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Dennis Johnson, 52; former NBA star played on 3 championship teams

February 23, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Former NBA star Dennis Johnson, whose devotion to defense, steadiness in clutch situations and passion for basketball made him a key member of three championship teams, collapsed and died Thursday in Austin, Texas. He was 52.

Johnson, coach of the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League, had been standing outside the Austin Convention Center after a practice, joking with team employee Perri Travillion.

"We were laughing," she told the Associated Press. "He just collapsed."

Johnson was unconscious and in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived, said Warren Hassinger, a spokesman for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.

Paramedics tried to resuscitate him for 23 minutes before he was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

Mayra Freeman, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office, said there would be an autopsy.

Johnson played guard with the Boston Celtics, Seattle Sonics and Phoenix Suns in a 14-year career that ended with the 1989-90 season. He later served as an assistant coach with the Clippers and was head coach of the team for 24 games at the end of the 2002-03 season, finishing with an 8-16 record.

Johnson was a member of championship teams in Seattle (1979) and Boston (1984 and '86). He was named the most valuable player of the 1979 NBA Finals, was a five-time All-Star, a member of the NBA's all-defensive first team six times and the all-defensive second team three times. He also was a member of the All-NBA first team in 1981.

Johnson averaged 14.1 points, 5.0 assists and 3.9 rebounds in his career.

When he retired, he was the 11th player in NBA history to total at least 15,000 points and 5,000 assists.

Despite all that, some thought that he didn't receive enough credit because his biggest accomplishments came on defense.

"He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time," said former Boston teammate Danny Ainge, now the Celtics' executive director of basketball operations.

"He was a terrific guy," Clippers General Manager Elgin Baylor said. "You couldn't find a finer gentleman. He was willing to work with players. Whatever it took. He had a terrific feel for and knowledge of the game."

Said former NBA player Paul Westphal, who was once traded for Johnson: "He was always one of the very toughest guys to play against. He had great anticipation, was real good in the clutch, had long arms and was a great leaper."

One play best exemplifies Johnson. It came at the end of the fifth game of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons.

The lasting image of that game is of Boston's Larry Bird stealing an in-bounds pass from Isiah Thomas in the closing seconds, which led to a game-winning layup.

It was Johnson who made that layup. It was Johnson, again demonstrating his knack for excelling in the clutch, who anticipated Bird's move and, with only seconds to work with, broke for the basket so Bird would have a target once he gained control of the ball. Without Johnson, the steal might have been wasted.

The Celtics wound up winning the series in seven games, only to lose to the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

"I hate to lose," Johnson once said. "I accept it when it comes, but I still hate it. That's the way I am."

"He was a great competitor," Seattle teammate Jack Sikma said. "He wouldn't let things pass. He would cause some friction if he felt strongly about something, but with our team that was a good thing."

Dennis Wayne Johnson was born in San Pedro in 1954 and was a benchwarmer on the Dominguez High School basketball team in Compton.

He grew several inches after high school and played at Los Angeles Harbor College for two years and Pepperdine University for one year before being drafted by Seattle in the second round in 1976.

Johnson was traded to Phoenix in 1980 and Boston in 1983.

He is survived by his wife, Donna, sons Dwayne and Daniel and daughter Denise.

Services are pending.

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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