“Going to call you ‘Chemo’ so that your cancer doesn’t spread to the rest of us” – When Danny Ainge gave ‘troublemaker’ Dennis Johnson a SHOCKING nickname

Explore the iconic Boston Celtics era with legends like Bird and McHale, a witty nickname, and the 1981 championship.


“Going to call you ‘Chemo’ so that your cancer doesn’t spread to the rest of us” – When Danny Ainge gave ‘troublemaker’ Dennis Johnson a SHOCKING nickname

Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson (via IMAGO)

In professional sports, they use the term ‘cancer’ to describe a player who behaves badly and makes the team work poorly together. If they don’t fix this problem quickly, it can make the whole team suffer. To fix it, they need to deal with the main issue causing it.

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Dennis Johnson, known as DJ, got this reputation during his career because he was causing trouble when he played for the Seattle Supersonics. So, the team traded him to the Phoenix Suns, where he had more problems with the coach, which made people think of him as a ‘cancer’ again. Then, in 1983, he got traded once more, this time to the Boston Celtics. In a book by Cedric Maxwell called ‘If These Walls Could Talk,’ one of his new Celtics teammates, Danny Ainge, welcomed DJ warmly and gave him a new nickname. This new nickname erased the old ‘cancer’ label.

Maxwell about one of Ainge’s early interactions with Johnson, stated, “I’m going to call you ‘Chemo’ so that your cancer doesn’t spread to the rest of us.” Danny Ainge, currently serving as the CEO of basketball operations for the Utah Jazz, had a notable playing career with the Boston Celtics during the 1980s. He was renowned for his outstanding basketball skills, especially his ability to perform exceptionally well in critical moments. Ainge was often lauded as an intelligent player for his on-court decisions.

However, Ainge’s cleverness extended beyond the basketball court. This was evident in his choice of a witty nickname for DJ, which a particular situation would later prove to be justified.

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Celtics’ Golden Era: Remembering legends and a witty Danny Ainge nickname

Dennis 1 2

During that era, the Celtics boasted an iconic roster, featuring basketball legends such as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, all of whom are now enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Among these luminaries was forward Maxwell, who enjoyed an 11-season career in the NBA, with eight of those seasons spent as a pivotal member of the Celtics. Notably, during their triumphant 1981 championship run, Maxwell clinched the Finals MVP Award. On paper, the team seemed even more formidable in 1983 with the acquisition of Johnson from the Phoenix Suns.

Maxwell vividly recalled the arrival of DJ to the team, particularly the initial encounter between Ainge and Johnson. Ainge shared this memorable story with Maxwell, which the latter included in his book published in 2021.

On their first day together in the gym during a shooting practice session, they engaged in some lighthearted banter and jests. It was during this friendly exchange that Ainge playfully introduced his new nickname for Johnson as ‘chemo,’ prompting Johnson to inquire about the origin of this unusual moniker.

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