his gentle touch. Mostly, it will never leave Smith how much his teammates and him meant to Johnson and his coach’s family. As it turned out, it wasn’t the old Celtics and Suns and Sonics carrying Dennis Johnson’s casket up that cemetery’s hill in Gardena, Calif.
The players were the pallbearers, the Austin Toros. “An honor I’ll never forget,” Smith said.
The Austin Toros carried their coach past Bird and McHale and Ainge, and laid him to rest. These kids were living the hardscrabble basketball stories that had so much in common with Johnson’s own journey. Now, it’s the Celtics and Lakers all over again, and Johnson has come back to life in the old footage. Maybe he would’ve made his way back with them, maybe not.
“I know Dennis wanted to get back to the NBA, but I think he would’ve been fine if he never did,” Berry said. “He was at such peace with himself.”
He was Magic’s greatest defender, Bird’s greatest teammate, but so much of the big heart that finally gave out on Dennis Johnson belonged in the bushes, belonged to his last team.