Intermingling tears of sadness and tears of joy filled up inside Gary Johnson as he gave the Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech in place of his dead brother, Dennis Johnson, who should have given the speech himself, years ago. Gary Johnson gave thanks to everyone who had a positive impact on his brother’s life, gratefully acknowledging family members, former coaches, those who believed in Dennis.
But the regret and pain was evident on Gary’s face as well. He didn’t want to, shouldn’t have been the one speaking at the podium. He said he wasn’t a public speaker, but what he meant was, this was Dennis’ speech to give.
Dennis Johnson finally, rightfully, entered the Hall of Fame, but he wasn’t there to enjoy the moment he had earned through years of hard work, strength of purpose, and stellar play. Dennis didn’t define himself by his basketball accomplishments, but he always dreamed of joining the greats of the game in Springfield, MA. (The New York Times)
Johnson was 52 when he died of a heart attack after putting his N.B.A. Development League team through a practice in Austin, Tex., three and a half years ago. Johnson retired as a player in 1990, and his eligible wait for the Hall was already 12 years and counting — much too long for those who knew him as a three-time champion and, mostly, as a big-game Boston Celtic.
”He used to say it wouldn’t solidify his career, but it was something that he would love to have and enjoy,” said Donna Johnson, his widow. ”It wasn’t like it was his only goal in life, but it was something he was hoping for and looking forward to.”
But brother, Gary, and wife, Donna, weren’t the only people with bittersweet feelings about DJ’s induction. Former teammate, Larry Bird, who introduced Gary and Donna, had similar regrets.
Like Donna Johnson, who met Johnson in college at Pepperdine and was married to him for 30 years, Bird could admit to conflicting emotions Friday night about the man he called ”the best player I ever played with.” He, too, remembered Johnson saying how much he looked forward to enshrinement, sooner or later.
The best anyone could say was better too late than never.
”Yes, it’s disappointing,” Bird said. ”But still, he’s there.”
After years of being overlooked, Johnson finally got his due as a player. Ex-teammates and competitors alike realized the ironic justice, the sad significance of the moment. But mostly, they felt the urge, the need to praise Johnson for the beauty with which he played the game. (Green Street, WEEI)
“I would have had six [titles] if it wasn’t for Dennis!,” Magic Johnson said Friday. “But no, Dennis is the greatest defensive player I’ve ever played against, and has ever played in the league. Smartest player I ever met. He was five steps ahead. Caused so many problems for me and everyone else that had to go head-to-head with him. Awesome. Big, strong, probably one of the bet players that’s ever plyed the game. I knew Dennis very well because we played against each other every summer at UCLA. We would hang out, and talk basketball all the time. It’s a bittersweet time for me, knowing him so well.
Charles Barkley, who Gary Johnson thanked in his speech for constantly pushing for DJ’s enshrinement on TNT, also wished Johnson was around to enjoy his day.
“This is way, way overdue, I’ve been saying that for years” said Barkley, who played with the 76ers during the last six seasons of Johnson’s career in Boston. “Clearly everyone is going to talk about the defensive prowess, but the main thing is all the clutch shots he made. So, so tough. It’s crazy that it took so long for this to happen. Go back to Seattle, go back to Boston, a consistent winner. He should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago. Just so many clutch shots.”
Sir Charles was right, this was way overdue. But ultimately, the awards, the accolades, the induction, even, all pale in comparison to the respect of one’s peers. Dennis Johnson may not have been here to enjoy the ceremony, but hopefully he knew how the game’s greats felt about him. Because if Dennis Johnson knew how well respected he is, that should have been more than enough.