Entering the gym where the Boston Celtics practice, you might think you've come upon a nursery. There's Adam Walton chasing two of his brothers under a side basket, and Ashlee Ainge flaunting her Garbage Pail Kids cards in the bleachers. And there, on this particular day, is their new playmate, the Celtics' Dennis Johnson. As practice winds down, Johnson joins in the joshing of the Walton gang, then yuks it up with Ashlee over her card collection. D.J. is long in the tooth by NBA standards: 31, with 10 years of service. But today he's intent on reminding us that for all of his basketball life he has been a sort of child.
In high school he was a problem child, in junior college a rambunctious child, at Pepperdine a reformed child. In Seattle he went from prodigal child to petulant child and in Phoenix came to be known as a headstrong one. Now, in Boston, he's a man-child, and he's the other reason the Celtics have laid waste to each of their playoff opponents. Larry Bird, the primary reason, is familiar enough with superlatives to assign them judiciously, and he says that D.J. is "the best I've ever played with."
It's somehow fitting that Johnson is the soon-to-be poster child for basketball shoes made by Reebok, the British sporting goods company. There are times when D.J. calls to mind a Victorian colonialist staking out spheres of influence in every corner of the court. He swings down low, posting his six feet, four inches, squeezing off his unblockable, hanging fall-away. He makes bold sallies to the basket, schooling opponents in the cost of leaving the Celtics' big frontcourt men to help out. He roams outside the key, defending the foul lane from incursion. And this season he has perfected an intuitive down-the-lane feed to Bird cutting baseline. To the NBA at large, Johnson is the "Pox" Britannica.
As the Celtics swept Milwaukee out of the Eastern Conference finals last week, D.J. gave his usual workmanlike performance, except for one moment in the first quarter of Boston's 122-111 victory in Game 2. He had just taken an in-bounds pass at his own foul line when he spotted Bird in full flight up the left side. D.J. fired a 75-foot baseball pass, which turned out to be a high hard one—right into the basket for three points. "That's life in the NBA. Those things will happen," sighed the Bucks' Terry Cummings later. "Especially in Boston."
For all of their hoary achievements, not even the Celtics as a team can match D.J.'s current personal string of nine straight playoff appearances. Johnson's coach and teammates believe he is finishing up his best all-around season, even if All-Star ballots and raw statistical comparisons don't seem to bear that out. D.J. isn't Boston's best passer or rebounder or scorer, but without him the Celtics would likely be outpassed, outrebounded and outscored, which is to say beaten. "He does everything better than any guard in the league," says backcourt mate Danny Ainge, Ashlee's dad.
Yet the one tyke you'll seldom see romping at Celtic practices is 5-year-old Dwayne Johnson, Dennis and Donna Johnson's impossibly cute son. Li'l D.J. is being reared rigorously, with a Montessori education, while his yuppie parents hawk chances in the school raffle like PTA lifers.
To be sure, Dwayne creates minor disorder and provides small frustrations. "You ask him if he's made up his bed yet," says his father, "and ask him again, and by the time you get an answer, it's time to go to bed." But, for the most part, Dwayne's room in the Johnsons' Back Bay townhouse is a model of good order. There sit several boxes, clearly marked TOY PARTS, ACTION FIGURES, BIG TOYS, BOOKS and SOLDIERS. Li'l D.J. is expected to put each of his toys into its appropriate place. "It's not military, really," says Dennis. "It's just to give him a sense of organization."
While Dennis plays at work, Dwayne works at play. Perhaps that's a result of his being an only child; Dennis grew up one of the 16 kids of Margaret and Charles Johnson, in several of greater Los Angeles's lesser precincts. He got his freckles from his mom; his dad, a mason, evidently supplied his erratic shooting touch.
It's forgivable to mix up some things—fennel and Swiss chard, for instance, or Max von Sydow and Maximilian Schell. But a great streak shooter should never be confused with a poor pure shooter. D.J. is the former. Against Chicago, in the first game of these playoffs, he missed every one of his first six shots. Then, in the third quarter, he knocked down seven straight. "He's almost always better in the second half," says Sacramento center Rich Kelley, who played with D.J. in Phoenix. "He's a great money player."
It's hard to imagine money-player Johnson as small change, but as a sub-6-footer at Dominguez High in Compton, he rode the bench; the starters included Ken Landreaux, now with the Dodgers. "I didn't pay much attention to what a scholarship was because I wasn't going to get one," Johnson says. "I went to class some of the time and went out back of the building some of the time. I was even suspended once or twice."
He took a job in a warehouse after high school, moving boxes with a forklift, and after work joined one of his brothers for games in a summer league in which Harbor College, a local juco, had an informal team. "Actually, a referee saw him score 44 once and told us about him," says Jim White, Harbor's coach. "In that league, once you scored 20, there'd always be some guys who'd make sure you didn't score anymore. Knowing that, we were even more impressed with Dennis."
White persuaded D.J. to enroll at Harbor but soon was clashing with his new star. A fight broke out in practice once between D.J. and another teammate. When Johnson picked up a chair and chased his adversary, White, fearing for his team, began chasing Dennis, hoping to break up the fight. D.J. missed a couple of practices, but the coach got him back because, as he says, "D.J. loved the game more than he hated me."
On another occasion, after Johnson missed a Saturday practice, White trudged over to D.J.'s grandmother's house, where his guard was then living, with the intention of kicking him off the team. "But there's his grandma [with no telephone] and Dennis didn't have money for the bus, and...."
Dennis insists that he wanted for nothing as a kid. "Everybody took care of everybody," he says. "We weren't poor. It seems that everything we wanted, we got." White demurs. "They were poor, believe me." Adds John Johnson, the veteran who befriended D.J. in Seattle, "He's just being proud. There's no question that he was poor."
By the end of his second season at Harbor, with scoring and rebounding averages of 18 and 12 in his portfolio, Johnson knew what a scholarship was. The offers came from Pepperdine and Azusa Pacific. At White's suggestion he chose Pepperdine and its laid-back coach, Gary Colson. After the family house burned down during his first semester at Pepperdine, D.J. thought about quitting school and getting a job to help his mother financially. But she and Colson prevailed on him to stay.
By then he had begun seeing Donna, whom he had met at Harbor. Both Colson and White remember Donna bringing out the best in him on the court and off it. "In community college, when a gal enters the picture, guys usually start missing practice and go all to hell," says White. "But he played better than ever." When Pepperdine threatened UCLA at Pauley Pavilion in the 1976 NCAA tournament, the Sonics took notice of the roughhewn guard who jumped center for the Waves.
Seattle drafted him as a junior eligible, with a niche as a defensive stopper awaiting him. He led the Sonics to the finals and the title in his first two trips to the playoffs. After barely five seasons of organized ball, as an NBA adolescent, he was a virtual master at point guard, the pro game's most demanding position. But a comedown followed. John Johnson recalls: "Here he was, going out and stopping David Thompson, who was making $800,000 a year, and Brent Musburger's calling him and Gus [Williams, the other Sonics guard] the Rolls-Royces of NBA guards, and he's making five figures. It was tough for him to accept."
Yet when the Sonics adjusted his contract munificently, D.J. felt compelled to justify the increase in newfangled ways. He began hoisting shots theretofore reserved for Williams and Fred Brown. He pouted when vet Paul Silas tried to reason with him. Coach Lenny Wilkens resolved that D.J. had to go. He was sent to Phoenix for Paul Westphal after the 1979-80 season.
In the wake of the trade, Wilkens made a remark about D.J. being a "cancer" on the team. When you start out as one among 16, as D.J. did, and suddenly find yourself an NBA star, it may be natural to entertain some illusions about how central you are to those around you. "He's matured immensely," says John Johnson. "He's rounded himself out. One thing about D.J.—he remembers. He learns from experience. In the NBA, that locker-room-lawyer thing can become a bad rap. But the way he plays, could he have a bad attitude? In Seattle, the only real disruptive thing was that contract."
The trade to Phoenix was "the best thing to happen at that time," D.J. says now. "The Seattle years were my growing years." On the other hand, the 1983 trade from Phoenix to Boston (for Rick Robey)—the Celtics thought Johnson would be the perfect antidote for Philadelphia's high-scoring Andrew Toney—was a real shocker for D.J. "I had no idea at all that it was going to happen," he says. "When Jerry [Colangelo, the Suns' general manager] called to tell me, I thought he was calling about a contract extension. Phoenix was going to be my home."
By most accounts, the Suns shipped Johnson out because his attitude didn't fit into their disciplined system. Funny thing. At last look, the Suns had muddled their way into the draft lottery, while their bench was being cordoned off from the many hostile Phoenix fans who didn't like the Suns' attitude. "Dennis had more problems with [coach John] MacLeod and the front office than with the players," says Kelley. "He'd constantly try to get MacLeod's goat, but it was all little things, practice stuff."
Even D.J. has allowed that the trades helped him mature. Those close to him agree. "I can see how that kind of sting would spur him on," says Jim Rodgers, who assists Celtics coach K.C. Jones. "Anytime he's challenged, he taps into himself. And he's not just competitive—he has great pride."
D.J. could easily have rehabilitated his pride by watching the decline of Phoenix and Seattle immediately after those teams dealt him away in inept trades. (Imagine the Cardinals having gotten Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio and then trading him a few years later for, say, Bob Priddy. We're talking two shameful deals here involving the same perennial All-Star.) But D.J. refused to look back. "The best thing about coming to Boston was in training camp, to hear K.C. and Red [Auerbach] say that with me on the team, we very possibly could win a championship," he says. "They were putting it on the line."
Two springs ago, after the Celtics' Game 3 blowout loss to the Lakers in the finals, D.J. had occasion to "tap into himself." CBS analyst Tom Heinsohn had suggested on the air that Johnson, who didn't play any more poorly than any other Celtic on that sorry day, wasn't a "real" Celtic. The remark hurt him terribly, but probably damaged Magic Johnson more, for D.J. slowed the Laker guard up enough during the rest of the series to enable the Celts to win in seven.
Rightly or wrongly, Johnson still has a reputation for moodiness. "With D.J., it isn't moodiness," says Fred Brown. "It's more a sensitivity." Sometimes, even now (as singer Luther Vandross, a D.J. favorite, would put it), his sensitivity gets in the way. A game in February, against the Bullets, was a case in point: A seemingly brooding Johnson didn't take a shot during 27 minutes on the floor. "Once or twice every year that will happen," says Bob Ryan, the veteran Celticologist of The Boston Globe. "It's as if he's reminding us that it's D.J. out there and not some Stepford Guard. But whatever's bugging him is gone by the next game. You never know why, and you can't ever know. You can open door after door after door, but you'll never get at the real D.J."
"Most people haven't seen me on my bad days," D.J. says. "I've learned to stay inside. Donna told me once that it doesn't matter what other people think; it's what you think of yourself. I'm the same people I've always been, but with a lot more patience now."
He was at his easiest earlier this season, during a stint on a morning drive-time show on WILD, Boston's soul station, as a guest D.J., which is to say, simply as himself. Over a breezy hour he talked about how many freckles dot his face (156) and played straight man for a caller, a professional comedian, who claimed to be Bill Cosby and did a pretty good impression. But then, with his malleable face and playful diction, D.J. recalls the Cos, too. And as Johnson himself says, it's a Cosby routine that spotlights how far he has come. "It's the one about being a parent," D.J. says. "You come home and something's broken. And if you've got more than one kid, you have to line 'em all up and ask the first one who did it and hear him say, I don't know,' and ask the rest, and hear them all say the same thing. People with only one don't know what it's like."
Dennis Johnson knows. He has gone from enfant terrible to fastidious parent, from "cancer" to cure-all. So long as he has freckles, he'll still have the exuberance that John Johnson and Fred Brown and Paul Silas recall as being so exasperating in Seattle, but invigorating, too. But it's a tempered exuberance now. D.J. has learned how to make his bed and clean up his room.
The game-winning shots go in the box over there. The defensive shutdowns belong here, in this box. And the receptacle marked NBA CHAMPIONSHIPS figures to get filled up.
RONALD C. MODRA
Some have mistaken D.J.'s sensitivity for moodiness, says ex-teammate Fred Brown.
Johnson has the ability to put just about any game out of reach when he has a hot hand.
RONALD C. MODRA
Donna and Dwayne have played a significant role in helping D.J. pursue his calling.
D.J. was anything but a doll in Wilkens's mind...
...and he didn't have as much fun in the sun as he had hoped in Phoenix.
RONALD C. MODRA
Sometimes D.J. goes to work in the same subterranean fashion as other Bostonians.