Original Old School: Big L

by May 28, 2011

As a senior the following year, LJ was National Player of the Year after averaging 23 and 11 (his second straight 20-and-10 season) and leading the Rebels back to the Final Four. But his image was anything but that of the good-natured huggy bear his coach recalls. Tark was the Blackbeard of the NCAA, and the team that brought him his first and only title was considered the personification of that. Their two Final Four meetings with Duke were seen as clashes of good and evil, with your own perspective determining which team filled which role.

His college days over, the Hornets grabbed LJ first in the ’91 Draft. He held out through training camp before signing a six-year, $19.9 million deal. Recalls agent George Bass, “We flew into Charlotte, had a police escort to the Coliseum to sign the contract, then Larry got on another plane to Boston, laced them up and played against the Celtics in the season opener.”

And LJ, who scored 14 points in his first game, did more than make a token appearance, as teammate Kendall Gill recalls. “Larry Bird was guarding him down low, and LJ turned with his elbows high and popped Larry in the chin. That was it for him trying to cover LJ. You’re talking about a guy in his first game and a certified legend.”

The play was a clear statement that Johnson was an elite player upon arrival. He finished his rookie season with averages of 19.2 ppg and 11 rpg and the Rookie of the Year Award in his pocket. “He was unstoppable in the post,” says Gill. “He was so strong and had so many moves that no one could do anything with him down there. Anybody who wants to learn post fundamentals should study Larry’s moves, which enabled him, at 6-7, to score over 6-11 guys every night. His combination of fundamentals, strength, heart and will were unreal. He had a graceful game that was just beautiful to watch and amazing to see up close day in and day out.”

Off the court, Johnson signed a shoe deal with Converse, which soon introduced the “Grandmama” campaign, featuring him dressed as an old lady. It was a sight gag based on a sight gag; part of LJ’s appeal was the rub-your-eyes-nature of seeing such a big guy flying so high and dunking so hard. Adding a dress, church-lady wig and cat-eyed glasses made for some memorable spots. Johnson’s mom was shocked when she first saw Grandmama. “I couldn’t believe how much Larry looked like my mother dressed up like that,” she recalls with a laugh. It was probably the most popular, best-known ad of the time. But it was actually a replacement campaign. The original idea made the claim that LJ was the new-generation superstar, featuring Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as mad scientists creating the ultimate basketball player. Bird said, “He’ll have my three-point shot,” Magic said, “He’ll have my passing ability,” etc. But what would they call him? Bird: “He’ll have my first name.” Magic: “He’ll have my last name.” And then LJ would rise from the table like Frankenstein. The ad was killed when Magic announced he had HIV.

Alonzo Mourning came on board in Charlotte during LJ’s second season, and the pair teamed with Gill, Dell Curry, Johnny Newman and Muggsy Bogues to lead the franchise to the Playoffs in just its fifth season. Larry averaged 22 ppg and 11 rpg, started in the All-Star Game and made the All-NBA Second Team. That summer, he signed a 12-year, $84-million contract that was the richest in team sports history, but the ’93-94 season turned into a nightmare when he hurt his back and missed 31 games. He put any doubts about his future to rest over the next two seasons, playing 81 games in each and averaging 18.8 and 20.5 ppg and returning to the All-Star Game. His game was more earthbound than before, but he added a reliable three-point shot to his repertoire and further improved his handle.

Larry seemed set to enter the pantheon of North Carolina hoops greats, but the Hornets traded him to New York for Anthony Mason in the summer of ’96. There, the offense was completely run through his high school hero Patrick Ewing, and Johnson’s scoring plummeted to 12.8 ppg. If it was difficult for him, he never let it be known. “He sacrificed his game tremendously when he came here and we all knew it,” says Herb Williams, a team leader then and now a Knicks assistant. “We all saw what he did in Charlotte. He used to kill us, and my mom would call and ask, ‘Can’t anyone stop number two?’ We knew he’d get us 20-30 points a night if we went to him 20-25 times. But he was a team player who did whatever it took for us to win, a warrior who never took a night off. In fact, he never took a practice off, despite his back problems. He was there early every day.”

I got an up-close look at LJ’s work habits in the spring of ’99, when I showed up hours early for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the first Playoff game Ewing would miss after tearing his Achilles tendon. The Garden was barely buzzing with pregame activity. Lights and cameras were being readied, tech guys scurrying around, along with a few walkie-talkie-armed Garden personnel. Just one player from either team was on the court—LJ, swishing three after three, with a lone assistant feeding him rebounds. Hours later, as the clock ticked down, he would nail the most famous shot of his career—a three pointer while being fouled by Antonio Davis. The four-point play sealed the victory and propelled the Knicks toward the Finals. It may have seemed like a lucky shot, but I knew the truth—practice makes perfect.

That little tale sums up much of LJ’s career. Mayo remembers being woken by his doorbell when Johnson was in college, coming over to get the key to the Skyline gym so he could work out. Everyone who ever played with him first mentions his work habits and love of the game. Johnson accomplished a lot. He was the National high school, JuCo and college Player of the Year and NBA Rookie of the Year. He scored over 10,000 points in the L. And he gave back to his community big time, donating a million dollars to build the Larry Johnson Rec Center on Dixon Avenue, on the exact spot where the since-condemned projects he grew up in once stood.

“There was nowhere nearby when he was a kid,” says Mrs. J. “He had to go all over to play ball and have a safe place, and he wanted kids to have more.”

Despite all that, it’s hard to look at Johnson’s career without thinking about what might’ve been. “If he had not gotten hurt, he would have been one of the all-time greats,” says Gill. “I have no doubt about that, because he had no holes in his game and he was always working.”

Needless to say, it was not a fluke that Larry Johnson was on the very first cover of SLAM. And to remember his game is to know, if his back hadn’t failed him, he would have been on many, many more.