It was a dire situation for the Boston Celtics. The scenario? 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons. Series tied 2-2. Celtics down by a point. The Celtics turned the ball over in the waning seconds. It appeared the game was lost, until that ole’ Boston Garden mystique arrived once more. A diving Larry Bird stole Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass. Dennis Johnson cut from the free throw line and towards the basket, receiving a crisp pass from Bird. DJ hit an awkward layup with one second remaining to give the Celtics a 108-107 win. They would win the series and advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season. Though they lost to the Lakers in six games, it was amazing they reached the finals at all.
By now many of you have heard that Dennis Johnson suffered a heart attack and died yesterday. He was coaching the Austin Toros of the NBDL. He was only 52. As a lifelong Celtics fan who graduated from high school in 1986, to me the Celtics teams of Bird, McHale, Parish, Ainge and DJ were legendary. They were the ultimate definition of a team, and DJ was a prominent part.
DJ won an NBA title with Seattle before playing for Phoenix and then Boston. Yet most NBA fans and Celtics fans will remember him for his tenure with what is arguably the best team in NBA history. In a 14-year NBA career, DJ averaged 14.1 points and five assists per game. When he retired after the 1989-90 season, he was the 11th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points and record 5,000 assists. He was named six times to the All-Defensive first team and one time to the All-NBA first team. It is surprising that he is not part of the NBA Hall of Fame.
This has been a tough season for the Celtics – losing Red Auerbach, 18 games in a row and now DJ. There will be a time when the Celtics return to glory. It could be sooner than later if they keep their core of young players and draft Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Still, it is unlikely there will ever be a "true team" like the Celtics of the 80s. They won NBA titles in 1984 and 1986 and reached the NBA Finals in 1985 and 1987 (they won the NBA title in 1981 as well, but that was before the days of DJ in Boston). Unlike today, there were two true powers in the Celtics and the Lakers. Now, a key member of those powers is gone far too early in his life. In Boston, he will certainly be remembered.