BOSTON — Larry Bird led the Celtics to two NBA titles in the 1980s, and Boston worshipped him. Bird had a favorite of his own, though, and it wasn't either of the future Hall of Famers who joined him in the league's greatest frontcourt.
"Larry Bird was totally in awe of Dennis," former Celtics coach K.C. Jones said Thursday after Dennis Johnson died at the age of 52. "Dennis was just an awesome player. He played hard and he took the big shots."
Despite sharing the ball with Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, it was Johnson who hit the winning shot against the Lakers in Game 4 of the 1985 NBA finals. And it was Johnson finishing off one of the most memorable plays in league history: Bird's steal against Detroit in the 1987 Eastern Conference finals.
"The bigger the game, the better he played," former Celtics general manager Jan Volk said. "All he wanted to do was win; he desperately wanted to win and make a contribution to a winning effort.
"He thrived on competition and challenge. Everybody he played with had enormous respect for him as a player and as a person. I would suspect that everybody he played against shared that respect."
Even some of Boston's most bitter rivals.
"He was a great player on a great ballclub. He played with passion and grit," said former Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, whose Pistons met the Celtics in the playoffs four times in the '80s. "It was fun to play games like that. You always enjoyed it. It made for not only great games but great entertainment."
The MVP of the 1979 NBA finals for Seattle and the point guard for the last Celtics dynasty, Johnson was coaching the Austin Toros of the NBA's minor league when he collapsed after practice. It was another sad day for the once-proud franchise that lost patriarch Red Auerbach on the eve of the season and then made more bad news on the court, making a run at the league's record losing streak.
The Celtics lost a franchise-record 18 in a row before winning their last game before the All-Star break, a streak that all-but guaranteed that another franchise record will be extended: It's been 21 years since Boston last added to its unprecedented cache of 16 NBA titles.
"I had the great privilege of playing alongside D.J. in the backcourt for six seasons and two championships," said Danny Ainge, who now runs the team's basketball operations. "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. D.J. was a free spirit and a fun personality who loved to laugh and play the game."
NBA commissioner David Stern praised Johnson for "contributions to the game (that) went far beyond the basketball court." Bird once said Johnson was "the best I ever played with."
"Dennis was a great player, one of the best teammates I ever had, and a wonderful person," Bird said.
Bird made a Hall of Famer's share of great shots in his career, but in Celtics lore he might be best remembered for his steal in the final seconds of the fifth game of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit. He swiped Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass under Boston's basket and fed Johnson for the winning layup.
"He was one of those guys who just willed his team to win," former Los Angeles Lakers forward Kurt Rambis said. "He was such a integral cog of the success that the Celtics had."
Boston went on to beat Detroit in seven games but lost to the Lakers in the NBA finals. It was the third matchup between the cross-country rivals in four years, and it would be Boston's last run at a title in what has now grown to more than two decades.
"It seems like just yesterday when D.J. made the shot against Detroit that allowed our Celts to go to the championship against the Lakers," U.S. Sen. John Kerry said in a statement. "DJ brought more than trophies and triumph to Boston. He helped define one of the Golden Ages in Celtics history. It is a tragedy he was taken from us so young."
Johnson retired in 1990 and worked as a scout and an assistant coach. He sought work as an NBA head coach, but the closest he came was as the interim boss of the Los Angeles Clippers at the end of the 2002-03 season when Alvin Gentry was fired.
"Red always told me that he'd make a hell of a coach," said Volk, who took over as GM from Auerbach in 1984. "He was very analytical about the game. He approached the game intellectually and strategically. He had a lot of basketball ability, but he was first and foremost an intelligent player."
Johnson went 8-16 in his Clippers audition and never got another shot as an NBA head coach. Soon after he was promoted, though, he found himself in Boston to play the Celtics, working out in their practice facility under the championship banners he helped win and another with his retired No. 3.
"You see that banner up there; you see that number? I did that," he said to his players, a couple of rookies who might not have known. "As soon as I walked in, the feelings all came back to me. The Boston Celtic feelings. I've never had a bad day here. It is the best."