Dennis Wayne Johnson (September 18, 1954 – February 22, 2007), nicknamed "DJ", was an American professional Basketball player for the National Basketball Association Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics and coach of the Austin Toros of the National Basketball Association Development League. He is an alumnus of Dominguez High School, Los Angeles Harbor College and Pepperdine University.
A prototypical latebloomer, the 6'4" Johnson overcame early struggles and had a successful NBA player career. Playing the roles of shooting guard in his first years before becoming a point guard with the Celtics, he won three NBA championships, winning the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in the 1979 NBA Finals, was voted into five All-Star Teams, in one All-NBA First and one Second Team, and into nine straight All-Defensive First and Second Teams. Apart from his reputation as a defensive stopper, Johnson was known as a clutch player who made several decisive plays in NBA Finals history.
Dennis Wayne Johnson was born in a big family, being the eighth of sixteen children of a social worker and a bricklayer who lived in Compton, California. In his rookie year, the 1976-77 NBA season, the now 6'4" tall guard played backup to the experienced Sonics backcourt tandem of Slick Watts and Fred Brown and averaged 9.2 points and 1.5 assists per game. and missed the 1977 NBA Playoffs, causing head coach Bill Russell to resign.
After an impressive finish, the Sonics ended the regular season with a 47-35 record and entered the 1978 NBA Playoffs. After eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champions Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets, they almost defeated the Washington Bullets by taking a 3-2 lead in the 1978 NBA Finals. In a 93-92 Game 3 victory, Johnson blocked seven shots - the most blocks in NBA Finals history for a visiting player. However, the Sonics lost in seven games, partly due to Johnson's horrible Game 7 scoring drought, where the sophomore guard missed all of his 14 field goal attempts.
The next year, Johnson and the Sonics got their revenge. In the 1978-79 NBA season, Johnson established himself as one of the best guards in the league, averaging 15.9 points and 3.5 assists per game, being elected in the All-Defensive First Team and into his first of five All-Star games. He scored 32 points in an Game 4 overtime victory, and was finally named NBA Finals MVP. This also reflected Johnson's deteriorating situation in Phoenix. Like in Seattle, he often clashed with coach John MacLeod, and was finally traded by general manager Jerry Colangelo to the Boston Celtics for Rick Robey and draft picks. However, much like in Seattle after DJ's departure, the Suns finished 12 games worse in the next season despite the addition of Robey. Johnson described it as a "dream come true" and enjoyed the tutelage of highly successful Celtics general manager Auerbach, who was "living history" according to Johnson.
In the following 1984-85 NBA season, Johnson continued playing smothering defense, earning his next All-Defensive Second Team call-up while averaging 16.9 points and 7.3 assists per game.
The Celtics were unable to repeat their title in 1987 despite several dramatic playoff victories. Johnson played strong defense again, earning yet another All-Defensive Second Team call-up, In Game 5 of this series, Johnson was involved in a crucial play: down by one point, Larry Bird stole an inbounds pass by Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas with six seconds left and passed it to a sprinting Johnson, who converted a difficult layup as time expired. According to Johnson, this play is his personal favorite of all-time. In addition, Celtics colleague and triple NBA Most Valuable Player award winner Larry Bird called Johnson the best teammate he ever had. At his retirement, Johnson was only the 11th NBA player to amass more than 15,000 points and 5,000 assists. However, Johnson did not live to see an induction into the Basketball, a fact that has been a considerable point of debate with sports journalists. Bill Simmons of ESPN called his Hall of Fame snub an "ongoing injustice", stating that according to him, Joe Dumars – Hall of Famer known for strong defense rather than spectacular scoring, like Johnson – was no better [a basketball player] than him. During his life, Johnson was also known for his unusual outward appearance: despite being African-American, he had freckles and reddish hair. Known as a troublemaker early in his professional career,
On February 22, 2007, at the Austin Convention Center, Johnson had a heart attack and collapsed at the end of the Toros' practice. After being rushed to a nearby hospital, he could not be revived and was later pronounced dead. Johnson was survived by his wife and his three children. Johnson's death was met with shock throughout the NBA. Among others, contemporary Celtics colleague Danny Ainge called him one of "the most underrated players of all time […] and one of the greatest Celtics acquisitions", and one-time rival Bill Laimbeer called him "a great player on a great ballclub".
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