CHARLOTTE - Maurice Cheeks wasn't sure he could do the story justice. But he did. In the wake of Thursday's death of former NBA star guard Dennis Johnson, the 76ers coach was able to reach back for a treasured memory.

"He would tell this story a lot better than I could," the 76ers coach was saying before last night's 102-87 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. "He was guarding Michael Jordan the night Jordan got 63 [for the Chicago Bulls].

"Jordan was on his way to getting 60, and Dennis had, like, four fouls. He wanted to foul him real quick; he just reached out and grabbed him. When you foul out, you [usually] look at the ref and say 'Oh, shoot.' Dennis just ran right to the bench. He knew Jordan was on his way to 60. He didn't want to be the one out there [when he did it]."

It was a pleasant memory amid major sadness. Johnson won two championships with the Boston Celtics and one with the Seattle SuperSonics. When Cheeks was coaching the Portland Trail Blazers, he hired Johnson as a scout.

Johnson, 52, collapsed and died after directing the Austin Toros, of the NBA Development League, in a practice.

The Sixers and their constituency always remembered Johnson as the big guard the Celtics acquired to try and deal with Andrew Toney, Cheeks' backcourt partner.

"He did the best he could, as well as anybody," Cheeks said, laughing.

More seriously, Cheeks said, "There was no better guy around [than Johnson]. He was one of the best guys; he did his work.

"A lot of the things the Celtics did stemmed around him. He was one of the better players on their team. "You're never going to get away with saying he was their best player, because of [Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish]."

Sometimes the best way to remember old friends and colleagues is with anecdotes. Sixers assistant coach Moses Malone, the center on the Sixers team that won the 1982-83 championship, recalled once going to Hawaii with Johnson and Parish.

"We went surfing," Malone said. "We went about a mile from the point where we started. I thought I'd never get back in."

Asked whether he had a video of the moment, Malone smiled and said: "I need a video."

Six shots

Tom McGinnis will switch from his radio play-by-play work to handle the TV duties tonight in Milwaukee in place of Marc Zumoff, who will be away on personal business. Old friend Jon Gurevitch will fill in on the radio side. *