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Humility was coach's hallmark

Fair Game

Dennis Johnson was a star, the 1979 NBA Finals most valuable player, a five-time All-Star who helped three teams win league championships. But he wasn't a big shot.

It was his humility and willingness to put in hard work to achieve his goal of an NBA head coaching job, though, that people will remember after Johnson's death of cardiac arrest last week at age 52.

Johnson served the 2003-04 season as an advance scout with the Trail Blazers. The job requires an immense amount of travel and time putting together scouting reports for the coaching staff. The previous season, Johnson had served 24 games as interim head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. The Portland job was a steppingstone to getting a chance at a permanent position with another club.

'I knew in his heart he wanted to coach,' says John Nash, who was Portland's general manager when Johnson was with the Blazers. 'I admired Dennis' willingness to accept the position that was less than at the coaching level in an effort to stay involved, stay current, stay informed.

'I gained a lot of respect for the guy in the brief year we worked together. It was tough. He kept an apartment in Portland, but his family was in Los Angeles. It was a strain not only physically and professionally but with his family life, but somehow he did it. He didn't get (an NBA head coaching job) handed to him; he was willing to go out and earn it.'

Johnson had spent the past season and a half coaching the Austin (Texas) Toros of the National Basketball Development League. At the time of his death, the Toros were 15-17 this season after an 0-13 start.

'Dennis was in the midst of doing an incredible job with that team,' says Portland's David Kahn, leader of an ownership group that controls four NBDL teams, including Austin. 'He was really pumped up about it.'

After Johnson interviewed for the Austin job in 2005, Kahn was willing to send him to the airport in a taxi.

'But we had two young interns, one of them with a small car, and they were excited to take him,' Kahn recalls. 'They told me how engaging, how regular a guy he was. He was very unpretentious, down to earth. He made everybody around him comfortable because of the way he handled himself. He was remarkable precisely because of his ability to be grounded as a person.'

• The recent Sportlandia auction raised $150,000 to provide funds for user fees for needy high school athletes throughout the state. It's a great cause that has raised nearly $1 million in the six years of the semiannual event, spearheaded by Drew Mahalic, chief executive officer of the Portland Sports Authority.

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Related story:

Kerry Eggers' profile of Dennis Johnson ran on April 9, 2004.