The Other Side Of Dennis Johnson

Posted in Basketball, Sports Journalism at 11:20 pm by

The last time I left Austin for NYC, the NBDL’s Toros made headlines when their mascot kicked a member of the opposing team in the head. Yesterday, the Toros were part of a far bigger story with the sudden passing of head coach Dennis Johnson. Such was my own shock over the news of DJ’s death, that I scarcely acknowledged his Hall Of Fame caliber playing career, (5-time NBA All-Star, 2 rings with the Celtics, one with Seattle), nor his cup of coffee coaching the Clippers.

That said, I wasn’t alone in giving Johnson’s pre-Toros history short shrift. As the Boston Phoenix’s Adam Reily reveals, the following October 21, 1997 report from the Boston Globe escaped the notice of most media outlets yesterday.

According to the police report, which was obtained from Channel 4, Dwayne Johnson [Johnson’s 17-year-old son] saw the argument as it escalated to the point that Dennis Johnson grabbed his wife in a choking manner with his left hand and held a knife in front of her face.

According to the report, Donna Johnson yelled, “What are you going to do, kill me? Go ahead.” Dennis Johnson replied, “You don’t think anybody will hit you?”

After a few moments, Johnson let his wife go but was still yelling and holding the knife, the report said. When Dwayne attempted to stop the argument, his father said, “Don’t you even, or I’ll knock you the [expletive] out.” Donna Johnson replied, “No you won’t. You won’t touch him.”

Dwayne Johnson told police he believed his father would hit him, so he ran to a neighbor’s house and asked her to call 911. He then returned to the house, saw the argument had died down, and called 911 himself.

Writes Riley,

The Herald’s Steve Bulpett doesn’t mention the knife incident in his obit or “appreciation“–even though he covered it for the Globe at the time, and later chronicled its impact on Johnson’s coaching career.

Over at the Globe, meanwhile, columnist Jackie MacMullan alludes to the incident but steers clear of ugly details: “DJ dreamed of being an NBA coach, but a messy domestic abuse incident involving his wife, Donna, hampered his efforts to earn a legitimate shot at such a job.” Shira Springer ignores it completely. So does AP, so does Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum, and so does ESPN’s Bill Simmons in an otherwise fantastic homage.

Johnson was an amazing player, and he may have been a good man who just made a terrible mistake ten years ago. But pretending the events of that day never happened–or eliding them as “messy”–is awfully tough to justify.

6 responses to “The Other Side Of Dennis Johnson”

  1. WeWanttheFunk says:

    “Tough to justify”?

    Putting a man’s dirty laundry in his obituary isn’t particularly tasteful, and I don’t think omitting an isolated incident constitutes a crime against journalism.

    Fire Joe Morgan points out that the Sports Guy changed his mind about DJ’s Hall of Fame value in his “otherwise fantastic homage”.

  2. GC says:

    the dirty laundry in question was considered newsworthy enough when it happened — and it might be relevant insofar as DJ’s last breath coaching took place in the not so rarified air of the Austin Convention Center, in a game attended by scattered kids, touristas and hoops degenerates (ie. me). Consider the opportunities afforded DJ’s teammates like Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, M.L. Carr, etc. compared to beating the bushes in the D-League. Might there have been a non-basketball reason?

    I wouldn’t charge any of the above writers with crimes against journalism. though considering many of the articles were of the homage/career-overview variety as opposed to straight obits, I think Reily makes an interesting point. I have no desire to speak ill of the dead, or specifically in this case, of a great player from my youth who seemed ridiculously patient and indulgent with his most recent team’s handful of fans. Riley notes that Jackie McMullen was the only journalist to note DJ’s domestic troubles — if nothing else, it’s worth pondering why.

  3. JACQUELINE says:


  4. Cathy Cooper says:

    Dennis was a great man. I was honored to have met him and known him for 19 years. To bring up the domestic issue at the time of his death and with thousands of us mourning, is disgusting and in poor taste. The charges were dropped and his marriage survived, that speaks for itself.
    I pity you and your cold and calculating ways.

  5. GC says:

    Dear Cathy,

    I have no wish to disparage Dennis or cause his family or friends any greater suffering. That said, he was also a public figure and given his storied played career, the natural question that comes to mind for a halfway inquisitive sports journalist (or in my case, a halfway inquisitive blogger) is, “if 3 of DJ’s Celtics teammates are currently running baseketball operations for 3 NBA franchises, why was Johnson beating the bushes with the Austin Toros?”

    Maybe there were sufficient basketball-related reasons. Perhaps DJ was in line for an NBA job in the future. I really don’t know. But assuming some life story is being told — besides a obit or a tribute — those are questions worth asking.

    One incident surely isn’t the measure of a man’s life, but I don’t think Reilly was remiss in bringing this up.

  6. ornond j. gilbert says:

    the stress of professional sports can weigh heavy on any athelete dennis johnson was no exception. he was a great player. we all make mistakes in life. who will cast the first stone.

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