Johnson Grew Into A Man Few Anticipated

By Art Thiel
Updated: February 24, 2007

SEATTLE — Trout, is what his Sonics teammates called him. For the freckles. MVP, is what the NBA Finals called him after the Sonics won it all in 1979. A cancer, is what Lenny Wilkens called him a year later, after trading him in one of the most startling deals in Seattle sports history.

The best, Larry Bird called him, rating the guards with whom he played. D-League coach, is what they called him lately. Much in the fashion of his trademark defense, the basketball life of Dennis Johnson was all over the place.

In death so young, he has vexed again. From a perspective of his Seattle days, here is the most unexpected description: He became a man in full.

Few of us who came to know the tough-ass kid from Compton, who invented “moody” before Ken Griffey Jr. patented it, would have imagined such a flourish. Back in the day, he seemed on his way to squandering his splendidness.

Things change. People grow. The Dennis Johnson Rule: Never assume a person in his or her early 20s is the finished product.

Even more than his three championships and five All-Star Game appearances, that is his legacy.

Years after his 1980 trade to Phoenix for Paul Westphal, a transaction that remains a thousand fingernails down the blackboard of veteran Sonics fans, Johnson, then an assistant coach, ran into Wilkens at the NBA’s annual pre-draft camp in Chicago.

“He always called me coach,” Wilkens said by phone Thursday from New Orleans, where he will broadcast the Sonics game tonight. “He came over, we started talking.

“He said, ‘Coach, I’ve always wanted you to know I was never mad at you personally.’ I said I understood that. He must have repeated himself three or four times. Finally I said, ‘Please. Look at you now. You’re doing great. I understand.’

“As a coach, nothing makes you prouder than to see someone you helped do well. It made me so happy. Now I’m real sad.”

As one who has coached more NBA players than any other, but won a championship with only 12, Wilkens has an indelible fondness for D.J. that endured beyond their early tumult.

It was Wilkens, upon succeeding Bob Hopkins as coach in the fall of 1977, who promoted Johnson and Gus Williams to the starting lineup that transformed the Sonics into a three-year NBA sledgehammer.

At 6 feet 4, Johnson’s long arms, powerful lower body and cranky fearlessness made him the NBA’s best defensive guard. As D.J., John Johnson, Jack Sikma and Lonnie Shelton suffocated the opposition, Gus Williams and Fred Brown slashed and popped.

A marvelous blend whose talent was only above average, the Sonics coalesced into a dreadnought, becoming something Seattle has never seen again in its major pro sports history — a champion.

As is often the case in sports, it frayed as fast as it knitted, starting with Johnson and the predictable influence of money. After rancorous negotiations led to a five-year, $2.2 million deal, Johnson thought he had to play like a million-dollar guard. Selfish, petulant, divisive, he didn’t realize he was being paid to be who he was, not to be someone he thought he should be.

“He proved he was a player on the rise,” Wilkens said. The club’s owner, the late Sam Schulman, “just didn’t want to pay him. D.J. didn’t feel he was being taken care of. He should have been paid.”

As Johnson, then 25, drifted from incomparable to incorrigible, the coach became fed up. The man who elevated him, banished him.

In an interview after the trade in the summer of 1980, Wilkens, in the fourth season of his second term as Sonics coach, told me: “You can’t get rid of the body, but you can cut out the cancer. The body still functions and allows the growth of other people.”

The quote went national. Wilkens was mortified. Surprisingly, Johnson seemed chastened.

“It’s been written like I’ve been the villain in Seattle the last four years,” he said before the first meeting between his new and old clubs. “But I want to bypass all that talking. Maybe the whole story hasn’t been told. I don’t really want to think about it now.

“I think I can show people what my real reputation is by not blasting off at anybody.”

Whether that flash of maturity began the epiphany isn’t known. But after three seasons in Phoenix, Boston general manager Red Auerbach called Wilkens.

“I recommended that Red trade for him,” Wilkens said. “I said you put veteran players around him and he’ll do well.”

A wingman for Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Johnson soared. He helped Boston win championships in 1984 and 1986 as part of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry that became the NBA’s pinnacle, a magnificent expression of basketball never witnessed before or since.

His time as a Celtic, where he was revered, will be how the hoops nation will remember him. That’s fine. Sonics fans of a grayer hue know he was part of a preposterously delightful time that belonged to another NBA era when players and fans were kindred worshippers in a sporting church. And they share with Celtics fans the rueful fact that neither team has won a title since he left them.

“He was a tough young guy who wanted to have an impact,” Wilkens said. “He did.”

Paradoxical to the end, the uncoachable one became a coach. Always around the edge of the spotlight, Johnson was a scout and an assistant, getting a top job only briefly a few years ago as an interim coach with the Clippers.

Married with three kids and over 50, Johnson could not have been faulted for abandoning the bushes of the National Basketball Development League. Yet he was in his third season coaching the Austin Toros, finished with a practice, when he collapsed on a sidewalk outside the gym.

It is not easy for a prideful man to descend from the pinnacle and still find fulfillment. Neither must it have been easy to seek absolution from someone who once scorned him, nor grow into the man that few anticipated.

Perhaps basketball feats were the lesser of his achievements.