Thursday, February 22, 2007

". . . underneath to DJ . . . "

NBA history seems to remember the steal as primarily a Larry Legend riff, with backing vocals by Johnny Most. But the thinking Celtics fan will tell you that Bird's interception and pass to Dennis Johnson was actually also the definitive DJ play, the embodiment of who he was as a player and as a Celtic: intelligent, poised, remarkably clutch, always there when you needed him the most.

Of course you (and Isiah Thomas) need no further identification of the particular play we are talking about, for the highlight, from Bird's lunge and pivot, to DJ's amazing presence of mind to actually cut, to the underrated degree of difficulty of DJ's Dumars-dodging backhanded layup, to the way the ball took a teasing half-rotation around the rim before dropping . . . well, it remains as clear as ever 20 years after the final buzzer. But with word of DJ's sudden passing from a heart attack today came the appropriate flood of testimonials from his peers and fans, welcome reminiscences of other highlights from his decorated and yet underappreciated 14-year NBA career, during which he was a five-time All-Star, a nine-time All-Defensive selection, and most importantly to him, a three-time champion.

We remembered him for taming the Boston Strangler, Andrew Toney, after arriving from Phoenix for Bird drinking buddy Rick Robey in one of the great heists in sports history. We remembered him for hassling and dogging and pestering Magic Johnson to distraction while willing the '84 Finals in the Celtics' direction. We remembered so much . . . the ballsy buzzer-beating jumper at the Forum in the '85 Finals . . . the no-look passes to Bird on the baseline that seemed to be drawn up telepathically . . . Larry's open admiration for his attributes as a teammate . . . the way he'd always take it and make it when the game hanged in the balance, even at the tail end of a 3 for 13 shooting night . . . the way he always seemed to know where the dead spots were on the Garden floor, and how he'd use that knowledge to pick his opponent's pocket at the most opportune time (ask Doc Rivers). . . the way he just plain won, for there were few greater winners in NBA history than Dennis Johnson.

And once again, we remembered that it's downright criminal he's not in the Hall of Fame.

I apologize if I seem all over the place here, more hackneyed than usual. It's just that this one is particularly hard to take. If DJ isn't in the starting five of my all-time favorite NBA players, he's one of the first guys off the bench; hell, I found myself getting melancholy listening to the Whiner Line tribute a few moments ago. When I first began to love the game, in third grade, DJ, then a lithe, leaping two-guard paired with Gus Williams in Seattle, was one of the first players I was enamored with, in part, I'm certain, because I'd never seen a brother with reddish hair and freckles before. I only hope ESPN Classic has the good sense to show a few of his best moments (including his redemptive MVP performance in the '79 Finals with the Sonics) instead of whatever Stump The Schwab marathon and three-month old college football games they have scheduled. He deserves that.

DJ's gone, at 52 and far too young. As if the green-and-white glory days didn't seem so long ago already.

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