Remembering NBA's Dennis Johnson, NFL Combine

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden talks about the death of NBA legend Dennis Johnson, and offers an update on the NFL combine.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

It's Tuesday and not our usual day to talk sports with our resident expert William C. Rhoden, sports columnist for the New York Times and author of "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumph of the Black Quarterback." But because of Oscar weekend, we decided to wait until today. And there's plenty to talk about, right, Bill?

Mr. WILLIAM C. RHODEN (Sports Columnist, New York Times): And the winner is, well, the great Tony Cox.

COX: Unfortunately, we're going to start on a sad note. Let's start with a tribute to a great, yet unheralded NBA player.

(Soundbite of an NBA game)

Unidentified Man #1: Here it comes, down in the middle are Bird. Bird with four. Bird out to Dennis. With one second, he fires and gets it.

Unidentified Man #2: Can you believe that?

Unidentified Man #1: Game is over. An outstanding shot by Dennis Johnson.

COX: Dennis Johnson, of course, who played for the Seattle SuperSonics, Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics, died five days ago of an apparent heart attack. He won three NBA championships and a finals MVP award and was very well liked.

Mr. DENNIS JOHNSON (Former NBA Player): As the ball went in, I looked immediately at the clock. The time run out and then you saw 12 hungry guys running off the bench.

(Soundbite of cheering)

COX: He's certainly not like the NBA me-first, shoot-first guys of today, is he, Bill?

Mr. RHODEN: Oh man, such a sad thing, Tony. You know, D.J. was - man, you know, going back to Seattle, you know, when he played for the SuperSonics on the championship team. Great defensive presence, great shooter, but just really a good person, man.

COX: And you know he was a local guy from here in Southern California. Born in Watts. He went to Pepperdine University…

Mr. RHODEN: Yup. Yup.

COX: …before he went on - really a great guy. He actually did some coaching with the Clippers for a while.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, and really worked hard. I mean, really, really worked hard and went from relative obscurity to really the cornerstone of championship teams. And yeah, again, one of those guys who, you know, I may think everybody knows who D.J. is but again you want to say well maybe he didn't get his complete due. And it's just really sad that a guy who's just to be, what, 53 years old or something…

COX: Yeah, 52.

Mr. RHODEN: …and just leave us like that.

COX: Well, let me take you to another sad story. The Denver Broncos are reeling after a second tragic death of one of their players. On New Year's, corner back Darrent Williams was shot to death in a case that is still unsolved. This time, 24-year-old Damien Nash died over the weekend after collapsing following a charity basketball game. His family has a history of heart problems, although the autopsy results are said to be inconclusive.

So here's my question for you, Bill. And I've reading about issues involving the medical testing of these athletes, especially African-Americans. So without unfairly compounding this tragedy, there are questions, are there not, surrounding how much teams really know about the physical condition of these young men?

Mr. RHODEN: Oh yeah, and I've written, Tony, a lot of stories about this in the past, beginning with Hank Gathers a number of years ago when Hank Gathers died suddenly and collapsed during a basketball game. And what we begin finding out was that particularly in the African-American community there are a lot of undiagnosed occurrences of various cardiomyopathies.

A lot of these are complicated by, you know, high cholesterol diets and just unhealthy diets. But unfortunately the testing that they do for the very high school level on up, there are really are no great test to diagnose these previously undetected heart problems, so you see things like this.

And, you know, people say well, you know, in high school, the tests are very expensive and are just a burden to do. But, you know, you ask the parents of these kids and they wish that there would have been some type of screening. And again it was - unfortunately, Tony, when something like this happens, we realize that even in the National Football League there's still not an adequate screening device to test athletes, and particularly black athletes, for these heart problems and I think more people that we know have.

COX: Well, obviously, we're going to have to keep our eyes on that topic, but let's move on to something else. Men's basketball, March 1st is Thursday, so college basketball madness cannot be far behind. It seems to me, Bill Rhoden, that five schools are the elite right now - Ohio State, who beat Wisconsin on Sunday by a point, Wisconsin, of course, Florida who lost again, UCLA, my alma mater, and North Carolina. But they don't call it madness for nothing, do they? Anything could happen.

Mr. RHODEN: And anything will. You know, you mentioned the favorites but somewhere lurking there's going to be a George Mason somewhere that comes out of the woodwork and beats the team that you just didn't think could be beaten.

But I got to tell you, Tony, you know, we always talk about big time sports, and people are always asking well why these coaches climbed all over each other to recruit these kids. And all you got to do is watch Ohio State beat Wisconsin and you saw a Greg Oden's performance, and you realize why everybody was climbing over themselves to recruit this kid. Because one kid could mean the difference between a Final Four championship and a coach making a tremendous reputation and getting a lot of money, you know.

COX: Absolutely. Well, just one more thing I want to talk to you about before we get out of here. That's the NFL combine giving us a glimpse into the draft coming up in April. But something else apparently took place there in Indianapolis over the weekend that was, well, kind of unusual, wasn't it? And it didn't involve newcomers but some NFL veterans and the commissioner. Tell us just what did happen.

Mr. RHODEN: This is very interesting because there has been this issue of athletes being out of control, of being involved as much in the crime blotter than in a basketball court. And what these NFL players do, these veteran players approached the NFL and the commissioner and said listen, this is our league, too, and we really are concerned with our image problem.

And what they are talking about is sort of a three-strike rule, where if you are a player and you get busted three strikes for anything, you are going to face some pretty serious penalties that could range from getting thrown out the league to being suspended. And I think that - Tony, this is a great move because the players are the ones who are saying this isn't just the league, this is all of us (unintelligible).

COX: Taking time to do something about it. What of the commissioner's - what was his reaction to it? He probably loved it, I guess.

Mr. RHODEN: I think the commissioner was overjoyed. I mean, it's the same thing as when you have a coach and in the locker room it's the players who are taking care of discipline, you know. And that's as it should be.

COX: Hey buddy, the buzzer has just sounded on our sports segment for this week. William C. Rhoden is a sports columnist for the New York Times and author of "Third and a Mile: The Trials and Triumphs of the Black Quarterback." Talk to you in a couple of weeks.

Mr. RHODEN: Anytime. I look forward to it, man. Have a great week.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from