http://www.celtic-nation.com/interviews/dennis_johnson/dennis_johnson_page6.htm

 

The Long Shot

 

The Dennis Johnson Interview
By:  Michael D. McClellan | Tuesday, October 1st, 2002

 

A new world order exists in today’s post-millennium NBA.  It is one in which high school basketball players are drafted within weeks of their senior prom, given multimillion dollar contracts based largely on potential, and then promptly anointed  as the savior of an NBA Draft Lottery bottom feeder.  College upperclassmen are no longer in vogue as conventional wisdom is turned upside down; it is better to build a franchise around a phenom rather than select the more polished player with less natural talent.

 

This new world order dictates that youth will be served.  It showers fame and fortune on those barely old enough to vote, and it celebrates the Age of Instant Gratification.  There is no room for professors or college campuses, only super agents and corporate campuses.  High schoolers and underclassmen not only dominate the draft lottery itself but also much of the first round, leaving precious few opportunities for players who stay in school and complete their college eligibility.  As a result, fewer and fewer long shots make their way onto opening day NBA rosters.

 

Imagine then, that the year is 1972.  A player languishes on the bench at California’s Dominguez High School, unable to garner any meaningful minutes, his hoops resume noteworthy only for being cut from his seventh and eighth grade teams.  He is always the tenth or eleventh man in the game, a bencher who averages no more than three minutes per contest.  The player’s name is Dennis Johnson.  He is so underwhelming that not a single college recruiter comes calling to talk scholarship.  He is light years away from a career as a professional athlete, an idea so farfetched that Johnson – better known as DJ while establishing himself as one of the greatest guards in NBA history – graduates from Dominguez High and takes a $2.75/hour job driving a forklift.

 

While the job puts spending money in Johnson’s pockets, it does nothing to quench his thirst for competitive basketball.  He dreams of playing in the pros.  After work he hops the bus to play in summer league games with his brothers.  He holds his own, and the itch intensifies.  Then an amazing thing happens; the once too-small high school player grows to a muscular 6’-3” basketball junkie with springs for legs.  He begins to dominate the summer league and in the process catches the eye of Jim White, then-coach of nearby Harbor Junior College.  White sees enough potential in Johnson to offer a scholarship.

 

While at Harbor, Johnson exhibits both great promise and a flashpoint temper.  He is a wild stallion, undisciplined and defiantly stubborn, traits that lead to frequent clashes with his coach.  He is kicked off of the team three times in two seasons.  The relationship between coach and pupil seems certain to end in failure, with Johnson out of school and asking himself the same question scores of other talented-yet-undisciplined ex-athletes ask themselves:  “What if?”

 

Yet somehow, a mutual respect develops during the fiery guard’s second season.  The respect becomes admiration, and the admiration grows into a genuine friendship.  Johnson, who had matured physically while participating in summer league play, matures both mentally and emotionally during his oft-contentious stay at Harbor.  White never completely gives up on his talented player, using his connections to hype Johnson as a legitimate NCAA Division prospect.  Several schools listen, though none seriously enough to take on a player with a history of behavior issues.  Pepperdine University is the lone exception, and soon Johnson finds himself on scholarship and in the Waves’ basketball program.

 

Coached by the classy Gary Colson, DJ refines his game and attracts the attention of ex-Celtic great Bill Russell, then serving as the Seattle SuperSonics’ GM.  Russell drafts the talented guard in the second round of the 1976 NBA Draft, and three years later the player who couldn’t even start for Dominguez High School is named the NBA Finals MVP.

 

There are clashes with other coaches, most notably with Lenny Wilkins in Seattle.  Also, harsh words like ‘malcontent’ and ‘cancer’ are used to describe Johnson during his brief stay with the Phoenix Suns.  Yet through it all no one denies that Johnson is a winner.  His 1983 arrival in Boston is an instant success as the Celtics go on to defeat the hated Los Angeles Lakers in one of the most highly anticipated NBA Finals ever.  It is a signature series for the talented guard, who scores 20 or more points in each of the last four games while guarding Magic Johnson.  Years later Larry Bird offers DJ the highest praise of all, calling him "the best I ever played with."

 

The Celtics play in four NBA Finals during Johnson’s first four years on the team, winning two championships and dispelling his image as that of a selfish backbiter.  His reputation as a clutch player and one of the greatest defensive guards in NBA history grows with each season in Boston uniform.  Upon retirement his resume boasts six trips to the NBA Finals, three NBA World Championships and one NBA Finals MVP award – not bad for this longest of long shots from Compton, California.

 

On December 13, 1991 the Celtics honor Johnson with the ultimate award, retiring his Number 3 jersey to the Boston Garden rafters.  It is the crowning achievement of a player who beats the odds and proves that late bloomers can go on to have highly successful NBA careers.

 

I had the good fortune to discuss Johnson’s unconventional path to NBA stardom with the man himself.  DJ is now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers.  This interview takes place during training camp as the Clippers prepare to open the 2002-03 season.  I’m struck by his introspective, thought-provoking answers, and by how hard he has worked to succeed in life.  Dennis Johnson is a case study in perseverance and his story should serve as an inspiration to everyone.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were born in September of 1954, three years before the Celtics won their first world championship.  Your parents were much like mine – working middleclass with plenty of mouths to feed.  Please tell me a little about your family, especially those early years growing up in Compton.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
We lived in a community between Compton and San Pedro.  Both of my parents worked – my father was a cement mason and my mother was a social worker – and baseball was a very big part of our lives.  My father played, and so did all of my brothers and sisters.  I played Little League growing up.

As far as family goes, we always looked out for each other.  The siblings would step in and help whenever our parents were away.  We made sure that the work got done and that things were taken care of around the house.

  

CELTIC-NATION
Did you follow professional basketball as a youngster, and what are your memories of the Bill Russell Dynasty?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
I didn’t follow Bill or the Boston Celtics all that much, although I certainly knew who Russell was and what the Celtics were accomplishing at that time.  My father always took us to sporting events – we would occasionally see the Lakers play, but at that time it was mostly the Dodgers.  We had a very large family so he would take advantage of the neighborhood deals on tickets.  We’d go to whatever event that offered the best deal so that everyone could go to the game.  When you’re taking more than ten people to a sporting event it‘s important to do so in the most economical way possible.  Football, basketball, baseball, soccer – we’d go to all different kinds of events.  Sometimes me and my brothers would even sneak into games.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Did you follow all those classic battles between the Celtics and the Lakers in the 60s, and did you ever imagine being a part of this great rivalry?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
Yes, I knew about those great battles between the Lakers and the Celtics, but I never imagined that I’d one day be directly involved.  Basketball at that point in my life wasn’t really something that I considered seriously.  I was playing baseball, in part because I was actually quite small – certainly too small to be successful in sports like basketball or football.  I was something like 5’-4” in junior high school.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your first sport as a child was baseball.  You went out for basketball as a seventh and eight grader at Roosevelt Junior High School, but were cut from the team both years.  Which sport – baseball or basketball – did you have a real passion for at this point in your life?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
In junior high I went through a transition of sorts.  This is when my interest in basketball became much greater than my interest in baseball.  Baseball suddenly seemed boring to me.  It wasn’t fast-paced like basketball.

My goal was to play basketball even though I’d been cut from those teams.  It was devastating to be cut – it hurt a great deal – but I wasn’t going to give in and quit.  I decided to prepare myself so that I could play the game to the best of my ability.  I wanted to improve.  That was very important to me.  So I went out and worked hard to improve.  This lesson stayed with me far beyond junior high basketball, and has really touched every aspect of my life.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You kept going out for basketball, making the C team at Dominguez High as a sophomore and then JV as a junior.  As a senior you were primarily a bench player.  Did these experiences help fuel your desire to succeed on the professional level?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
Absolutely.  My high school experience was a great source of motivation.  I didn’t think I was a bad player – I’d grown to 5’-9”, which wasn’t exactly big, but I’d continued to work on various aspects of my game.  The lack of playing time had more to due with our varsity team at the time.  Our varsity team was pretty decent.  There were some good players on that team.

 CELTIC-NATION
In reading about you, I learned that we have something else in common:  Our parent’s houses burned down around Christmas.  Please take me back to that time in your life and how your family handled this difficult situation.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
This was actually a little further along in my life – I was attending Pepperdine University in Malibu and playing basketball for Gary Colson.  Sometime during the Christmas season my mother phoned me with news that the house had burned down to the ground.  The cause of the fire was never really determined, although it appeared to have been electrical – faulty wiring, or something of that nature.

It was a stressful situation for our family.  I knew my parents needed help, and I wanted to help.  I briefly considered leaving college and finding a job so that I could help them get back on their feet.  I discussed my options with Coach Colson, and he advised me to stay in school because there was a very real possibility that I’d be drafted.  Up until then I’d never really considered playing professionally.  That thought had never dawned on me.

Fortunately, my uncle was able to help out with my parent’s situation.  He had two houses and offered one of them as a way to make it through this crisis.  Nobody likes a handout, but circumstances dictated otherwise.  His generosity eased the burden on my family and allowed me to stay in school.

  

CELTIC-NATION
You graduated in 1972, but there was a brief detour on your pathway to college.  You joined the workforce immediately after high school, going to work in a liquor store and a tape warehouse and playing summer league basketball on a team coached by one of your brothers.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
I’d considered Compton Community College after graduation, as well as a number of other schools both inside and outside of the district.  Unfortunately there weren’t any scholarship opportunities waiting for me, so college wasn’t a realistic of option.  Based on my financial situation I decided to get a job instead.  I worked in warehouses and drove forklifts.  The work wasn’t bad, but at the same time I knew that it wasn’t for me.  I wanted something more out of my life.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these types of jobs, and my hat goes off to the people who work them.  I just wasn’t satisfied, and I knew that there had to be other opportunities out there.

My brothers were involved in a summer basketball league in San Pedro, and after work I would catch the bus and play ball with them.  One of my brothers coached our team, and three of my brothers played.  It was a good period in my life and I enjoyed those games a great deal.  My game improved tremendously   It helped that I’d grown several inches between graduation and competing in the summer league, and that I’d continued to work out and stay in shape.  By this time I was 6’-3” and much stronger than I was in high school.

 

CELTIC-NATION
One of the games you played in was against Harbor Junior College, at the time coached by Jim White.  How did this game change your life?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
Playing in front of Coach White was a huge event, one of the most important things to ever happen to me.  My brother organized the game against Harbor Junior College.  Coach White saw me play, and was impressed enough to invite me over for a tryout.  Harbor was close to home, so it was an ideal situation for me.  I played there for two years before transferring to Pepperdine.

I was somewhat of a wild stallion at the time, young and emotional and very sure of myself.  Coach White and I butted heads on occasion.  Now that I’m a coach myself [with the Los Angeles Clippers] I can see some of the same things with my players and it helps me to appreciate Coach White even more.  As a father I can see it, too.  Being older and wiser puts things in a different perspective.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Please tell me a little about Coach White’s role in getting you into Pepperdine.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
Coach White worked hard to get me into a Division I university and I’m very appreciative for that.  He called a friend who was an assistant coach at Pepperdine.  Coach Colson had already seen me play, so he knew what kind of player he was getting and I think that made his decision a lot easier.  I played one season for Pepperdine, and after talking to Colson I declared myself eligible for the 1976 draft.  I was allowed to do this because, technically, my junior year at Pepperdine represented my fourth year of college had I gone there directly from high school.  It’s the same junior eligible rule that the Celtics used to select Larry Bird.

Going into the draft only two GMs really knew anything about me – Jerry West and Bill Russell.  Jerry was the Lakers’ GM, and Bill Russell the coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics.  At first it looked as if Jerry was going to draft me, but it didn’t work out that way.  Jerry and Gary [Colson] have a great relationship, one that goes back a number of years.  Jerry became aware of my abilities on the recommendation of Colson.

When Bill drafted me, Jerry and the Lakers filed a protest against the SuperSonics.  Eventually, the issue was cleared up and Los Angeles backed out of the formal protest.  I was drafted in the second round by the Sonics that year.

 

CELTIC-NATION
What was it like to meet the great Bill Russell?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
Bill was the coach as well as the general manager, so I was involved with him first in contract negotiations and then on a day-to-day basis as one of his players.  One thing that stands out in my mind was a conversation that I had with Bill shortly after my arrival in Seattle. 

CELTIC-NATION
June 1, 1979: Your Seattle SuperSonics defeat the Washington Bullets 97-93 to capture the NBA Championship 4-1.  You were named the Most Valuable Player of that series.  What did it feel like to win the championship so early in your career, and how did it compare to the ’84 and ’86 titles in Boston?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
That first championship was the best.  Winning that NBA title was the greatest of highs, because there is something special about doing it for the first time.  That feeling can never truly be duplicated, although the other championships were rewarding in their own ways.  Everything about that first title is so vivid – the great players that I played with, such as Jack Sikma, and the absolute high that I felt winning it all.

That Sonics team was so young and talented, and it had all the makings of a dynasty.  I remember back then all the talk was about repeating as champions.  The last team to do that was the 1969 Boston Celtics, which was the last year that Russell played.  From that point until the Lakers did it in the eighties, no team had been able to repeat.  All everybody talked about was back-to-back.  One of my greatest disappointments was not being able to win that second consecutive championship.

  

CELTIC-NATION
A year earlier the Sonics lost to the Bullets in a close, seven game series.  You struggled from the field in Game 7 of that series, missing all 14 of your field goal attempts, but like a true winner you couldn’t wait for another crack at the champs.  How satisfying was it to beat the Bullets the following season and be named Finals MVP in the process?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
It was an embarrassing experience to play so poorly, especially in a situation of that magnitude.  It was a bad feeling, probably the worst ever from a basketball standpoint.  I choked.  That’s the way I looked at it.  Right or wrong it happened.  I’d never played on a stage that big, not with 30,000 people in an arena, but I decided to turn it into a positive experience.  I promised myself that I’d never repeat that performance, and as a result it made me a much stronger player.

 

CELTIC-NATION
In Game 4 of that ’79 series, Gus Williams scored 36 points while you scored 32 in leading Seattle to a 114-112 victory and a 3-1 lead in the series.  To me,  this illustrated the key to the series:  Washington seemed overmatched and often overwhelmed by the Seattle backcourt.  Do you agree with this assessment?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
I think that Gus and I were a dominating force in that series, and that our team had the advantage at three or four positions.  With all due respect to Wes Unseld, Jack Sikma was playing great basketball and was clearly the better player at that time.  Gus and I were at the top of our games.  We were very confident, and we felt that nobody on the Bullets could stop us.

 

CELTIC-NATION
That Sonic team was loaded with talent.  “Downtown” Freddie Brown, Lonnie Shelton, Jack Sikma, Johnnie Johnson – and, of course, former Celtic and elder statesman Paul Silas.  How important was it to have a player like Silas during that playoff run?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
I was twenty-three when we beat the Bullets, and there is some irony in that because I’m now coaching players that age.  What I didn’t know or fully appreciate at the time was how important a player like Paul was to our team.  Paul was older, and he brought an incredible amount of maturity and stability to the Sonics.  I was young and hot-headed, and a lot of what was said went in one ear and out the other.  But Paul never stopped talking, never stopped dispensing advice so valuable to winning championships.  He knew his role and he accepted it.  He played it perfectly.

Paul had a tremendous amount of character and he proved to me that you can have a specific role and still be an integral part of the team.  Years later I thanked him for a lot of the things he’d done and for how important they were to our success and to me personally.

CELTIC-NATION
You were labeled a cancer and a malcontent in Phoenix, and in the summer of 1983 you were centerpiece of a trade between the Suns and the Boston Celtics.  What was it like joining the most storied franchise in basketball?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
It was a new beginning, a chance to prove that I wasn't the problem child that [Phoenix head coach] John MacLeod made me out to be.  We were never going to see eye-to-eye, and he [MacLeod] met with [general manager] Jerry Colangelo and demanded that the Suns trade me.  Joining the Celtics was perfect situation for me.  It was a dream come true to play with Larry [Bird], Robert [Parish] and Kevin [McHale].  Coming to Boston allowed me to play for a championship again.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
What was it like to finally meet Red Auerbach?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
Intimidating.  Being a basketball fan, I knew a lot about Red.  All of those championships, the cigar, everything.  He was history alive.  When I was with the Sonics, Russell would talk about Red all the time  He would tell us all of these stories about him -- about how he ran training camp and practices, and about those preseason barnstorming tours the team would take all over New England.

I'm sure I didn't impress him that first training camp -- I reported slightly overweight, and I was definitely out of shape -- but he didn't make a big deal about it.  He let me trim down on my own, and we got along great.

Practice would definitely take on a different tone when Red was there.  Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- would snap into place.  We would work a little harder, because we wanted to make sure that he saw us at our best.  It was almost like we were the soldiers and he was the four-star general out on the battlefield, surveying his troops.

 

CELTIC-NATION
What were the practices like?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
The practices were more intense than some of the actual games that we played.  We had some real battles -- the first and second units going at each other like it was war.  And it wasn't every once in awhile -- this was a daily occurrence.  Every practice was a fierce competition, and it made us a better team.  The second unit made sure that we were always ready to compete, that we were always prepared whenever we stepped out on the floor.  Some of my fondest memories are of those battles.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were acquired with one primary goal in mind:  To be the defensive stopper that the team sorely lacked, particularly against Lakers superstar Ervin "Magic" Johnson.  Please take me back to your first season in Boston, and to the 1984 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. 

 DENNIS JOHNSON
That whole season was geared toward meeting the Lakers in the Finals.  Everyone knew that we were the two best teams, and it almost seemed like a forgone conclusion that we were going to battle for the NBA championship.  People were talking about it six months before playoffs started.  And it certainly lived up to the billing.  That Finals was one of the most intense ever played -- fortunately, we were able to come out on top.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The rematch occurred a year later, in the 1985 NBA Finals.  Tell me about that series.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
he Lakers won, and it hurt more than any loss I've ever suffered on a basketball court.  We were so close to repeating as champions -- it would have been the first repeat since the Celtics did it in 1968-69 -- but we just didn't pull it off.

The series started perfectly, with us blowing them out on Memorial Day.  We couldn't have played any better that afternoon.  But Kareem came out and played like a man possessed in Game 2.  We couldn't stop him.  The Lakers won that game, took away our home court advantage, and then we had to play the next three games in Los Angeles.  We won one game there, which allowed us to send the series back to Boston, but we didn't get the job done.  The day we lost that series was the lowest point in my professional career.  We had given everything that year to repeat as champions, and we put ourselves in a position to make history.  We were so close, but we just couldn't pull it off.



 

CELTIC-NATION
Boston traded Cedric Maxwell for Bill Walton following that series, and the Celtics won it all again in 1986.  Some say that '86 Celtics team is the greatest of all time.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
We were untouchable that year.  We were healthy, and everyone was at the top of their game.  With players like Bill, Scott [Wedman] and Jerry [Sichting] coming off the bench, we were incredibly deep.  It was a dream season.

CELTIC-NATION
Larry Bird paid you the ultimate compliment:  He said that you were the best teammate he played with because of your his ability to come through in the clutch.  Please tell me a little about Larry.

 DENNIS JOHNSON
He was a special player, one of the best ever.  What made him so great was his drive -- he practiced the way he played the game, going full-speed all of the time.  He never took a play off.  You hear sportswriters talk about how he would dive for loose balls in games, but he did that stuff in practice, too.  So it wasn't for show.  That was the real Larry Bird that you saw on the court.

The practices were his way of making a statement, because Larry wasn't a big talker -- although he was a very big trash-talker [laughs].  He was one who always led by example, and he never let you know how bad he was hurting.  Practices were the same way.  Larry never took a practice off.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson will forever be linked, in large part because of the steal versus the Pistons in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.  That play rivals Havlicek's famous steal as perhaps the greatest in Celtics history.  Where does this rank for you?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
That play ranks as the greatest that I've ever been a part of.  Hitting that big shot against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals was huge for me, but being involved with Larry's steal is my all-time favorite.

Had we lost that game, Detroit would have taken a commanding lead in the series.  It would have been extremely hard to come back from a 3-1 hole, which was part of what made that play so special.  We never lost confidence, because we were so hard to beat at home those two years ('85-'86, and '86-'87).  We always felt we'd find a way to win the game, no matter how bad the outlook.  And I can't lie -- things looked pretty bad in that situation [laughs].

 

CELTIC-NATION
The Celtics paid you the highest honor by retiring your number on December 13th, 1991.  What does this mean to you?

 DENNIS JOHNSON
To look up and see my number with all of the other greats is a special feeling.  I will always consider myself a Boston Celtic.

創作者介紹

Celtic Pride

CelticsPride 發表在 痞客邦 PIXNET 留言(0) 人氣()