Friday, February 23, 2007

Remembering DJ

I felt a punch to the gut when Fish delivered the news yesterday morning; DJ, Dennis Johnson, died suddenly yesterday at 52.

Even though DJ made his bones with the hated Celts during their epic wars with the Lakes in the 80's, he actually preceded that with the Sonics, playing with Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, and "Downtown" Freddie Brown and winning a ring in '79.

But leave it to Red Auerbach to snatch DJ for the Celts (in one of those "Huh?" moments, DJ was traded to Phoenix for a brief stint before Auerbach's theft), and the rest is history. Everyone remembers the play against the Pistons in the playoffs; Bird steals Zeke's inbound pass, dishes to a head's up streaking DJ - a smart thinking player if ever there was one - who makes a difficult layup, and the Garden explodes while the legendary Johnny Most loses his mind. Of course, being in LA, I listened to our legend, Chicky Baby, during Laker games, but I don't know who called for the Pistons. At any rate, ESPN and others will always roll that clip with the Johnny Most cigarette-stained voice. I can still hear the old crow squawking: "BIRD STOLE THE BALL!!! BIRD STOLE THE BALL!!! OMIGOD, THE PLACE IS GOING CRAZY!!!!" as pandemonium erupts.

As much as I hated the Celts, this is why I love sports, probably more than anything else creative. In the case of the NBA, you get a bunch of highly skilled and talented athletes - with a few exceptions, the best athletes in the world, in my opinion - and put them in pressure cookers and watch what happens. It's endlessly interesting.

Anyone who plays sports, games or is an artist has experienced the feeling of being in the zone, where things just seem to fall into place. For me, those moments are indescribable. In tennis it's when you're always in correct position, on balance and the ball always strikes the sweet spot. In poker, it's making the correct plays - time after time after time.

But for me, playing basketball is above everything - even those times creating art. There's something about synergy, creating with teammates that, when it clicks, is unique. It's the most beautiful game. There's a feeling of connecting to your teammates that, at its best, is like you're plugged in to the universe in a very direct way; it's a transcendent experience far beyond words. Filmmaking comes close.

Another point is that very few play on the level where they make everyone around them better players. Magic was the greatest I've ever seen at that, but DJ is in that club.

And despite playing for the hated Celts, DJ is also special to LA, a Compton brotha. Played up the street for Pepperdine.

His death - at 52 - kinda shook me because he was so young and it was just so sudden.

I remember you DJ.