Although Dennis Johnson was posthumously enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday as a Celtic, Johnson once shined brightly in the Valley of the Sun.
Larry Bird, who once said that Johnson was “the best player I’ve ever played with,” played three seasons for the Suns from the 1980 through 1983. Traded to Phoenix from Seattle for Ring of Honor Member Paul Westphal, Johnson earned All-Star, All-Defensive First Team and All-NBA First Team honors his first season in the Valley as he led the Suns to a then franchise-record 57 wins.
In his second season in Phoenix, “DJ” was named to the All-Defensive First Team once again and was the lone representative for the Suns at the All-Star Game in New Jersey. During his three seasons in Phoenix, the 6-4, 202-pound Johnson averaged 17.5 points and 4.7 rebounds during the regular season and 20.4 points and 5.1 boards in the playoffs before being traded to the Celtics in the offseason.
“He’s the greatest defensive player that’s ever played in the league as a guard,” Magic Johnson told the Boston Herald. “He was just awesome. He was big. He was strong. He was probably one of the smartest players to ever play.
“I used to be so mad at Dennis because he made me think so much. He anticipated my moves before I made them. He was just a master at understanding how to play you and not give you what you want – and still do it as the nice Dennis Johnson. I used to hate that.”
Johnson led the Suns to the playoffs all three seasons he played in Phoenix and won three rings in his career, two with the Celtics and one with the SuperSonics in 1979, when he was named Finals MVP. The former Suns guard was named to nine consecutive NBA All-Defensive Teams, including six times on the All-Defensive First Team.
It was a bittersweet day for Dennis Johnson’s family, who lost DJ to a heart attack in 2007. His widow Donna, and his brother, Gary, accepted the honor on his behalf.
“It’s disappointing,” Bird said of the delay in Johnson’s entry to the Boston Herald, “but, still, he’s there. I’m so proud of the family. I’m so happy for them. This meant a lot to DJ. We talked about this when he was playing.”
His former coach in Seattle, Lenny Wilkens, described Johnson as a player who scratched and clawed his way to success.
“He was a tough kid. That’s why he’s here,” Wilkens told the Boston Herald. “He was just outstanding and fabulous. I had the privilege to coach him, and when I took over the Sonics, he was on the bench. I changed the whole lineup, and I felt that he should be a starter because he could impact the game with his defense – and very few guys can do that. Bill Russell did it, and Dennis could do it also.”
During his playing days, the one-time Sun and five-time NBA All-Star also impressed the likes of Suns Ring of Honor member Charles Barkley. Barkley has been clamoring for Johnson to be admitted to the Hall of Fame for some time.
“Everybody talks about his defensive prowess, but you just think back to how many clutch shots he made,” Barkley told the Herald. “Go back to the Celtics and Seattle and think about all the plays Dennis Johnson made. He was a winner.”