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Friday, February 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:37 AM

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Percy Allen

D.J. left indelible mark

Seattle Times NBA reporter

NEW ORLEANS — Dennis Johnson, one of Seattle's first pro sports heroes, died Thursday in Austin, Texas, at the age of 52.

Johnson was the Most Valuable Player of the 1979 NBA Finals when the Sonics won Seattle's first major pro sports championship.

In his final public appearance with the Sonics, Johnson sat next to Gus Williams signing autographs at a park dedication in the Central Area. It was late morning on a chilly day last October, and the former teammates spent nearly an hour rehashing memories and making promises to stay in contact.

"Just two old men telling lies," Johnson said, his red moustache and freckled face scrunched in laughter.

As they prepared to leave, unsure when they'd return to Seattle, Johnson told Williams the best moments of his 14-year NBA career were in Seattle, where he won the first of his three NBA titles.

"This is where I started off," he said. "This is where I won my first championship. This is where I had my first group of professional friends. What I did here in Seattle is still more important than what I did any other place only because it was my first experience. I had a group of people here and a group of friends that backed me on everything I did."

Most of the NBA community will remember Johnson as the star guard of the last Boston Celtics dynasty. But Johnson began his pro career with the Sonics in 1976. He was a popular player with Sonics fans, and he loved Seattle. His one-time icy relationship with the franchise had started to thaw the past couple of years.

The Sonics drafted Johnson in the second round — 29th overall — in 1976 out of Pepperdine and traded him June 3, 1980, a decision that sparked a mini-maelstrom and created a rift between Johnson and the franchise. But moments such as the park dedication, and Johnson being chosen by fans as one of the team's 16 greatest players, began to heal old wounds.

"That's all part of the business," Johnson said last fall, discussing his trade to Phoenix for Paul Westphal. "As I know now that I didn't know then, better things were yet to come."

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He was traded by Phoenix to Boston three years later, and spent seven years with the Celtics, helping them to NBA championships in 1984 and 1986. While never divorcing himself from the Celtics, Johnson wondered why his former Boston teammates were able to land high-profile jobs in the NBA after their playing days while he struggled to find employment. Larry Bird coached the Indiana Pacers before moving into the front office. Kevin McHale is the general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Danny Ainge is general manager in Boston.

"We all take different paths," said Paul Silas, a former Celtic, who played three seasons (1977-80) with Johnson in Seattle. "You know, timing is a big key. Those guys were at the right place at the right time, and they made the most of their opportunities. Dennis did it the other way. It took a long time. Often times it just happens that way. There's no doubt in my mind, he would have been a great coach."

After retiring in 1990, Johnson became a scout for the Celtics for three years before being named an assistant in 1993. He was an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2000, and interim head coach for the final 24 games of the 2002-03 season. He was coaching the Austin Toros, an NBA Development League team, when he collapsed after Thursday's practice.

He was unconscious and in cardiac arrest when paramedics arrived and he died at a local hospital, said Warren Hassinger, spokesman for the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services.

"I talked to him a couple of times because one of my guys from Maryland plays [in the D-League] now," said Sonics forward Chris Wilcox, who was coached by Johnson when he played for the Clippers. "I just talked to D.J. three days ago ... It's crazy because you never know what tomorrow could bring. You're in good health one day, and tomorrow you can have a heart attack and you die."

The Sonics learned of Johnson's death late Thursday afternoon during their flight from Seattle to New Orleans.

"We talked about it on the bus over to the arena," co-captain Ray Allen said. "It's definitely a sad day."

No one took the news harder than Jack Sikma, a Sonics assistant who played three seasons (1977-80) with Johnson.

"The last time I saw D.J. was [2004] for the 25th anniversary [of the 1979 championship team] and he was in town," Sikma said. "I remember there was a moment we were sitting at the table with owner Howard Schultz, and D.J. and I were talking about basketball and I was teasing him how he gave the owners such a hard time with his contract negotiations.

"He went on to a lot of success after Seattle. If you look at D.J.'s years and the team's winning percentage, probably during that time period he was as good as anybody."

Johnson, who made six NBA Finals appearances, played on just one losing team. The five-time All-Star was selected to nine consecutive NBA All-Defensive teams and he is arguably one of the game's all-time greatest defenders. He also built a reputation for being a clutch scorer in big games.

"The first year we went to the Finals [in 1978] he had horrendous games," Silas said. "I felt so badly for him. In his mind, he felt we would have won if not for him. To show you what type of kid he was, he had learned and produced when was needed the next year."

Johnson missed all 14 of his shots in Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals, when the Sonics lost to the Washington Bullets. He averaged 22.6 points a game in the 1979 Finals, and was named MVP after the Sonics beat the Bullets in five games.

"Dennis was a great player for the Sonics," said vice chairman Lenny Wilkens, who coached Johnson for three seasons (1977-80) in Seattle. "He helped us win a championship and was the MVP of the Finals. But more importantly, he was a tremendous person."

Johnson is survived by his wife Donna and children Dwayne, Denise and Daniel.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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