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How Dennis Johnson Fought His Way From Forklift Driver to 3-Time NBA Champion

Here’s how he went from a high school bench player to Larry Bird’s favorite teammate.

An illustration of Dennis Johnson's headshot and a shot of him in action with the Boston Celtics to headline his improbable NBA underdog story
Credit-NBA/AP/Boston Celtics/Joker Mag

He sat on the bench as a high school senior and worked as a forklift operator after graduation.

So how did he become a 3-time NBA champion?

Born and raised in Compton, California, Dennis Wayne Johnson faced the struggles of not only living in the inner city but also being part of a massive family.

As the middle child of 16 kids (yes, sixteen), Dennis and his siblings were supported by their parents’ jobs – mom was a social worker and dad a bricklayer.

“We always looked out for each other,” he said in a 2002 interview. “The siblings would step in and help whenever our parents were away.”

While he grew up a baseball fan, it was Johnson’s father who taught him basketball at an early age. But Mr. Johnson was not a great shooter, according to Dennis (who later gave his dad credit for his erratic jumper).

Despite enjoying the game, Johnson struggled for playing time due to his lack of natural talent and size.

He got cut from both his seventh and eighth-grade teams, which served as a turning point for him.

“It was devastating to be cut – it hurt a great deal – but I wasn’t going to give in and quit,” he said.

“I decided to prepare myself so that I could play the game to the best of my ability. I wanted to improve…So I went out and worked hard to improve. This lesson stayed with me far beyond junior high basketball, and has really touched every aspect of my life.”

Standing just 5’9” in high school, Johnson suited up for the Dominguez Dons, and progressed slowly – he made the C team as a sophomore, JV as a junior, and was a Varsity bench player as a senior.

According to NBA.com, he “played only a minute or two each game.”

Dennis Johnson on getting cut twice in junior high: It was devastating to be cut – it hurt a great deal – but I wasn’t going to give in and quit.

Obviously, with little playing time, a future of competitive basketball wasn’t exactly in the plans for Johnson after graduation.

“I was never a player in high school,” Johnson admitted. “I grew three to four inches after high school.”

Taking up a job as a warehouse forklift operator after graduation, Johnson earned $2.75 per hour. But let’s remember, this was the early 1970s, and that amount would equate to approximately $19 today.

While he didn’t mind the work, Johnson couldn’t shake the feeling of wanting more out of his life.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these types of jobs, and my hat goes off to the people who work them,” he said.

“[But] I just wasn’t satisfied, and I knew that there had to be other opportunities out there.”

With time to work on his game at night and on the weekends, Johnson took the bus to team up with his brothers in a local rec league. With hard work and a relentless hunger for competition, he held his own.

During that time, he hit a growth spurt and grew to 6’3″. He got stronger – developing “rocket launcher legs” – and quickly became one of the best players on the court.

It was during one of his rec league runs that Los Angeles Harbor College head coach Jim White took notice of Johnson. Impressed with his tenacity on the defensive end, White offered him an opportunity to play for him.

Trading his warehouse job and rec league jersey for textbooks and a college uniform, Johnson became the focal point of the Seahawks’ march to the state JUCO championship.

According to an old interview, Johnson showed “both great promise and a flashpoint temper” which led to him getting kicked off the team a total of three times in two seasons.

Despite averaging 20.2 points and 13 rebounds en route to earning the MVP award, Johnson received minimal scholarship offers.

So with Pepperdine University being the only NCAA Division I school to show interest, he relocated an hour from Compton to suit up for the Waves.

In his first and only season playing for coach Gary Colson, Johnson averaged 15.7 points, helping the Waves to a top 20 ranking and advance to March Madness.

Although he shot just 3-9, Johnson’s 10 points, 5 assists, and 6 rebounds added to his tenacious defense, helping the Waves defeat the Memphis Tigers to advance to the second round.

Squaring off against a Marques Johnson (no relation) led UCLA Bruins team, he played a much better game, finishing tied with a team-high 16 points in a nine-point loss. Although he was just a junior, Johnson applied for the 1976 NBA Draft.

Selected by the Seattle SuperSonics with the 29th pick, DJ was reportedly “shocked” that a team was willing to take a chance on him. He quickly signed on the dotted line and earned approximately $40,000 for his first season – a heftier paycheck than the forklift days.

In five years, Johnson went from being a high school bench player to running in rec leagues to ultimately earning an opportunity to play in the best basketball league on earth.

In his first season playing for Bill Russell, Johnson played the role of a combo guard, sitting behind Earl “Slick” Watts and “Downtown” Freddie Brown, averaging 9 points and just under 4 rebounds in 20 minutes.

Unfazed by the backup role, Johnson’s playing time and numbers increased during his second season, one that saw the SuperSonics advance to the NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets.

Holding a 3-2 series lead, the Sonics had two chances to put the Bullets away but ended up getting pounded 117-82 in Game 6 and lost 105-99 in the seventh game. 

With Lenny Wilkens taking over the coaching reigns, Johnson was promoted to the starting five. Unfortunately, DJ’s worst two games of the season came during the Sonics’s biggest, going 4-16 and 0-14 in the team’s attempt to capture their first NBA title.

Like any true professional, Johnson put the series behind him as he helped lead the Sonics back to the 1979 NBA Finals and a rematch with the Bullets.

“That 0 for 14 was good for me in a way,” he said.

“It was part of a growing process. I learned a lot. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again, but I plan not to have it happen.”

Behind Johnson’s Finals MVP-worthy 22.6 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists, the SuperSonics knocked off the Bullets for their first NBA championship

A quote from Larry Bird about Dennis Johnson: [He is] the best teammate I’ve ever had...The things he does on the defensive end and the way he passes the ball is beyond belief.

Johnson spent one final year in the Great Northwest before his attitude (something which plagued him his whole basketball career) and clashing with Coach Wilkens saw him traded to the Phoenix Suns.

A two-time All-Star while with Phoenix, Johnson helped the team advance to the playoffs all three seasons, before his conduct with teammates and coaches saw him traded, this time to the Boston Celtics

At this point in his career, DJ was an NBA Champion, Finals MVP, two-time All-NBA, five-time All-Defensive Team, and four-time All-Star.

Clearly, he must have rubbed coach John MacLeod and the Suns’ management the wrong way for them to trade Johnson, a first-round pick, and a third-round pick for little-used big man Rick Robey and a pair of second-rounders.

Chalk another one up for Red Auerbach.

The addition of Johnson to Boston’s lineup as their starting point guard allowed the Celtics to waive Tiny Archibald and move Danny Ainge to the second unit.

Within his first three years with the Celtics, Johnson proved to be the missing piece that helped Larry Bird and company win two NBA titles. Few Lakers fans will forget how DJ defensively terrorized the Purple & Gold in the 1984 and 85 NBA Finals. Considering the legends that Bird played with during his career, calling Johnson “the best I’ve ever played with” is the ultimate compliment.

“He does everything,” Bird said.

“He’s as smart a basketball player as anyone I’ve ever played with. He knows how to motivate himself and the people around him. The things he does on the defensive end and the way he passes the ball is beyond belief. I’ve never seen anyone play a total game like Dennis.”

Throughout Johnson’s 14-year NBA career, he was arguably the best guard on his team for ten, helping three teams reach at least fifty wins, eight conference finals, six NBA finals, and three NBA titles (combined).

He passed away in 2007 and was enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame three years later.

What he lacked in natural talent, Johnson made up for in his work ethic and competitive attitude. He was a fighter who battled his way from mediocrity to the top of his sport – against all odds.

“I’m a winner. I put my heart into the game,” he once said.

“I hate to lose. I accept it when it comes, but I still hate it. That’s the way I am.”

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Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.

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