Some trivia for a Sunday:

Who won the 1979 NBA Finals MVP?

Who streaked to the hoop and scored the winning basket when Larry Bird stole the ball in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons?

Who did Red Auerbach get in return for Rick Robey in his last great heist as Celtics’ general manager?

Who had the most freckles on the 1986 Celtics?

The answer to all, of course, is Dennis Johnson, who collapsed and died this week of an apparent heart attack at the age of 52.

But Dennis Johnson deserves a much more significant place in NBA lore than as the answer to a bunch of trivia questions. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and the fact that he wasn’t already enshrined before his death is almost as tragic as the passing itself.

The Hall of Fame voters got a little too caught up in the numbers when they passed over DJ year after year. And admittedly, his career numbers (14.1 points, five assists, 45 percent field goal percentage) don’t jump out as Hall of Fame numbers.

But DJ wasn’t about the regular season. His post-season numbers tell more of the story. Rare is the player whose scoring average increases in the playoffs. Larry Bird didn’t do it. Magic Johnson didn’t. Michael Jordan’s production went up about 10 percent. DJ avaraged 17.3 ppg in the playoffs, a 23 percent bump up from the regular season. Throw that in with five All-Star games and nine All-Defensive Team selections and you’d think he’d at least gotten to Springfield before or at the same time as Joe Dumars (HOF Class of 2006, six All-Star teams, five All-Defensive teams, scoring average decreased by half-a-point in the playoffs).

But DJ wasn’t about the numbers, either. He affected the game in so many other ways, more often than not with his brains and toughness.

You start, of course, with that cut to the basket after Bird’s steal. In some ways, it was an even headier play than the Legend’s. Bird said in a readio interview this week that he was initially looking to foul Bill Laimbeer before he realized Isiah Thomas’ pass could be had. DJ had to react as quickly as he did to get a shot off, and an underrated shot it was in its degree of difficulty.

Then there’s the turning point of the 1984 Finals. No, not when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis. The series turned before that game, when K.C. Jones told DJ to guard Magic Johnson. Magic went from dominating the series to looking lost most of the time.

DJ left countless other playoff memories for Celtic fans. The game-winner against the Pistons ranks first on most fans’ lists. If not that, then the jumper he hit to tie the 1987 Finals 2-2.

The one that I remember, the one that I wore out my VCR watching the night he died, was the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 1987 conference semifinals against Milwaukee. It is the game that, to me, defines those Celtic teams of the `80s, even though they didn’t win the championship that year. And the fourth quarter of that game is Dennis Johnson’s definitive performance as a Celtic, even though none of it showed up in the score book.

The Celtics trailed by eight midway through the fourth quarter when DJ drew the fourth (with a charge) and fifth fouls on Paul Pressey, the Bucks defensive wiz who was guarding Bird and giving him fits for much of the game. Pressey fouled out a short time later and the Bucks couldn’t come up with a defensive stop the rest of the game.

Then, with 1:18 left, the Celtics were up by four. Jack Sikma took the pass in the low post and turned for one of his patented jumpers. Robert Parish timed it perfectly and blocked it. The ball bounced toward the sideline and DJ, again showing remarkable anticipation, ran from the near elbow to the sideline and dove for the ball. The players on the Milwaukee bench parted like the Red Sea, leaving nothing but steel chairs to catch DJ, who nevertheless knocked the ball off Sikma out of bounds, went over a chair and hit the wood floor hard. Celtic ball. Game over.

Brent Musburger, the king of hyperbole who was calling the game for CBS, was made for this moment, and he delivered.

“What champions are made of,” Musburger declared.

That’s how I’ll remember Dennis Johnson, as a champion.

I’d like to remember him as a Hall of Famer, too, and I think I will be able to one day, even though the memory will be tinged with some anger because it came too late.

And because it will lead to the most bittersweet trivia question I can think of for a Celtics fan – Who is the only Celtic to be elected to the Hall of Fame posthumously?

Randy Whitehouse is a staff writer who can be reached at [email protected]


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