The Plight of Larry Johnson
A look back at an important NBA figure.
“The fundamental dialectical law of all revolutionary struggle—that progress never takes place in a straight line.” —James and Grace Lee Boggs, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century
Today’s youth, although accessing unprecedented realms of technology, drastically lack historical perspective. Without knowledge of history, we are doomed to repeat past mistakes and make new, worse missteps that will halt our progression. Why introduce these abstract brush strokes in a perspective on an NBA player? Because Larry Johnson was a revolutionary; unfortunately, he stood alone in his battle for freedom.
To accurately and respectfully tell an athlete’s story, a writer needs to gain an understanding of who this human being actually is, apart from their field of play. To the contrary, the commercial sporting machine, wherein the media plays a tremendous role, tends to dehumanize and decontextualize these players, creating commoditized cogs for our mass consumption. The NBA is overwhelmingly populated by people of color, and in most cases these men hail from underprivileged and underrepresented communities. With options for social mobility severely limited, many NBA players dedicated their lives to the game in order to rise up.
Larry Johnson was no exception. Raised in Dixon Circle, an infamous Dallas jungle, by a single mother, sports saved Larry from a sordid street life. Immortalized on the inaugural SLAM cover, Andy Serwer described him as a “young warrior in a war zone.” Johnson grew to become a hulking power forward balancing force and finesse, developing into a front line general. Internalized pain of his gritty Texas childhood constantly added fuel to Johnson’s fire. Succeeding in basketball was not a goal; it was his only option to save the Johnson family from another generation of impoverishment.
Young men are sacrificing their lives for the fat chance of becoming a basketball millionaire. Beginning progressively earlier, amateurs are developed for sale on the conveyor belt, a term coined by Bill Rhoden. The conveyor belt refers to the youth sports feeder system, where young athletes are exploited for their talent and the select few are finally rewarded with a professional contract. As the NBA’s profitability increased, deals became inexplicably bloated; team owners were seeking bailout packages during the lockout for some of their egregious signings.
Briefly, the players held solid ground against their owners, seemingly understanding the magnitude of this power struggle. However, the union consistently lost the battle in the media, failing to get their true points across to the public. The most outrageous lockout comments stemmed from outsiders rather than the appropriate power players: Bryant Gumbel and union attorney Jeffrey Kessler both drew justifiable comparisons to slavery. Lacking the history to contextualize their own struggle, NBA players have become individualized, vapid bodies wasting their golden opportunities to create social change in their communities. Consequently, choosing sides in the collective struggle for freedom is not necessarily their decision to make; Michael Jordan aligned with Nike to become a commercial robot, devoid of feelings outside of sneakers and basketball. In exchange for inordinate sums of money, players willingly sell their souls for corporate gain.
For a time, Larry Johnson found himself caught in this elaborate scheme: he was the highest-paid player in League history and paraded around in drag by Converse to sell his signature sneakers. An older, wiser Johnson emphatically declared that “no one man can rise above the condition of the masses of his people.” Johnson made the conscious decision to be truthful in the sports media, with the same evolutionary spirit that inspired Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. After refusing to speak to the media for months, the League fined Johnson $35,000 for continuing this silence into the 1999 Playoffs.
Within this context, as Commissioner Stern reached into his pockets as punishment, we can gain an understanding of why Larry Johnson declared his Knicks teammates “rebellious slaves.” NBA personalities are mere performers in David Stern’s minstrel show. Misbehavior is not tolerated and personal expression is harshly restricted. The power paradigm in the NBA is based on a system of indentured servitude. Athletes are used for their incomparable talent and tossed aside when the League has had its fill.
In order for a successful revolution to occur in the sports-industrial complex, players and fans alike must take a new approach to the sporting media. Its treatment of athletes is often blatantly disrespectful, as mindless motifs are constructed to shape our viewpoints of these athletes. The media focuses on players and stories in accordance with their agenda of mass consumption (ex: the anointing of Tim Tebow, the demise of Stephon Marbury, the redemption of Kobe Bryant). When Larry Johnson revolted before the watching sports world, firmly discharging himself from the conveyor belt, the hegemonic media swiftly filtered his comments through a lens of ignorance.
He spoke out and was shutout. They crafted the story of Johnson, the sulking, ungrateful antagonist, when in reality, he was the heroic figure. Larry Johnson planted seeds of doubt within the system by politicizing the game, which we hope to consume separate from any social, political or economic truths. Johnson will always be remembered for his contributions to the game of basketball, but we must appreciate his rebellion as a step forward in the struggle for freedom:
“Here’s the NBA, full of blacks, great opportunities, they made beautiful strides. But what’s the sense of that…when I go back to my neighborhood and see the same thing? Everybody ended up dead, in jail, on drugs, selling drugs…I can’t deny the fact of what has happened to us over years and years and years and we’re still at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Josh Hernandez and Christian Wise are members of the Black Market Collective, an urban think tank for social change. Read more about their work as a part of Sneakers for Success, an educational non-profit.