The Dennis Johnson Interview
By: Michael D. McClellan
Tuesday, October 1st, 2002
A new world order exists in today’s post-millennium NBA. It is one in which high school basketball players are drafted within weeks of their senior prom, given multimillion dollar contracts based largely on potential, and then promptly anointed as the savior of an NBA Draft Lottery bottom feeder. College upperclassmen are no longer in vogue as conventional wisdom is turned upside down; it is better to build a franchise around a phenom rather than select the more polished player with less natural talent.
This new world order dictates that youth will be served. It showers fame and fortune on those barely old enough to vote, and it celebrates the Age of Instant Gratification. There is no room for professors or college campuses, only super agents and corporate campuses. High schoolers and underclassmen not only dominate the draft lottery itself but also much of the first round, leaving precious few opportunities for players who stay in school and complete their college eligibility. As a result, fewer and fewer long shots make their way onto opening day NBA rosters.
Imagine then, that the year is 1972. A player languishes on the bench at California’s Dominguez High School, unable to garner any meaningful minutes, his hoops resume noteworthy only for being cut from his seventh and eighth grade teams. He is always the tenth or eleventh man in the game, a bencher who averages no more than three minutes per contest. The player’s name is Dennis Johnson. He is so underwhelming that not a single college recruiter comes calling to talk scholarship. He is light years away from a career as a professional athlete, an idea so farfetched that Johnson – better known as DJ while establishing himself as one of the greatest guards in NBA history – graduates from Dominguez High and takes a $2.75/hour job driving a forklift.
While the job puts spending money in Johnson’s pockets, it does nothing to quench his thirst for competitive basketball. He dreams of playing in the pros. After work he hops the bus to play in summer league games with his brothers. He holds his own, and the itch intensifies. Then an amazing thing happens; the once too-small high school player grows to a muscular 6’-3” basketball junkie with springs for legs. He begins to dominate the summer league and in the process catches the eye of Jim White, then-coach of nearby Harbor Junior College. White sees enough potential in Johnson to offer a scholarship.
While at Harbor, Johnson exhibits both great promise and a flashpoint temper. He is a wild stallion, undisciplined and defiantly stubborn, traits that lead to frequent clashes with his coach. He is kicked off of the team three times in two seasons. The relationship between coach and pupil seems certain to end in failure, with Johnson out of school and asking himself the same question scores of other talented-yet-undisciplined ex-athletes ask themselves: “What if?”
Yet somehow, a mutual respect develops during the fiery guard’s second season. The respect becomes admiration, and the admiration grows into a genuine friendship. Johnson, who had matured physically while participating in summer league play, matures both mentally and emotionally during his oft-contentious stay at Harbor. White never completely gives up on his talented player, using his connections to hype Johnson as a legitimate NCAA Division prospect. Several schools listen, though none seriously enough to take on a player with a history of behavior issues. Pepperdine University is the lone exception, and soon Johnson finds himself on scholarship and in the Waves’ basketball program.
Coached by the classy Gary Colson, DJ refines his game and attracts the attention of ex-Celtic great Bill Russell, then serving as the Seattle SuperSonics’ GM. Russell drafts the talented guard in the second round of the 1976 NBA Draft, and three years later the player who couldn’t even start for Dominguez High School is named the NBA Finals MVP.
There are clashes with other coaches, most notably with Lenny Wilkins in Seattle. Also, harsh words like ‘malcontent’ and ‘cancer’ are used to describe Johnson during his brief stay with the Phoenix Suns. Yet through it all no one denies that Johnson is a winner. His 1983 arrival in Boston is an instant success as the Celtics go on to defeat the hated Los Angeles Lakers in one of the most highly anticipated NBA Finals ever. It is a signature series for the talented guard, who scores 20 or more points in each of the last four games while guarding Magic Johnson. Years later Larry Bird offers DJ the highest praise of all, calling him "the best I ever played with."
The Celtics play in four NBA Finals during Johnson’s first four years on the team, winning two championships and dispelling his image as that of a selfish backbiter. His reputation as a clutch player and one of the greatest defensive guards in NBA history grows with each season in Boston uniform. Upon retirement his resume boasts six trips to the NBA Finals, three NBA World Championships and one NBA Finals MVP award – not bad for this longest of long shots from Compton, California.
On December 13, 1991 the Celtics honor Johnson with the ultimate award, retiring his Number 3 jersey to the Boston Garden rafters. It is the crowning achievement of a player who beats the odds and proves that late bloomers can go on to have highly successful NBA careers.
I had the good fortune to discuss Johnson’s unconventional path to NBA stardom with the man himself. DJ is now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers. This interview takes place during training camp as the Clippers prepare to open the 2002-03 season. I’m struck by his introspective, thought-provoking answers, and by how hard he has worked to succeed in life. Dennis Johnson is a case study in perseverance and his story should serve as an inspiration to everyone.