Big Mama’s House
Grandmama earned a spot in the KICKS Hall of Fame the moment LJ slipped that dress on.
Ever since KICKS 3 (summer 2000), each issue of the annual sneaker mag—KICKS 10 not included—has contained two or three new inductions into the KICKS Hall of Fame, where footwear legends past and present are honored. This may not be fresh material for those of you who’ve been copping the mag since before the new millennium hit, but for the younger heads, we’re posting the entire HOF online over the course of the next few weeks. (It’ll be archived under the KICKS tab above.) Enjoy, and don’t forget: KICKS 14 is on sale now! —Ed.
by Scoop Jackson
At her funeral, the faces are not sad. Look around the church: Kevin Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Isaiah Rider, all of the Converse cats at the time, come to pay their respects to the one who, truth be told, got them their contracts in the first place. “Big Mama, we’re going to miss you,” they seem to say as they pass the casket, touching the basketball next to her. She looks so sweet, in her flowered dress and lace bonnet. Then, as he walks away, one of the visitors asks, “Why did they leave her glasses on her face? It’s not like she can see.”
The place erupts in laughter. Even Grandmama has to hold back a laugh from her coffin. And that’s when it happens. That’s when Larry Johnson separates himself from the body at rest and stands before the church. He has a new look: Knicks uniform, no gold tooth. He introduces himself and tells everyone there that Grandma is not dead; she’s just being laid to rest. He, however, has to move on. “like Spike and Mike,” he says. “Me and Grandma did our thang, now it’s time to say goodbye. Shut it down while we’re still on top, before the ad company starts making us corny. But before she leaves us, I’d like everyone to have a seat and remember the life of Grandmama.”
She came into the game from out of nowhere. An idea someone had about getting one of the game’s most powerful power forwards in a dress. Yes, there was Flip Wilson’s Geraldine before her, or Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, but this was different. This was about marketing, not comedy. See, Grandmama was about to be on some ghetto shit. Give the urban audience something it can relate to, the rest of the world will follow. When the concept was pitched to Larry Johnson, he bit. Sunk his gold tooth all into it. In basketball’s greatest role reversal, he turned an old lady who lived for the shoes into an icon that had kids all across America screaming out her name while they played. She became massive. With every commercial and every appearance, the legend grew. She’d dunk on people in commercials so hard her wig would fall off, but she didn’t care. She’d read nursery rhymes to the kids, while sitting in her rocking chair, then get up and chase someone out of the room. Kevin Johnson tried to step to her on the court once and got smashed. Grandmama didn’t care. She was 6-5 and 250 pounds of (wo)man. Cut like a Michael Myers victim, abs ripped like a washing board, and she refused to shave her mustache. Other NBA superstars had juice; she had React Juice.
In the nine spots she did for Converse, every one of her dunks were more fierce than anything her $84 million alter ego was able to transfer onto the court. And at the end of every commercial, her signature gold blinged. Ah, we loved us some Gradmama. She held down Converse back then the way Iverson is holding down Reebok now. She was that important, had that much impact, that much respect, and bottom line, she was that much larger than her life. Then, one day in Charlotte, NC, she disappeared. Some say she retired, others say she found a man. The truth? When Larry Johnson got traded to New York, Gradmama didn’t want to go. The “hustle and bustle of the city life” was too much for her, she told a friend. She was Hollywood, but she made ‘em come to her, on her terms. And that’s the way she wanted to leave it. So she kissed LJ goodbye and when he got traded, told him that he’d know where to find her. With her people across the Mason Dixon line, dippin’ cornbread in gravy, shooting on the basket nailed to the tree in her backyard. The next time LJ or anyone seen her was here, at the funeral.
As Lil’ Larry (‘cause that’s what she called him) finishes his story, there isn’t a dry eye in the house. They all know it’s time to let go of someone special. “The KICKS Hall of Fame will be calling you, Ma Dear,” Larry says, wiping tears from his face. “You’re going to get the love you deserve. I promise.”
Then everyone bows and says a prayer. A prayer for the life of Grandmama. May her soles rest in peace.