Larry Johnson: Livin’ Large
SLAM’s first cover story.
Larry takes his job seriously. No media on game day. Focus. For last year’s All-Star game, even bigger butterflies. “Yeah, I was nervous.” How would you feel starting on a team with Michael, Shaq, Scottie and Isiah? (By the way, you’re checking Charles and the Mailman.) But the game was disappointing, Larry scored only four points and played 16 minutes, the third lowest on his team. LJ made it known that he was POed at Pat Riley over his lack of PT. But Pat brushed it off suggesting LJ would have plenty more chances.
Attend a game in Charlotte and you quickly realize the Hornets aren’t simply run, the team is run like a Swiss watch. The spanking new Coliseum, the Hive, located on Hive Drive, seats 23, 698 and has been sold out 201 times and counting. Enthusiastic young women in tuxedos scurry around to take your food and brewdoggie order. Alexander Julian designed the players hot teal and purple uniforms. A giant, helium-filled, remote controlled Hugo the Hornet flies through the building during time-outs. The cheerleaders change out-fits every quarter and do choreographed skits. The best effect is an electronic droning that sounds somewhat like that first doomsday chord of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”. It starts out low, then rises up and heads directly for the inner ear. In an instant your entire body is throbbing gristle—or is that the sound of a million angry bees?
Larry fits right in to this managed game plan. “At first when he came here, people thought he was a bad boy, you know from UNLV and all that,” says Williams. “but they soon found out he isn’t really like that.” Larry should get a medal the way he handles the constant media pawing and fan attention. On the other hand he knows he’s being paid $84 million to front the Hornets, both on the court and off. After home games Larry trucks back out onto the floor oozing charisma, sashaying like the king he is. He does his postgame interview on the floor, broadcasting over the PA. About a thousand fans stick around to watch and listen. Larry laughs and points at folks he knows.
“Larry, I’m the one who wrote you the poem,” screams a teenage girl. “Oh yeah?” says LJ. He’s in his mellow mode, smiling the smile and saying all the right things—“the team…” “passing the ball…”—and fans are spellbound. But he isn’t insincere. Why should he be? What’s there to be cynical about? It’s a great job, a great life, and the money isn’t bad either. As he walks off the court the fans crush for autographs. The PA plays the hymn “People Get Ready.” It almost seems like a revival meeting.
His contact blew a lot of people’s minds. Eighty-four million dollars to play basketball? The biggest contract in the history of team sports? But hey, the Hornets didn’t have to haggle much. They wanted the man and the man wanted them. In a sense the money didn’t really change Larry’s life that much anyway. He already has a $20 million contract, he was already set for life. Now his grandchildren are set too. Larry isn’t getting fancy with investment strategies either. “I asked him if he had some good money managers working for him,” says Hornets president Spencer Stolpin. “And you know what he said? He said, ‘Spencer, I don’t need any fancy money managers. I just own T-bills and CDs. I’m not interested in growth, I just want to preserve capital.’”
After practice, Larry works on his weak leg. [In the weight room. Jumping off a wood box.] “Explode Larry, explode off the block,” yells the trainer. “Get up, get it up!” Most of the other players have left but Larry stays. What else is there to do? Some of Larry’s buddies from Dallas asked him what he liked about Charlotte anyway. “Nothing to do here, man,” Larry would say shaking his head. “Just live, baby, that’s it.” He built a house for Dortha back in Dallas and bought her a Caddie. He still has a penthouse in the Big D, but his home is Charlotte. LJ has a house in the Lake Wylie area. You better call it home when you have a 13 year, guaranteed contract.
“Me and Johnny Newman hang out together a lot,” says L. “We are both single, we both like cars, shopping and music.” In fact Larry just picked up a new Benz convertible. “Black, all my cars are black.” But Larry’s life will be changing soon. On august 27th, he’s marrying Celeste and they are building a new house on Lake Wylie, “You can see it from my old one. ”LJ met Celeste when she was working at a record store. He was looking for a Toni Braxton CD but instead he found a wife. “Celeste and Mom are making all the arrangements. I told them they could plan it all. I’ve already been measure for my tux and everything,” he says.
All of this is so far and so fast that one concern has to be burnout. Or never reaching his potential, or never getting the NBA title. The pieces are certainly all there. Last year Larry’s jersey was the second most popular after Michael’s. Will it be number one this year? How will Larry cope with his lifelong commitments: to Celeste, to the Hornets, to Charlotte? It’s all a matter of balance, like being frozen forever swinging on the rim after a jam, mouth wide open but without any sound.