Entering the gym where the Boston Celtics practice, you might think you've come upon a nursery. There's Adam Walton chasing two of his brothers under a side basket, and Ashlee Ainge flaunting her Garbage Pail Kids cards in the bleachers. And there, on this particular day, is their new playmate, the Celtics' Dennis Johnson. As practice winds down, Johnson joins in the joshing of the Walton gang, then yuks it up with Ashlee over her card collection. D.J. is long in the tooth by NBA standards: 31, with 10 years of service. But today he's intent on reminding us that for all of his basketball life he has been a sort of child.
In high school he was a problem child, in junior college a rambunctious child, at Pepperdine a reformed child. In Seattle he went from prodigal child to petulant child and in Phoenix came to be known as a headstrong one. Now, in Boston, he's a man-child, and he's the other reason the Celtics have laid waste to each of their playoff opponents. Larry Bird, the primary reason, is familiar enough with superlatives to assign them judiciously, and he says that D.J. is "the best I've ever played with."
It's somehow fitting that Johnson is the soon-to-be poster child for basketball shoes made by Reebok, the British sporting goods company. There are times when D.J. calls to mind a Victorian colonialist staking out spheres of influence in every corner of the court. He swings down low, posting his six feet, four inches, squeezing off his unblockable, hanging fall-away. He makes bold sallies to the basket, schooling opponents in the cost of leaving the Celtics' big frontcourt men to help out. He roams outside the key, defending the foul lane from incursion. And this season he has perfected an intuitive down-the-lane feed to Bird cutting baseline. To the NBA at large, Johnson is the "Pox" Britannica.
As the Celtics swept Milwaukee out of the Eastern Conference finals last week, D.J. gave his usual workmanlike performance, except for one moment in the first quarter of Boston's 122-111 victory in Game 2. He had just taken an in-bounds pass at his own foul line when he spotted Bird in full flight up the left side. D.J. fired a 75-foot baseball pass, which turned out to be a high hard one—right into the basket for three points. "That's life in the NBA. Those things will happen," sighed the Bucks' Terry Cummings later. "Especially in Boston."
For all of their hoary achievements, not even the Celtics as a team can match D.J.'s current personal string of nine straight playoff appearances. Johnson's coach and teammates believe he is finishing up his best all-around season, even if All-Star ballots and raw statistical comparisons don't seem to bear that out. D.J. isn't Boston's best passer or rebounder or scorer, but without him the Celtics would likely be outpassed, outrebounded and outscored, which is to say beaten. "He does everything better than any guard in the league," says backcourt mate Danny Ainge, Ashlee's dad.
Yet the one tyke you'll seldom see romping at Celtic practices is 5-year-old Dwayne Johnson, Dennis and Donna Johnson's impossibly cute son. Li'l D.J. is being reared rigorously, with a Montessori education, while his yuppie parents hawk chances in the school raffle like PTA lifers.
To be sure, Dwayne creates minor disorder and provides small frustrations. "You ask him if he's made up his bed yet," says his father, "and ask him again, and by the time you get an answer, it's time to go to bed." But, for the most part, Dwayne's room in the Johnsons' Back Bay townhouse is a model of good order. There sit several boxes, clearly marked TOY PARTS, ACTION FIGURES, BIG TOYS, BOOKS and SOLDIERS. Li'l D.J. is expected to put each of his toys into its appropriate place. "It's not military, really," says Dennis. "It's just to give him a sense of organization."
While Dennis plays at work, Dwayne works at play. Perhaps that's a result of his being an only child; Dennis grew up one of the 16 kids of Margaret and Charles Johnson, in several of greater Los Angeles's lesser precincts. He got his freckles from his mom; his dad, a mason, evidently supplied his erratic shooting touch.
It's forgivable to mix up some things—fennel and Swiss chard, for instance, or Max von Sydow and Maximilian Schell. But a great streak shooter should never be confused with a poor pure shooter. D.J. is the former. Against Chicago, in the first game of these playoffs, he missed every one of his first six shots. Then, in the third quarter, he knocked down seven straight. "He's almost always better in the second half," says Sacramento center Rich Kelley, who played with D.J. in Phoenix. "He's a great money player."
It's hard to imagine money-player Johnson as small change, but as a sub-6-footer at Dominguez High in Compton, he rode the bench; the starters included Ken Landreaux, now with the Dodgers. "I didn't pay much attention to what a scholarship was because I wasn't going to get one," Johnson says. "I went to class some of the time and went out back of the building some of the time. I was even suspended once or twice."