SPRINGFIELD — Dennis Johnson will be officially inducted as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night, along with such hoops luminaries as Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen and the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.” Several members of that 1992 team are in Springfield for the Hall of Fame weekend and met with the media Friday morning. When the name “Dennis Johnson” was raised, all were quick to heap praise on the five-time All-Star.
“No question it’s long overdue,” said Larry Bird, who has famously referred to Johnson as the best teammate he ever played with. “DJ not only performed well for the Celtics but he had a great career before. I’m very happy for him and his family. We always supported one another and he was just a great teammate to play with. Dennis controlled everything we did on the court, you have to understand that to understand our teams. It was an honor to play with him.”
Bird, who teamed with Johnson to win two NBA championships, four Eastern Conference crowns and five Atlantic Division titles, was asked about the chemistry he and DJ had on the court.
“Dennis knew where I wanted the ball, how I wanted the ball and he delivered it,” said Bird. “If I was coming off screens, he always knew where I wanted it, he always led it to my left hand so I could move to my right hand very quickly. Everything he did out there made it easier for me.”
Johnson won a title in his first season with the Celtics, scoring at least 20 points in each of the last four games of the 1984 NBA Finals. His defense was also key in the seven-game classic, as he slowed down Magic Johnson over those last four games. The Lakers’ legend smiled and shook his head when asked about the impact Dennis Johnson had on that series.
“I would have had six [titles] if it wasn’t for Dennis!,” Magic Johnson said Friday. “But no, Dennis is the greatest defensive player I’ve ever played against, and has ever played in the league. Smartest player I ever met. He was five steps ahead. Caused so many problems for me and everyone else that had to go head-to-head with him. Awesome. Big, strong, probably one of the bet players that’s ever plyed the game. I knew Dennis very well because we played against each other every summer at UCLA. We would hang out, and talk basketball all the time. It’s a bittersweet time for me, knowing him so well.
I used to be so mad at Dennis because he used to make me think so much when I played against him. He anticipated my moves before I even knew I was going to do it. Unreal. He was just a master at understanding how to play you, and make you not do what you wanted. And he did it all with that smile, the nice Dennis Johnson. I hated that. He took away what I did best. Great for his family and all of us that knew him so well.”
Charles Barkley echoed some of Magic Johnson’s thoughts, calling DJ “one of the best defensive players of all time.” He also felt this recognition was a long time coming.
“This is way, way overdue, I’ve been saying that for years” said Barkley, who played with the 76ers during the last six seasons of Johnson’s career in Boston. “Clearly everyone is going to talk about the defensive prowess, but the main thing is all the clutch shots he made. So, so tough. It’s crazy that it took so long for this to happen. Go back to Seattle, go back to Boston, a consistent winner. He should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago. Just so many clutch shots.”
Lenny Wilkens was an assistant coach on the Dream Team, and also the head coach for the 1979 NBA championship-winning Sonics squad. Wilkens on Friday praised the toughness of Johnson, who was MVP of that Finals series.
“We would put him on the other teams toughest player every time,” Wilkens recalled. “He wanted the challenge. We had to move him to Phoenix but I’ll tell you this: When Red Auerbach called and asked me about Dennis I told him to do whatever he had to do to get him. I knew it would be a perfect fit.”
Scottie Pippen, himself one of the NBA’s most decorated defensive players, counted DJ as a huge influence in his game.
“He was a great guy, well respected all over the league,” said Pippen, an eight-time First-Team all defender (DJ was a six-time choice). “Just a great guy. I watched him as a young kid. I molded a lot of my game after him, as a defender, a playmaker. I’m so honored to be able to join him in the Hall of Fame.”