Friday, February 23, 2007

'One Cool Cat'

One of my favorite players on that great Celtics team. RIP.

On a cold winter morning in 1986, Dennis Johnson and his Boston Celtics teammates stood outside of Market Square Arena, unable to get inside for a shootaround before their game that night against the Indiana Pacers. Johnson bundled his coat around him and pulled down his ski cap over his ears.

"Well, they locked us out," said Johnson, "so we'll just have to bust these mother----ers even worse than normal." He said it matter-of-factly and somewhat ruefully, as a statement of fact, and, of course, that's exactly what Boston did.

Those Celtics, the best one-year team I ever covered -- they finished the season with a 67-15 record and beat the Houston Rockets for the championship -- all played their roles. Larry Bird was the heart and soul, Kevin McHale the comic relief, Robert Parish the stolid presence, Danny Ainge the frat-kid energizer, Bill Walton, the sagacious sixth man. And D.J., who died suddenly of a heart attack on Thursday at the age of 52, was the implacable cool. On more than one occasion, Bird called Johnson "the best teammate I ever had." McHale was a better player than Johnson, but Bird deeply respected Johnson's toughness, his big-game moxie, his assassin's sense of timing.

When Bird made his famous steal of an Isiah Thomas pass during the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, it was D.J. who had the presence of mind to cut for the basket, take the Bird pass and score the game-winning layup. When Bird was double-covered in the post, he looked for D.J. to free himself and hit a jump shot -- Johnson was never considered a great shooter unless the game was on the line. When the Celtics needed to cool down a scorer, be it Philadelphia's Andrew Toney or L.A.'s Magic Johnson, they turned to D.J., who bumped and ground and stayed in front of his man. He had been a first-team defender for five years in a row (with Seattle and Phoenix) before he came to the Celtics, after which he was a second-teamer for three years in a row and a first-teamer again in '86-'87.

One of the things Bird liked about D.J., I suspect, was that he was a pure ballplayer, not an athlete, much like Bird himself. D.J. didn't have a cut physique (never mind that he was a freckle-faced African-American), and he walked kind of gimpily, like a middle-aged man after a pickup game at the Y. One thing or another was always wrong with him. He would take off a game or two during the season and he never ran into walls during practice.

But then the game would begin, and D.J.'s cold-bloodedness was exceeded only by Bird's.

The last time I talked to D.J. was five years ago when he was an assistant for the Los Angeles Clippers. He was throwing back balls at practice for players who couldn't carry his sneakers, and I thought, "This coaching thing isn't for him." But a number of people told me I was wrong. He honestly wanted to make it as a head coach in the NBA, and that's why he was in Austin, Texas, directing the NBDL Toros, when he had the heart attack that killed him.

I have no idea if he would've gotten the chance to head up an NBA team, or, if he did, whether he would've been successful. Maybe, maybe not. But I know this: What D.J. had on a basketball court -- that cutthroat gamesmanship -- couldn't be coached and couldn't be taught.


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