RIP DJ. (September 18, 1954 – February 22, 2007). He was voted into the Hall of Fame three years after his sudden, tragic death. I interviewed him from my office in Beijing about a year before he passed away. The interview originally ran in SLAM 95.
by Alan Paul
Dennis Johnson might be the most underrated player of the last 30 years. The 6-4, 200-pound combo guard played every second of every game not only like it was his last, but as if he might die if he didn’t win. He was a complete player who could and did win in every possible way—draining jumpers, making steals, driving and dishing, or shutting down the game’s biggest superstars no matter their size.
DJ won one title in Seattle (’79) and two more in Boston (’84 and ’86) and was central to each of them. He played in five All-Star games and made nine All-Defensive teams. It was all a long way from his childhood in Compton, CA, where he grew up the eighth of 16 children and barely played as a 5-9 guard at Dominguez High.
After growing seven inches, he led L.A.’s Harbor College to a state JuCo title in ’74, then spent one year at Pepperdine, where he jumped center and led the team to the NCAA Tourney. Seattle grabbed him in the second round of the ’76 Draft, and by his second season he had supplanted Slick Watts as the starting point guard, leading the Sonics to the ’78 NBA Finals, where they fell to the Washington Bullets in seven grueling games. A year later, Johnson led the Sonics to a rematch victory and earned the Finals MVP award.
After one more season in Seattle and a three-year stint in Phoenix, DJ was traded to Boston, where he joined a star-laden team that included Bird, Parish and McHale. The Celts won titles in his first and third years, with DJ in the middle of many postseason highlights, never afraid to be in control of the biggest moments in the biggest games.
When Johnson retired in 1990, Bird called him “the best I’ve ever played with.” Anyone who was really watching understood. After years as an NBA assistant and a stint as the Clippers’ interim head coach, DJ is now coaching the Austin Toros of the NBDL. He belongs on an NBA bench, where his hard-assed attitude and hard-earned wisdom could only be welcome.
SLAM: You were a late bloomer. How did that impact your game?
DJ: It makes you appreciate the game a little more. Your drive is greater, and you’re hungrier. I hardly played in high school and was working a blue-collar job and playing in a rec league with my five brothers where Harbor JC coach Jim White checked me out. I registered for the school, went out for the team, and started to play. I grew a little more, found my jumping ability, my awkwardness went away and I blossomed. To be honest, I was flabbergasted by it all. But the work that you put in is what you’re going to get out of it, and I put in a lot of work. It was more determination than anything, along with some great advice from my coach.
SLAM: Which was what?
DJ: First of all, he really showed me how to play organized basketball, and he stuck with me through some run-ins. And he told me I wasn’t going to be the best shooter and said, “This is how you have to do things: make four steals, put in four or five rebounds and go to the free throw line five times, and you can average 17 a game.” Next I went to Pepperdine—the only place that offered me a scholarship—and had my real moment of truth, realizing that I could play with the big guys.
SLAM: Did you feel the same way when you joined the Sonics, playing behind Slick Watts and Fred Brown?
DJ: No. I was again unsure I belonged. Having Bill Russell as coach made me more scared, but he feared me into listening and often pulled me aside to talk and point things out. Once I started playing, my appetite rose again and I realized again I could play with these guys. This is when I started really learning how to play people, and my defense became very good. I started analyzing others’ games, seeing what their best moves were and figuring out how to counter them. I noticed all the little things they do and started working to exploit them. But as much as you have to study to be a great defensive player, it’s also a matter of hustle and drive. If you really want to be the best at it, you had to work endlessly in a focused way.
SLAM: You really arrived your second year, after Lenny Wilkens took over as coach. What changed—you or him?
DJ: Both. I spent the summer working very, very hard and then things didn’t go as I had hoped. Coach Russ had left and been replaced by Bob Hopkins, and we started off 5-17, then Lenny took over and went with a whole new lineup, including putting me in the starting lineup. Then everything clicked. We fought and clawed and crawled our way back to respectability and Seattle was rocking. Our home crowds were incredible and we got into a great groove, which rode all the way to the Finals. Everything was going great until we got to Game 7. I was nervous as could be and shot 0 for 14 and the team lost, and that had the biggest effect on me. That night propels me to do the right thing to this day.
SLAM: How so?
DJ: Everyone has a defining moment, and it’s usually pretty good. My defining moment is when I shot 0 for 14 and we lost a title. I went home that summer and did everything in my power to say, This will never happen again, and by the grace of God it never happened again. Success is a great thing, but sometimes failure is, too. It’s what is going to stick with you and motivate you.
SLAM: The next year, you made your first All-Star and All-Defensive teams and were named Finals MVP.
DJ: That all grew out of the determination not to fail. I had unbelievable focus and concentration on the game. I didn’t want to let anyone down, and I finally got it in my head that being a hero or a goat is basically the same thing. It’s just how you accept it that matters. If you’re an asshole about it, that’s how everyone will see you. If you admit to and accept failure and act like a winner, you will become that. And that’s how I moved forward. I worked hard so that if I ever missed a game-winning shot again, there would be no doubt I had given it everything I had and my teammates could come to me with no hesitation and say, “Hey, don’t worry about it.”
SLAM: In Boston, you joined a team with a great nucleus in need of someone to pull them together, and that was you—you won two titles in your first three years.
DJ: When I found out I got traded from Phoenix, Red Auerbach told me, “You’re the final piece to the puzzle,” which is a nice thing to hear. On the second day of training camp, we separated into teams and I was with Larry, Robert and Cedric [Maxwell], and it just clicked immediately. Everyone there knew that we were going to have something pretty special. We had such intense battles through camp, you were kind of glad to play the first regular season game. We just blitzed people, and everyone knew that they better bring their A-game against us and it still might not be enough.
SLAM: Were you comfortable deferring ego-wise to those guys?
DJ: I never had a problem. There were enough shots to go around. I averaged about 15 a game, down from 19 or 20 in Phoenix, and that was fine. It was so much fun. My role was to set it up, make the right passes to Larry, Kevin, Robert and Cedric, get eight or nine assists, hit the shots when they were there and play great defense.
SLAM: You had a rap as a guy without a great shot, but they often tossed you the ball with the shot clock ticking away.
DJ: I always loved that, because I just never shied away from anything. A lot of people just don’t want to be put in that position, but it’s just the position for me. I loved that my teammates knew that I was going to do the best thing I could possibly do to give your team a chance to win.
SLAM: One of your signature defensive performances was shutting down Magic in the ’84 Finals. You gave up five or six inches there. How did you combat that?
DJ: First of all, I had a lot of help. But I never worried about height. I could jump and I knew how to use my body and positioning. Of course, Magic was a hard cover but knowing that just fires you up all the more. I knew that if I slacked up for one minute, he would make it all his, so I just tried to stay vigilant at all times.
SLAM: Were you ever intimidated by having to cover anyone?
DJ: Not at all. I knew I would have extremely hard nights, but if you don’t feel you can match up out there, you are dead from the start. It sounds crazy, and a lot of people don’t understand it, but I always felt I was the best player on the court. Of course, I knew about great players like Larry, Michael, Magic, but if you defer to them, they are only going to be greater. I always thought I could do whatever I needed to do at any point. Ego fuels you in any sport, and I was never going into a game feeling I was overmatched.