This day in black sports history marks the fourth anniversary of the sudden and tragic passing of a man Larry Bird called “best I ever played with” and whom Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson lauded as “the best backcourt defender of all-time.”
These poignant words represent a mere microcosm of how respected Dennis Wayne Johnson was, and still is, throughout the National Basketball Association.
Born the eighth of sixteen children on Sept. 18, 1954 in Compton, Johnson, who lacked the size and talent to compete with his peers in high school, excelled on the street basketball circuit while working several odd jobs upon his graduation.
Johnson’s defensive skills and “rocket launcher legs”, which enabled him to snare rebounds against taller competition, garnered notice from the head coach at Los Angeles Harbor College (LAHC), who encouraged Johnson to enroll at the public community college.
Johnson promptly quit his jobs and matriculated at LAHC, where he developed into a promising young guard, averaging 18.3 points and 12.0 rebounds per game as he led the team to a junior college state title.
At the end of his career at LAHC, Johnson accepted a scholarship offer to play at Pepperdine University, developing a reputation for tough defense and averaging 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game in his only year in college.
Despite disciplinary issues at LAHC, where he got kicked off the team three times in two years, and with only one year of college basketball under his belt, Johnson was selected by the Seattle SuperSonics with the 29th overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft.
After one season as a back-up shooting guard, Hall of Fame head coach Lenny Wilkens inserted Johnson into the starting rotation to play alongside Gus Williams, and the duo became a major part of the reason the SuperSonics would play in two consecutive NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets.
The Sonics wound up on the short end of the stick of a seven-game thriller in 1978, in which Johnson set the record for most blocks in Finals history for a guard (7).
However, redemption would come the following season as Seattle defeated the Bullets in five games. Johnson was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, averaging 22.6 points, six rebounds and six assists per game.
During his four-year stint with the Sonics, Johnson established himself as one of the best guards in the league, earning two of his five All-Star selections and two All-Defensive First Team honors.
Before the 1980-81 season, Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns, where he became a more versatile scorer while remaining a backcourt defensive stalwart.
In his three years as a Sun, Johnson averaged 17.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists, while leading Phoenix to the Western Conference Semifinals in two consecutive seasons as the team’s main scorer. This span would also see Johnson play in two more All-Star Games while being voted on to three consecutive All-Defensive First Teams.
Johnson’s next seven seasons were spent with the Boston Celtics, which he described as “a dream come true”.
As a playmaking point guard this time, Johnson was the engineer of a Celtics team that featured Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and won two NBA Championships in three seasons (1984, 1986).
At the time of his retirement in 1990, Johnson played in 1,100 of a possible 1,148 games during his 14-year NBA career, and was only the 11th player in league history to amass more than 15,000 points and 5,000 assists.
On December 13, 1991, the Celtics franchise retired Johnson’s No. 3 jersey at the old Boston Garden.
However, Johnson would not live to receive the ultimate honor of being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, suffering a fatal heart attack on February 22, 2007. Johnson’s death was met with shock throughout the entire league.
Three years later though, Johnson would be posthumously elected into the Hall of Fame.
Among others, current Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge called him one of "the most underrated players of all time [...] and one of the greatest Celtics acquisitions", and one-time rival Bill Laimbeer called him "a great player on a great ballclub".