Larry Johnson: Livin’ Large

On this day 12 years ago, a 6-7 power forward named Larry Johnson converted one of—or arguably, the—greatest plays in New York Knick history. With six seconds remaining and his team down three, LJ drained an elbow 3-pointer, and was fouled, resulting in a 4-point possession that gave the ‘Bockers the Game 3 win and swung the momentum of the Eastern Conference Finals in their direction. Half a decade earlier, though, Johnson accomplished a separate-but-also-impressive feat, covering the first issue of an upstart basketball magazine named SLAM. The cover story is below.—Ed.

larry johnson

by Andy Serwer

“Hey Larry! Who’s this?” teases Hornets’ assistant Coach Bill Hanzlik as he lumbers in from the wing. Hanzlik winds up and slams the ball off the side of the rim. LJ grins and shakes his head. Hanzlik is imitating LJ’s not so sweet move of last night. Snarking an open jam.

Larry Demetric Johnson is determined that he won’t snark this season of high hopes, but he’s off to a shaky start. LJ’s game depends on balance, but he’s coming off a herniated disk that has kept him off his right leg. It’s still at full strength but he’s missing a measure of his explosiveness. The team isn’t suffering, though Larry’s personal stats are off a bit. Never a selfish player, LJ is passing even more, spreading the offense and building the team. And check it out, with ‘Zo’s power, smooth Hersey Hawkins, Dell Curry adding spice with the three and Evergreen Eddie Johnson, the Hornets are a scary team getting scarier.

And Larry is nightmare numero uno, the bee with the baddest sting. The fool who wrote in McPaper that LJ “isn’t even the Hornets’ best player” should learn to just say no, because he must be on drugs. Best on his team? How about the League, fool? No? Then who, fool? Who?

Now Larry is exacting revenge on Hanzlik. He’s yelling, growling really, but a growl loud enough to bust that noise meter 170 miles away at North Carolina State. They are shooting threes. “I won’t even consider myself a player if I lose to you,” LJ roars. “I won’t even consider myself a player if I lose to you,” he yells it again. Most of these growl/yell hybrids come in pairs for emphasis. As if he needed it.

Hanzlik hits three out of five, but LJ puts in four. Next set, LJ hits four again. It’s no fluke, Larry can do that. He was two for two shooting threes in last night’s game. He releases the ball high over his head with the sweetest touch, perfect backspin. He gives it that high looping trajectory, so it seems to plunge down gravity’s rainbow through the center of the net.

This is a man with tremendous dexterity. On a team with Muggsy, Dell, and the Hawk, LJ may have the best hand to eye coordination. The best athlete on the team. Sometimes it seems that LJ is limited only by his imagination. When Larry gets the ball, a 5,000-volt electric charge passes through the crowd. “Larry, show us something we’ve never seen before. Make us high, Larry.” And he can. Whenever he wants. He could average 30-plus points a game if he wanted. But more often than not he passes, grinning that 84-million-dollar, gold-toothed smile. “I could take you anytime,” it says, “but I take you when I wanna take you.”

There are similarities to Sir Charles. Both are too small to be power forwards in the NBA, but they excel. Both are listed taller than they really are. Larry isn’t 6’7’’. He’s more like 6’5 ¾” before he puts on his Aero-Glides. (Charles is listed at a similarly generous 6’6’’.) Both are intimidating—LJ’s 250 lbs. help him in that department.

Now Hanzlik has the upper hand. Larry has missed a few. “Bitch! You are taking this too far! You are taking this too goddam far,” LJ screams.

Larry D. grew up in Dixon Circle in the big D—Dallas, Texas. That’s the toughest hood in a city with a chip. No altar boy, LJ had a few scrapes with the World In-Famous Dallas Po-Lease. The twelve-year-old ruffneck was busted for stealing bikes and groceries. But the Police Athletic League saved him. Little Larry tried boxing but didn’t stick with it (lucky Evander). Same with football. He was the center fielder on the baseball team, ran track and was the goalie on the soccer team.

But he quit those sports, too. You could say that Larry found hoop, but really, hoop found him. Growing up, he was caught up in the conflict between the have’s and the have not’s. So perhaps it was inevitable that Larry should find himself drawn to basketball’s necessary balance of power and finesse, anger and serenity, war and peace. If he could find, could master The Game, achieving a balance of all those polar opposites, he could master life.

“Larry can be two people,” says Greg Williams, a pal since the fourth grade. “Yeah, boisterous sometimes, like around a lot of people. But one-on-one he’s real quiet and caring. With his family and friends, it’s like he’s someone else.”

But with his team-and it is his team—he’s a mofo. It’s a tough trick, being the leader and the show. Coach Allan Bristow has divided the team into two groups going against each other shooting fifteen footers. Larry’s team is losing. That’s making one overexcited camper a little unhappy. “Come on, Gate,” he growls at David Wingate. “Shoot that thing!”

In the seventh grade Larry was 6’2’’, a young warrior in a war zone. Dixon was the domain of drugs and guns. Mother Dortha raised Larry and his sister alone, working as a cook in a Dallas country club up to 12 hours a day. She’s still tough on Larry, “When she met Shaq and Michael she just loved them, but with me, it’s still ‘get your feet off the table boy,’” says LJ. He left South Dallas to attend the more integrated Skyline high. Senior year he was named national high school player of the year and voted most likely to succeed by his classmates. Then came the SAT thing. The first time Larry took the test he scored below 700. Next time he took it, he blew that 700 out of the water; but he improved so dramatically that nervous SMU administrators, already slapped with an NCAA football probation, asked Larry to Prop 48 and sit out a year

LJ sit? Later. He played for Odessa Junior College, where he became golden in more ways than one. It was there, in 1989, that he got his upper left incisor knocked out (he doesn’t remember the name of the juco-Laim-beer). So for the record, LJ’s gold tooth ain’t no Flavo-Flav cap-thang. It’s the real deal. It’s a badge from back in the day when any battle was good enough to fight. It was also a sign that at the end of the struggle LJ would come away with the gold.

At Odessa, LJ averaged 25 points and was twice named junior college player of the year. Then came UNLV, Tark, and teammates; Stacey, Elmore, Anderson, and Greg. (“I love to see Stacey, but it’s no fun playing against him,” says LJ.) The National Championship and blowing Duke away. Then losing to Duke. If you believe that you can only learn from adversity, then UNLV was a positive experience for Larry. Handling the bumps at UNLV; the endless war between Tark and the NCAA, the team’s suspension, negative articles in the Las Vegas newspapers, questions over how Johnson afforded his Nissan ZX and a dozen distractions toughened Larry and prepared him for life in the big time fishbowl, the NBA. Before he ever shot an NBA trey, Larry learned the value of good P.R., of spin control, of not going too far.

Hersey and Dell are shooting threes—Dell style. “If it hits the rim, it doesn’t count,” pronounces Dell. LJ is busy at the other end playing horse with assistant coach T.R. Dunn and Hanzlik. “I’m going to win this in style, T! I’m going to win this in style!” The shot: foul shot off the glass, no rim. LJ misses. “DAMN!” He dances away towards a group of reporters, hand fluttering, a look of intense pain covering his face—an anguished expression ‘Zo has successfully copped. “You got to give me more. You got to give me more!” he yells. The reporters stare at LJ and smile, a little admiring, a little scared. Ten yards and closing comes a 24-year-old manchild gone mad.

Draft day 1991. The Hornets have the first pick and there’s the usually who’s it going to be. Who is the best college player in the land? Larry, Billy Owens, Kenny Anderson or Dikembe Mutombo? But the numbers couldn’t lie. Larry led UNLV to two Final Fours and one National Championship in two years. He averaged over 20 points and ten rebounds a game. His field goal percentage was .662 (that’s field goals, not free throws). In four years at two colleges, Larry’s teams went 134-13. He was an All-American, the consensus player of the year and captured 43 national and local awards including the John Wooden Award, the Eastman-Kodak Award, and the James A. Naismith Award. Tom Sorensen, a columnist for the Charlotte Observer, says some fans wanted Mutombo, and coach Gene Littles leaned towards Bill O. But Bristow, then director of player personnel, convinced the team to grab LJ.

There was some squabbling over his contract and Larry didn’t join the team until the first game of the season. But he survived the first year rigors, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds a game and being named rookie of the year. Kenny (The Rock Solid) Gattison took him under his wing, but it soon became apparent that Larry was the man. Muggsy, at 5’3’’ the littlest bee, told Larry that it was his team. Larry took hold of the reins.

The Hornets are a fairly close team. Newcomers Hawk and Eddie Johnson, both quiet, proud, professional types are blending in well, Muggsy and Gate played together at Dunbar in Baltimore (along with Reggie Williams and Lewis, on what may have been the greatest high school team of all time). Dell is loose and easy. But at the edge of even the closest families, there is static. As in who’s going to get the ax? Who stays? Why? Bristow orders up a game of two on two, “G, you and Steve play Tony and LeRon.” That’s Mike Gminski and Steven Henson versus LeRon ellis and Tony Bennett. Gminski, a 13-year pro with a double digit career PPG is getting zero playing time. Henson is about to be released, with Scott Burrell coming off the injured list. Jobs and playing time are at stake, and the guys are working. Most of the other players wander away, but LJ watches. “What’s score?” he asks. Does he consider himself lucky? Does he realize that with a twist of fate, that could be him out there, just barely hanging on? He nods and stares. There but for the grace of God go I.

During Larry’s rookie season, he signed a sneaker deal with Converse. The company’s two stars, Bird and Magic were aging, and LJ was seen as just the right young stuff, well, to fill their shoes. Converse’s ad agency came up with a terrific plotline. Bird and Magic would be mad scientists in a laboratory, creating the ultimate basketball player. Bird would say, “He’ll have my passing ability,” and so forth. But what should they call this new creature? Bird says, “He’ll have my first name.” And Magic says, “He’ll have my last name.” And at that point, LJ would rise up from the table. Def. They shot the commercial. But when Magic announced he had HIV, Converse scrapped the ad.

So Grandmama was really a second choice. LJ was a little wary. Cross training maybe, but cross dressing?!? “I had my doubts at first,” said LJ, “but after a while I just took it and ran with it.” According to Larry’s agent George Bass, Dortha Johnson was stopped dead in her tracks when she first saw her son as Grandmama. “I think she thought Larry looked an awful lot like his late grandmother,” says Bass. Converse has shot nine Grandmama commercials. One that hasn’t aired yet: A police lineup scene with Bill Laimbeer barking at a row of old ladies, “All right, who stole the ball?” The camera pans across the group of Grannies, one with a knowing grin. Guess who done it?