News of the death of Dennis Johnson surprises and saddens me. My dad has always been an ardent fan of the Celtics, and he instilled in me an allegiance to the franchise rooted in respect for Red Auerbach’s coaching and Bill Russell’s and John Havilicek’s style. Back when I still watched broadcast television, I used to love seeing the resurgent Celts of the 1980’s: Larry Bird, of course, and Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, and my hero, the Chief – Robert Parish. DJ played Celtics basketball: team first, skills oriented toward cooperation and harmony. Those games exemplify much that I hold dear, and DJ perhaps more than any other single player gave up spotlight and individual glory to reorient his game toward a collaboration with other extraordinarily gifted teammates.
It hurts to remember him as an ordinary man as well as an extraordinary player, as someone who threatened Donna, the woman he loved, with a knife. No excuse, no slack – that’s not what greatness is made of, and nostalgia and sentiment mustn’t paint over the dreadful reality of those moments. For whatever reason (or lack of reason), he stepped away from the fullness of what he might have been; but he and Donna stayed together, and he subsequently gave ample testimonies to his remorse and penitence.
When he died a couple of days ago, he was just 52 years old, just a dite older than I am. He was working off the ramifications of his transgression, and from what I gather, was doing great things with developing ballplayers (and apparently doing right by Donna). He had more of an opportunity than most of us to taste and embody excellence, and less of a chance than many of us to demonstrate transformation of life and reconciliation. Much as I miss the player he was and the coach he probably would have been, I most of all miss the years he could have devoted to regenerate love.