Skip to main content

Larry Bird said Dennis Johnson was the best player he’d ever played with. After spending time with the Seattle SuperSonics and the Phoenix Suns, Johnson appeared to have worn out his welcome with a poor attitude. The Boston Celtics had come up short of the NBA Finals in each of the last two seasons and desperately needed a defensive-minded guard.

The Celtics swung a deal for Johnson before the 1983-84 season. It was a trade that Bird said was the toughest he’d ever dealt with.

The Boston Celtics acquired Dennis Johnson in another impressive 1980s trade

When Larry Bird came to Boston as a rookie for the 1979-80 season, he quickly turned the team back into a contender. While earning Rookie of the Year honors, he led Boston to a 61-win season, up from 29 the previous year.

After coming up short in the postseason, the Celtics swung one of the biggest trades in franchise history. Boston held the top pick in the 1980 NBA draft. That pick was sent, along with the No. 13 pick, to the Golden State Warriors. In return, the Celtics received veteran center Robert Parish and the third overall pick. With that No. 3 pick, the Celtics selected Kevin McHale.

In their first year together, Bird, McHale, and Parish won the title, defeating the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals. In the next two years, however, they came up short, losing to the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics struggled matching up with guards like Andrew Toney and Sidney Moncrief, so they made an effort to solve that problem before the 1983-84 season.

The Celtics made another steal of a deal, sending center Rick Robey to the Suns in part of a deal for Johnson. The move suited the Celtics perfectly. With Johnson joining the starting lineup in ’83, the Celtics went to four straight NBA Finals. They defeated the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the 1984 NBA Finals and then won again in 1986, knocking off the Rockets for the second time in the decade.

Bird admitted he was crushed when the Celtics made the trade for Johnson


Boston Celtics Championship History Countdown — Top 17 Signature Moments Ranked

Larry Bird knew what the Celtics were getting in Johnson, and he loved it. He just had a much more personal connection with Robey, whom he called “my best friend in the game.”

The Celtics made plenty of changes before that 1983-84 season. They replaced coach Bill Fitch with K.C. Jones. There was also a change in ownership as Harry Mangurian sold the team. Neither of those moves affected Bird like the Johnson trade.

“The next bombshell was really personal,” Bird said in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “Red (Auerbach) traded Rick Robey to Phoenix for Dennis Johnson. I certainly wasn’t upset that we traded for Dennis Johnson. I loved his style, and I knew he would help us. But I was sad they had traded Rick away.

“That was the very first time anyone I was really close to had been traded. I thought about all the fun we had. ‘At least,’ I figured, ‘he’s going to Phoenix, which is one of my favorite places.’ He always loved that town, too, so that made it easier. And if they wanted him badly enough to trade Dennis Johnson for him, I assumed that meant he’d get a lot of playing time.

“It turns out what the Celtics were doing was trading my best friend in the game for one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”