Dennis Johnson is
Fired Up For Coaching

by Jay Coffin

WHEN NBA LEGEND Dennis Johnson accepted the head coaching position in August for the inaugural season of the Florida Flame, the newest member of the two-year-old National Basketball Developmental League, many believed it was a step in the wrong direction, a major league demotion of sorts.

Afterall, Johnson is a man who has accomplished more than he ever believed possible in the game—three NBA Championships (one with the Seattle SuperSonics, two with the Boston Celtics), NBA Finals MVP, All-NBA First Team, Five-time NBA All-Star are among his greatest accomplishments on the court.

It’s not as if Johnson has been a slouch off the court, he has plenty of NBA coaching experience. He was an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics (1991-94) and the Los Angeles Clippers (1999-2003) and served as interim head coach for the Clippers during the 2002-03 season. Last season, Johnson, 50, was an advance scout for the Portland Trail Blazers.

So the questions begs, why would a man who has accomplished so much resort to a job that most would consider a demotion? The answer is simple: Coaching is in Johnson’s blood, it’s what he loves to do most in this world.

For Johnson, the Florida Flame gig is all about sharpening his skills. He’s quick to point out that the NBDL is as much about developing players’ skills to prepare them for the NBA as it is about the wins and losses. Johnson, however, also knows that he is in the perfect atmosphere to improve his own coaching skills.

"Some people may think this is a step down but it’s a step into what I want to do," Johnson says matter-of-factly. "I want to run a team, put together a team, put together a training camp. That’s what I want to do. I’m trying to sharpen my skills as a head coach and hope people take notice."

In the meantime Johnson has plenty of work to keep him busy. The concept of the six team league (the Asheville Attitude, Columbus Riverdragons, Fayetteville Patriots, Huntsville Flight and the Roanoke Dazzle are the other five) is based around its developmental name. Therefore, an NBA team can select any player at any time throughout the 48-game season. To replace that player, the team from the NBDL can select someone from the designated pool of players. Each NBDL squad is allowed only 8 ‘moves’ per year so they must be used wisely. There is no trading between teams.

"There isn’t a league age but not many guys are older than 25 or 26," Johnson said. "These are guys who, at the beginning of their careers, needed a little work rebounding or playing defense. It’s good for them to come here and develop their skills first."

Sound familiar? Johnson grew up in Compton, California, and saw little playing time as a guard his senior year at Dominguez High School. However, virtually overnight, Johnson turned into a ferocious defender of the basketball and he excelled the next two years at Harbor Junior College, which led to a full scholarship at Pepperdine University. He played only one season for the Waves and averaged 15.7 points per game, left school early and was a second round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1976.

After winning an NBA Championship in 1979 for Seattle, Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns a year later where he was selected to the All-NBA First Team with Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Gervin. In 1982, Johnson and Bird became teammates when Johnson was traded to the Boston Celtics. That legendary team, along with Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge, won NBA titles in 1984 and 1986.

To this day, Johnson keeps in touch with his closest four teammates and still says "Larry Bird is hands down the best player I’ve ever played with."

Why wouldn’t he be? Bird and Johnson will forever be linked in Celtics lore because of one of the greatest moments in NBA playoff history. In the 1987 Conference Finals against Detroit, the Pistons had a one-point lead and possession of the ball with five seconds remaining in Game 5 at Boston Garden. Bird stole an inbound pass from Isaiah Thomas and fed Johnson the layup to put the finishing touches on a shocking victory. Detroit won Game 6, but the Celtics prevailed in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Championship where they would eventually lose to the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I’m known more for that play than for anything else I’ve ever done," Johnson said. "It’s a routine play. It just happened to be a big play at a big time."

Shocking that the play is his crowning achievement considering that when Johnson retired following the 1989-90 season he was only the 11th player in NBA history to record more than 15,000 points and 5,000 assists.

That was then and this is now. Johnson is not one to live in the past. The glory days are behind him but he can’t help but chuckle at how his life has come full circle. Now Johnson is trying to get back to the NBA.
"Everybody’s goal is to get to the NBA," Johnson said. "I think about it like everybody else, but I’m not in a rush to do it. Will I ever get a shot at coaching in the NBA? I may, I may not. If not, I’ll do what I do here and develop the players. For me there is still satisfaction. I’ve been to the top in everything I’ve ever done, if I get back there it’ll be fine. If not, that’ll be fine also."

With that kind of positive attitude it sounds as if Johnson is still on top of his game. •

Jay Coffin is a freelance writer based in Orlando. He was born and raised in Fort Myers and lived there for 20 years before moving to Orlando to pursue a career in journalism.

from the January-February 2005 issue

"I want to run a team,
put together a team,
put together a training camp.
That’s what I want to do.
I’m trying to sharpen my skills
as a head coach and
hope people take notice."