Feb. 22, 2007
Malibu, Calif. - Dennis Johnson, who rose from humble beginnings to star at Pepperdine and in the NBA where he was part of three championships and teamed with Larry Bird on one of the great postseason plays, died Thursday after collapsing at the end of his developmental team's practice. He was 52.
Johnson, coach of the Austin Toros, was unconscious and in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived at Austin Convention Center, said Warren Hassinger, spokesman for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.
Paramedics tried to resuscitate him for 23 minutes before he was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead, Hassinger added. Mayra Freeman, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, said there will be an autopsy.
The Toros postponed home games Friday and Saturday nights, the NBA Development League said.
"This may sound strange, but he turned into my hero," former Pepperdine head coach Gary Colson, who coached Johnson, said. "He came up with 16 brothers and sisters, didn't even start on his high school team and dropped out for a year.
"We recruited him, none really wanted him and to go to where his jersey is hanging in Boston Garden made him really special and a true Cinderella story," Colson added.
Johnson helped the Waves to a 22-6 record and NCAA Tournament appearance as they advanced to the second round. Pepperdine defeated Memphis, 87-77, in the opening round before falling 70-61 to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
Johnson averaged 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists en route to being named All-West Coast Athletic Conference (WCAC).
In 1982, Johnson was honored with the Pepperdine Distinguished Alumni Award.
Faced with the unfortunate events of his parents divorcing and his home burning down, Johnson declared for the NBA draft and was taken in the second round, the 29th overall selection overall, by the Seattle SuperSonics.
"I told him that if he could get any money," he should enter the draft to help out his family," Colson said. "One of the first things he did was buy his mom a home after he signed."
"He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time," said former Boston teammate Danny Ainge, now the Celtics' executive director of basketball operations.
"D.J. was a free spirit and a fun personality who loved to laugh and play the game. We had spoken at length just the other night about basketball and his excitement about coaching the Austin Toros."
Johnson, a five-time All-Star and one of the top defensive guards, was part of the last Boston dynasty. He spent 14 seasons in the league and retired after the 1989-90 season. He played on title teams with the Celtics in 1984 and 1986 and with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1979, when he was the NBA finals MVP.
"Whether he was leading his teams to NBA championships or teaching young men the meaning of professionalism, Dennis Johnson's contributions to the game went far beyond the basketball court," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "Dennis was a man of extraordinary character with a tremendous passion for the game."
Johnson was a favorite teammate of Bird's, and the two were part of one of the most memorable plays in Celtics history.
During the fifth game of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, Bird stole Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass under Boston's basket and fed Johnson, who drove in for the winning layup. Boston won the series in seven games but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals.
"Dennis was a great player, one of the best teammates I ever had, and a wonderful person," said Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers. "My thoughts and condolences are with his family at this difficult time."
Bill Laimbeer, the center on that Pistons team, remembered Johnson as a "great player on a great ballclub."
"He played with passion and grit," Laimbeer said. "It was fun to play games like that. You always enjoyed it. It made for not only great games, but great entertainment."
"Dennis was a great player, one of the best teammates I ever had, and a wonderful person,"
- Larry Bird
In the 1984 finals, Johnson guarded Magic Johnson effectively in the last four games. In 1985, he hit a last-second jumper against Los Angeles that won the fourth game. In 1986, he was part of a team that featured four Hall of Famers -- Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton.
"He was truly one of the good guys to play in the NBA, and he was a great teammate who was fun to be around," McHale said.
Johnson had a reputation for delivering in big games.
"I hate to lose," he once said. "I accept it when it comes, but I still hate it. That's the way I am."
He averaged 14.1 points and 5.0 assists for his career. When he retired, he was the 11th player in NBA history to total 15,000 points and 5,000 assists. Johnson made one all-NBA first team and one second team. Six times he made the all-defensive first team, including five consecutive seasons (1979-83).
Johnson was born Sept. 18, 1954, in Compton, Calif. Prior to coming to Pepperdine, Johnson attended Dominguez High and Harbor Junior College for one season where he averaged 18.3 points and 12.0 rebounds and keyed the team's run to a state junior college title.
"We stayed in touch," Colson said. I ran into him several times during the last year and was very humble, nice and approachable."
He is survived by his wife, Donna, sons Dwayne and Daniel, and a daughter, Denise.
Portions of this story taken from the Associated Press