Thoughts on the death of Dennis Johnson
I was bummed yesterday to learn that Dennis Johnson had passed away at the age of 52. Dennis was a professional basketball player, in fact many believe he was one of the most underrated basketball players of all time. He was my favorite player on the Sonics back in the 70′s because he was a scrappy player. I always like scrappy players – probably because I don’t see myself having much extraordinary talent, but I’m willing to fight for what I want in life.
He was the MVP the year the Sonics won the championship. I remember it vividly. It was 1979, and I was a senior in high school. They won the final game on a Friday night and I had a party to go to afterwards. I remember driving down Ranier Ave – a main street in culturally diverse South Seattle. Back in the 70′s there was a fair bit of racial tension in South Seattle, but on that night EVERYONE was driving down the street honking and waving to each other. It united my neighborhood like nothing has before or since. Dennis Johnson was a major factor in that event.
Dennis eventually was traded away. He was considered a “moody” athlete. By today’s standards his behavior would probably rate him as teammate of the year, but back then he was considered a problem. So we traded him to Phoenix for Paul Westphal. It never worked out for either team. After three uneventful years, Dennis Johnson was traded to Boston, where he won two more championships. Larry Bird rated Dennis his favorite player because of his professionalism, tenacious defense, and commitment to winning.
Long since retired, Dennis became an elder statesman. He was an assistant coach in the league, and even headcoached for an abbreviated season. Lately he was a coach for the developmental league. He coached a practice, then played a bit of one-on-one with one of his players. He was walking back to his car when he collapsed. He never regained consciousness.
For me, other than being sad at the passing of someone for whom I rooted, it reminded me of my own mortality. I will be 46 in May, my own mom passed away at 49 (wow, am I as old as I remember my parents). I have high blood pressure. A lot of guys my age are starting to have heart problems. We don’t last forever. We need to make our time here count. And we need to take care of ourselves while we’re here.
My father-in-law had a triple bypass when he was around 50. But that was around 15 years ago, and he has been fine since. He totally committed himself to taking the coaching from his doctor. He changed his diet and never cheated. He started exercising (although he was a very fit man from his career of building houses). He did his part to protect his health.
But the truth is none of us are going to make it out of this thing called life alive. At 45, I am most probably on the back half of my life. I intend to prepare and behave as if I have a long full life ahead of me. In fact, I am currently reading a book called “Bike for Life” which takes the attitude of being prepared to ride a century on your hundredth birthday. That’s all good. But we should also be aware that we can go at any moment. How would our relationships change with our spouse, our kids, others – if we thought of every time we left them as potentially the last time we might see them. Would we treat them differently? Would we say things that currently go unsaid? I think about this more now that I’m riding a motorcycle – but the reality is that anyone can go at any moment for any reason. That’s not morbid, and it’s actually an opportunity. Here’s a challenge: Live each day like it might be your last, and see how the quality of your relationships improve.
One last thought on the passing of Dennis Johnson – and it actually has to do with the person who is was traded for, Paul Westphal. The Seattle Sonics have had two dynasties in my opinion. One in the late 70′s/early 80′s that resulted in two trips to the finals and one championship. The other was in the 90′s when they went to the championship (losing to Michael Jordon) and had a run of many years with 50 plus wins. Obviously these are team dynasties and not league dynasties.
In both cases, the icon for the end of the dynasty was Paul Westphal. Once he was traded to Seattle for Dennis Johnson, the team started a slow decline. He never played well for Seattle and as I remember was injured a lot. His career in Seattle was so irrelevant that I don’t even remember how it ended. The trade did coincide with Magic and Bird entering the league – so maybe the decline was inevitable, but that trade and Paul Westphal will always represent the end of the dynasty for me.
In the 90′s Seattle enjoyed a very long run as one of the best teams in the league. That run started with George Karl being named the new coach (incidentally the other run started when Lenny Wilkens was named coach – in both cases the change was immediate). George was an abrasive character, but he could win. We had Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, etc – all players who played hard for George. But George didn’t get along with Wally Walker the new GM. So they finally let him go. The coach they brought on to replace him – you guessed it, Paul Westphal. Immediately the streak ended and the Sonics rapidly declined. Sure there were extenuating factors. Shawn Kemp was traded for Vin Baker – and we won’t even go there. But for me (and I think Gary Payton), Paul Westphal is the icon for the end of the run. Here’s to hoping Seattle never brings him back for a third run.
Good bye Dennis. You will be missed.