The picture of Dennis Johnson to the left was the last time I saw him alive. It was Spring Training, 2004 - before the Red Sox won the World Series and captivated New England. The picture was taken by a Boston Globe Photog....I never thought I'd be writing about his death at the age of 52. I am a bit in shock tonight.
Dennis Johnson, "DJ", as C's fans loved to call him - was a one of a kind player. I wish I could write a proper statement of his talents but that's why we have Bill Simmons. All I can write is my personal connections with him, however small they actually were.
I was 12 years old and was just learning the game of golf - sometimes illegally finding places to practice in my hometown of Andover MA. Dennis Johnson was playing in a Celebrity Golf Tournament at the Andover Country Club, which happens to be the same golf course that I was sneaking on daily at that time to learn the game. On this particular day, there would be no stealing of golf but a chance of a lifetime.
I walked onto the course and quickly noticed a sign that listed the players that were smacking it around that day. Dennis Johnson was the only name that I remember and the only player that I cared about there for that tournament. I loved the Celtics. Bird, Kevin, The Chief, Ainge and DJ - the Real Fab Five to me. '84 and '86 Champs....beating the Lakers....my hero's growing up. The Patriots sucked. The Red Sox crushed us. The Bruins couldn't get out of their own way...but the Celtics could do it. The could bring the Garden to life and take down anyone. And DJ was a big part of the reason why. We all loved him - as fans do - for he did on the court.
I was camped out on the 6th tee waiting for him when his group came by after about 20 minutes. He was bigger than I thought he would be but very relaxed. He could tell I was a nervous wreck, more nervous than I would be just a few months later when I kissed my first girl. DJ grabbed my lid, a green Oakland A's hat, off my head and signed it without me asking him to do it. I was shocked and kept the hat for 10 years tucked away for safe keeping. I have a younger brother, who I gave it to years later after I grew out of the "autograph" phase of my life. It still sits in his room today.
As luck would have it, Dennis Johnson was hired to coach the Florida Flames in the NBDL in year 2 of the league. I was the play by play voice of the Huntsville Flight for 4 seasons and often got the chance to interview the man that I idolized. He never knew how much I respected him other than the one time I told him that I was from Boston and grew up a C's fan. He simply smiled at that statement, he had heard it a hundred times over but was too kind to do anything else. It was a joy to get the chance to talk to him at league functions and events but I never really saw him as a coach. I saw him as the player who laid the ball in after Bird stole it on the inbounds play in the playoffs. I still hear Johnny's call in my head.
DJ died today at the age of 52 at practice. As someone said on the show - a fitting place for a basketball legend to leave us. Yet, even with the proper place, it came way too soon.
I'm sorry if this doesn't convey how I'm feeling tonight. Writing is not my strong suit. I'm a speaker and that's why I am glad that I was on the air today as the story broke. Yet, I wanted to write something more about DJ tonight. It felt right to do it.
We will miss you DJ. Go Celtics.