DJ gets an assist from an Eagle
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Haley Van Orman never got a chance to see Dennis Johnson play basketball live. The five-time NBA All-Star retired in 1990, three years before Van Orman was born.
Johnson passed away after suffering a heart attack in 2007, three years before Van Orman led the Arlington Memorial High School girls basketball team in scoring and was named to the All-Marble Valley League and Vermont "Dream Dozen" teams.
The Eagles’ frontcourt anchor has grown up in an era when Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are far more iconic than even a three-time NBA world champion and former Finals MVP like Johnson.
"A lot of people my age just don’t know who he is, which is the sad part," Van Orman said.
Their individual games could not be more different; Johnson was an oversized point guard who played lock-down defense, set up his teammates and only took shots that he knew he could make. Van Orman is a physical power forward who plays entire games with a seemingly singular focus.
"Haley’s primary thing is scoring," AMHS coach Jeff Corey said. "Every time she receives the ball, she’s looking to make a basket."
But Van Orman is also a student of the game, something that her coach recognizes as being helpful to her development as a player.
"Obviously, Haley is interested in basketball; she loves the game and plays it all the time," Corey said. "It certainly doesn’t hurt to have the knowledge and appreciation for its history that she has."
When it comes to her roundball allegiances, Van Orman "bleeds green" as a diehard Boston Celtics fan. While obsessing over her favorite player - Larry Bird - and watching every minute of his game footage that she could find, Van Orman began to notice and develop a real admiration for one of his teammates.
"The more I watched, the more I though, ‘that No. 3 is really good,’" she said. "I started to like him way more than Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, even though they have gotten a lot more attention."
She studied enough video of Johnson’s highlights to commit many plays to memory, from his decisive buzzer-beater against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the ‘85 Finals to his game-winning layup off "The Steal" by Bird against the Detroit Pistons in Game Five of the ‘87 Eastern Conference Finals.
"He was amazing," she said. "Best guard I have ever seen play the game."
When it was announced in February that Johnson would be among this year’s inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Van Orman made it a mission to attend.
"I got a text message from my mom saying ‘he’s in!’ and I was so excited that I screamed ‘yes!’ as loud as I could," Van Orman said. "All my classmates and teacher looked at me like I was crazy. From that day, I started saving up my money to get the best ticket I could afford."
For no small sum - 350 dollars, to be exact - Van Orman was afforded an opportunity to attend the induction ceremonies at the Hall in Springfield, Mass. She made up a special posterboard sign, plastered with photos from throughout the guard’s tenure in Boston and the words "#3 Dennis Johnson is finally in HOF," that ended up attracting the attention of the late guard’s family and a handful of media outlets.
"Comcast Sports Network wanted to get DJ’s wife Donna’s reaction to the [sign]," Van Orman said, adding that she also posed for photos with two of Johnson’s sisters, his brother Ken and several nieces and nephews of the soon-to-be Hall of Famer. She says that she spent three hours talking to Ken Johnson about his brother’s life and career.
After surprising the family and friends of Dennis Johnson with her near-encyclopedic knowledge of his career highlights, Van Orman proved that she is a true fan of the game of basketball - and not just the Celtics - by sneaking past security to get an autograph from Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. She also got to meet Michael Jordan’s former sidekick, Scottie Pippen, and longtime Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan.
Bird was in attendance at the induction; though already in the Hall, he was enshrined a second time as part of the 1992 USA Basketball "Dream Team." Part of "Larry Legend’s" legacy is that the icewater that ran through his veins during his playing days doesn’t warm to even room temperature when he is around fans, something that Van Orman was well aware of.
"Larry was being Larry," she said. "I walked into that place knowing I was not going to get [his] autograph; I have read too much about him."
But her experience with the family of Bird’s favorite teammate made the experience worthwhile nonetheless.
"I’ll tell you something - if I had to pick between getting Larry Bird’s autograph and meeting and talking to Dennis Johnson’s family, without hesitation it would be [the latter]. DJ is not with us ... but I got the next best thing to him, his family.
"And you know that ‘Big Three’ of McHale, Bird and Parish? It was not a Big Three - It was a Big Four."
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