Dennis Johnson, former great for the Sonics, Suns, and Celtics, passed away suddenly today at age 52. Johnson reportedly collapsed after his NBDL team, the Austin Toros, had practice.
I was not old enough to witness Johnson play, but everything I've heard about him indicates that he was one of a kind. Older Washington basketball fans probably remember Johnson torching the Bullets in the 1979 NBA Finals as a member of the Sonics.
Those that did watch Johnson play have nothing but praise for him. Bill Simmons wrote a fantastic column today lamenting that DJ won't be around for his imminent hall of fame induction.
Could you compare Dennis Johnson to anyone on the planet? He splashed onto the scene as a high-flying, physical 2-guard for the Sonics, evolved into more of a scorer for the Suns, then reincarnated himself as a heady point guard for the Celtics, peaking as the ringleader of a loaded '86 team that scored a jaw-dropping 114 points a game. He could guard anyone shorter than 6-foot-9 and lock them down. He was such an intelligent player that Bird and DJ had a secret ESP play for six straight years, in which Bird would linger near the basket like he was waiting for someone to set him a pick, then DJ would whip a pass by the defender's ears and Bird would catch it at the last possible second for a layup (and the only way that play happened was if they locked eyes). He was one of those classic only-when-it-counts shooters who could be riding a 3-for-14 game into the final minute, then nail a wide-open 20-footer to win the game.
If Joe Dumars can be a hall of famer, surely Dennis Johnson should be too.
Laker fan The Big Lead, over at the Fanhouse, makes an interesting comparison to a player today.
He was one of those solid-yet-unspectacular guards who limited turnovers, made a good percentage of his jumpers, and was solid at the defensive end. He was deceptively quick, displayed little emotion, and seemed like he'd make the ideal teammate in a pickup game. Much like Bird, my dislike for DJ was out of respect. Not the type of disdain you probably reserved for punks like Dennis Rodman. Or Ruben Patterson.
I'm trying to think of a modern-day equivalent to the dearly departed DJ, and the name I keep coming back to is Deron Williams in Utah. Minus the ink, of course. Though Williams appears to be a better shooter, and DJ would never have gone third in the draft, they're both cerebral pass-first point guards with the ability to make clutch shots and lock somebody up on defense.
Clearly, the world lost a great player, a great person with incredible character, and a great coach. Our condolances go out to Dennis Johnson's family and to the NBA.