DJ did a funny thing when he shot free throws. He bent all the way over at the waist and dribbled the ball a few times with both hands. That part wasn’t so unusual.
Former Suns guard Dennis Johnson had a unique approach at the free throw line.
Everyone has a different routine when they shoot free throws – Nowadays, players blow kisses to their kids or smooch their tattoos, or do whatever else. But back then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the difference in free throw style was generally limited to how many times you dribbled before you shot – and everyone shot the same way (Rick Barry, with his underhanded “granny style” charity shots, being the exception).
But after he finished his dribbling, that was when DJ did the strange thing. Staring at the basket, taking a deep breath, he’d sort of wrap his arms around the basketball, then unwrap them, almost uncoiling them, before raising his arms to shoot. And they almost always went in.
My friends and I were fascinated by this. We’d go out to the playgrounds, and because we were still at the age where we did such things, we’d imitate distinctive players. We launch cobra-like jumpers and call out, “Jamaal Wilkes!” We’d heave up junior-junior-junior-junior sky hooks and scream, “Kareem!” We’d take six or seven non-dribbling steps as though we were flying through the air, the ball cupped between our small hands and our wrists, and pantomime a physically impossible dunk. “Doctor J!”
Eventually we’d get to the free throw line, and we’d be DJ. We’d bend at the waist, dribble with both hands, coil around the ball and let fly. We never had to say the name. The action spoke for itself. And it was cool. DJ was cool.
(Side note: The only other Sun we’d imitate at the foul line was their burly, hirsute backup center of the day, Rich Kelley. Copying him consisted of standing at the line, rearing back, and throwing the ball off the backboard as hard as we could. Not because Kelley was a particularly bad foul shooter…It just looked like the way someone like him should shoot a free throw. And it never failed to crack us up.)
It took a little while for me to realize how cool Dennis Johnson was. I was heartbroken when he came to town, because Paul Westphal, for whom he was traded, had long been my favorite player. Westy was the face of the franchise in those days, he’d been there since I started really following the team in earnest, and it was impossible to imagine the Suns without him. In my young mind, DJ was the guy who’d driven Westy out, and he’d never, ever be able to replace my hero.
But after just a few games, I saw the truth. DJ was a different kind of player from Westphal, and in his own way, just as admirable. He wasn’t in Westphal’s class as a scorer (not many were), but DJ could score well enough (and particularly in important spots), he was a true point guard who could direct an offense, and there was no one like him when it came to defense. He was tenacious. He never quit. He never backed down. After a long period of time when the Suns were considered the bantamweights of the league, DJ gave them an image of toughness. And soon, as much as I aspired to the moves of Westphal, I found myself aspiring to the grit and determination and headiness of Dennis Johnson. I never got there as a basketball player, of course, but very few can say they did. But the things I aspired to then that were part of his character…Well, I still aspire to them. They’re good things to want in yourself.
As heartbroken as I was when DJ came to town, I was just as heartbroken when he left, gone in a trade to Boston for Rick Robey. I knew what the Suns wanted from Robey – he was the latest step in the team’s ongoing quest for a franchise center – but I couldn’t help but feel like the Suns were giving up more than they were getting. DJ was a rare player, a throwback who could fit in seamlessly in the modern game, and when you find someone like that to lead your team, it’s hard to let them go.
DJ went on to great glory with the Celtics, as we all know, and I was happy for him. I remained a fan. As much as I held a grudge against the Celtics for beating the Suns in the 1976 Finals, it was hard not to root for DJ, if not the Celtics, when he wore the green. And certainly, when the Celtics played the Lakers in the Finals during the 1980s, I not only wanted the Celtics to win, I wanted DJ to do especially well. But there was always that little tug when I watched him play for Boston on television, that sense that he could – should – still be a Sun, doing for us what he was doing for Red Auerbach, Larry Bird, and everyone else in Boston. For the remainder of his playing days, I missed Dennis Johnson.
I miss him a little bit more, now.