Every once in awhile a player puts the basketball world on notice, such was the case in the late 80s and early 90s, when a young man by the name of Larry Johnson dominated the college basketball scene, winning a National Championship along with individual awards and records to add to his collection.
Johnson entered the NBA and became a human highlight reel, earned multimillion-dollar contracts, magazine covers and even a shoe deal. Johnson was on top of the world, but not everything goes according to plan. This is a short bio of Larry Johnson’s basketball career.
Where It All Started
Larry Johnson was born in 1969 in Tyler, Texas, USA. Johnson was a six-foot-six power forward and considered small for that position but made up for it as he was an explosive athlete with unique strength. Johnson played high school basketball at Dallas’ Skyline, in 1987 his senior year Johnson made the McDonald’s High School All-American Team.
Johnson made a verbal commitment to play ball at Southern Methodist University which was a Division 1 college. He Never intended to play Junior College basketball. But Johnson wanted to stay close to home and most of his friends were attending Odessa College where Johnson also wanted to go.
The story goes, that Johnson told one of his friends to look up the coach’s name as he didn’t know who the coach was for Odessa. His friend then called coach Dennis Helms and told him Larry johnson wants to play ball at Odessa.
Johnson played 2 years at Odessa dominated Juco basketball, he became the first and only player till this day that was named Junior National Player Of The Year two years in a row. Johnson had said the thing that surprised him the most about JUCO ball is the talent. But averaging 22 his freshman and 29 points a game as a sophomore doesn’t seem that he was tested at all.
Larry was so good in fact he was the first player to be recruited from a junior college to try out for the Olympic Trials. He earned a spot on the travel select team that would be playing in Europe that summer. Johnson declined the offer as he wanted to focus on his college career as he was recruited by the UNLV Running Rebels.
Larry Johnson Is Ranked Amongst The Best College Basketball Players To Ever Play
Larry Johnson was a stud in the entertainment capital of the world Las Vegas, on a squad that beat opposing teams before stepping onto the court just by intimidation. UNLV had a reputation of hard nose in your face dunks, baggy shorts, and unique swagger. The team had 5 future NBA basketball players, which consisted of Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and George Ackles.
During his first season at UNLV Johnson lead the team sporting a 34-5, and winning a national championship in 90/1990. The following year UNLV posted a 35-1 record but fell short in the final four losing to Duke.
Larry Johnson’s time at UNLV is regarded as his best and most memorable accomplishments. LJ by the numbers is ranked 12th in career points at UNLV all-time leaders with 1,617 points scored and 8th in rebounding with 837. Only playing two seasons. He holds the record for a career field goal percentage of 0.643 and most rebounds in a single season with 457.
He is a two-time first-team All-American, with two Big West Player of the Year awards and the 1991 National Player of the Year. Johnson is considered among the greatest college basketball players ever to play in the NCAA. UNLV inducted his name into the Hall of Fame and for good reason as he helped them win the only national title in school history.
Johnson declared for the NBA draft and was the first overall pick in 1991 by the Charlotte Hornets. He signed a six-year contract worth nearly $20 million dollars before even dribbling the ball in the NBA. Though the expansion team the charlotte hornets had a losing record that year LJ was named NBA Rookie of the Year averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds for the Hornets that year.
His rookie year he displayed his athletic ability during the season where he had at least one highlight play a game. If you never heard or seen Larry Johnson you had no choice as he entered the NBA dunk contest and although he didn’t win he put on a show and was on every sports channel’s highlight reel across North America.
The future looked bright for this rookie, who was making himself a household name in the league.
After the season the Hornets drafted Alonzo Mourning as the number 2 overall pick. Charlotte was sporting a winning record in the 1992/93 season and was 5th in the Eastern Conference.
That year Johnson started in the NBA All-Star Game, which made him the very first Hornet in franchise history to do so. He was awarded All-NBA Second Team honors averaging 22.1 points and 10.5 rebounds.
Johnson hadn’t even peaked yet and already was getting endorsement deals, and was on magazine covers. He was the very first basketball player to be on the cover of Slam Magazine, a notable basketball magazine on the current top basketball prospects and recruits in the country. It was important for Slam to kick off their very first issue of their magazine with a notable star in the league so that the world would take the magazine seriously.
During the summer of ’93 Johnson signed with Converse and had his own shoe, GrandMaMa was officially born.
The story of Grandmama
According to Johnson in an interview with Sporting News & Slam Online:
Larry Johnson – “I thought I was going to be a Nike man. I sat around all summer waiting for Nike to call. When Nike finally called, they were straight up. They said they weren’t going to sign me. Nike flat-out told me they didn’t think I would have a good pro career because of my height (6-6) playing power forward.
Then Converse called. They said, ‘We’ve got a great idea for a commercial. We’re going to put you in a gurney, cover you up. We’re going to have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird operating on you. They’ll say, ‘Oh, We did it. A perfect basketball player.’ Then they say, ‘We’ve got to name him.’ Larry says, ‘It’s got to be Larry.’ And Magic says, ‘It’s got to be Johnson.’ They go back and forth. ‘Larry.’ ‘Johnson.’ ‘Larry.’ ‘Johnson.’ Then I raise up off the gurney. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m signing.’ …
Six months later, they come back and say, ‘Are you ready to do the commercial?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ They say, ‘We’re going to put you in a dress, put a wig on you.’ I’m like, ‘Yo, what happened to the gurney and those guys?’ They say, ‘No, no, we’re going to do this.’ I had already taken the million and bought my mom a house. So that’s how Grandmama came out.”
Grandmama was obviously Larry Johnson dressed up as a grandma in a flower dress and wig with reading glasses. It became an instant hit. GrandMaMa was recognized across the globe where anyone can purchase the Converse shoe. Johnson did numerous shoe commercials for Converse while Grandmama was even featured in the Familly Matters T.V. show where he/she joined up with Steve Urkel and were teammates in a basketball tournament.
Battling His Back Injuries
Not everything went smoothly during the summer of ’93 Johnson suffered a herniated disc in his back. This would later be a factor in his career. Johnson was fortunate to have signed a lucrative 84 million dollar contract extension for the next 12 years with Charlotte. During that time this was considered one of the highest-paid multi-year contract extensions.
On December 27, 1993, The Hornets were victorious against the Detroit Pistons where LJ posted a triple-double scoring 29 points, 20 rebounds, and 11 assists. Johnson also suffered another back injury this time a deep lower back sprain that would leave him out of action for the next two and a half months.
Both Johnson and Mourning were injured for a very long stretch of games that season, both were able to return back to action but fell short one game going 41-41 in the East missing the playoffs in the 93/94 season.
Larry Johnson’s injuries were forcing him to develop an outside shot. He has gone on record in crediting his coach at Odessa college teaching him how to shoot.
In the 1994-95 season, it was different Johnson and Mourning were healthy playing almost 82 games winning a franchise-record of 50 games while earning the 4th seed in the East. Johnson made his second All-Star team putting up 18.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 4.6 APG, and 1.0 SPG in 39 minutes of play.
His numbers were impressive considering he no longer played above the rim anymore due to his injuries, riddled with injuries LJ adapted his game to fit his current broken-down body. LJ was shooting more threes than previously, attempting 210 during the ’94-’95 season. Making 81 of them, shooting 38.6 percent from the 3 pts line.
Because Charlotte was the 4th seed in the east they would play a returning Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls who were the fifth seed. During that time it was a 5 game series for the first-round series. Bulls won the first game at Charlotte while Hornets won game 2. After that the Bulls took control of the series winning the next 2 games making the series 3 to 1.
During the ’95-’96 season, Johnson had grown frustrated with the team. He felt the Hornets did not go the extra mile in keeping their 50-win roster together from the previous year.
It was also reported there was friction between LJ and his teammate Alonzo Mourning. Johnson had a big-money contract and Alonzo Mourning wanted one also. During his contract negotiations, the Hornets were willing to give Mourning a 10 million dollar a year contract for the next 7 years. Mourning wanted 13 million a year, the Hornets countered with 11.2 million. The Hornets couldn’t offer him what he wanted as they were already over their cap with 11.2 million. Mourning declined almost 80 million and was then traded to the Miami Heat.
Larry wanted to play near his hometown in Dallas because he knew he was being traded, but Dallas had no interest in his 9-year contract worth over 80 million at the time. I believe the Hornets knew LJ’s body wouldn’t last much longer. At the beginning of the 96/97 season, Larry Johnson was traded to the New York Knicks.
New York Knicks
LJ took on a different role on a team with Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston And Latrell Sprewell. He posted career lows playing with the Knicks for the remainder of his career averaging 12 pts a game. He would never be the same explosive player that he was when he first entered the league with Charlotte. I do believe LJ knew his best years were behind him.
In 1998, in the first round in the 4th game of series of the NBA playoffs, the Knicks faced the Heat, With 5 Seconds to go and up 5 points it was apparent the Knicks were about to win the game.
A shot goes up and Mourning and Johnson get in a tussle while boxing out, which results in punches being thrown and both benches clearing onto the court. Coach Jeff Vangundy of the Knicks ran onto the court with his 5-foot frame and somehow manage to get underneath a pile of bodies clingy onto Alonzo Mourning’s Leg for dear life.
The Series became tied at two apiece while at that point both Alonzo and Johnson were suspended for game 5 which was excellent for the Knicks as Mourning was the Heat’s best player and a huge part of the offense. The knicks steamrolled over the Heat winning the game by 17 points and taking the series.
All wasn’t bad for Johnson playing for the Knicks, he was apart of the magnificent run during the year of the lockout season of 50 games in 1999. The knicks finished as the 8th seed in the East and manage to make it all the way to the conference finals.
The New York Knicks would face the Indiana Pacers in the conference final, the series was tied at one apiece. The Knicks were down by 3 with less than 12 seconds left on the clock in game 3 at Madison Square Garden.
The play was intended for Allan Hosuton the ball was inbounded and it tipped off Houston’s hand and ended up in Johson’s, he was one on one with Anthony Davis. He pumped fake from the basket behind the three-point line. Davis bit on the fake, Johnson dribbled left one dribble and pulled up to shoot, Davis recovered, the whistle was blown and a foul was called while the ball made its way into the hoop granting 3 points plus the foul. This was known as the infamous 4-point play. LJ makes his free-throws and the Knicks win the game.
Johnson was quoted saying “I had shooting on my brain from the start I got it,” Johnson would recall. “I was going to be the hero or I was going to be the villain. But I was going to shoot that ball.
In a pivotal game in the series, every Knicks fan and player believed that game 3 was a big reason why the Knicks won the series. The New York Knicks advanced to the NBA finals and were set to face the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs handled the series and took down the Knicks 4 games to 1.
Larry Johnson Retires
In 2001 Larry Johnson decided to retire from the game of basketball due to chronic back problems. They were always an issue that affected his performance during his career but now it just became too much. Larry Johnson Played 10 years in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks.
Larry Johnson was one of the most explosive athletes to ever step foot onto an NBA court, it is sad to know we couldn’t see his full potential before the injury. He still posted an amazing NBA career, how many players could say they averaged 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in his career, those are incredible numbers for a 10-year career.
Larry Johnson was a diamond in the rough when he was thrown back into the dirt he made the most of it, he adapted. When asked if he misses the game of basketball, he said not really, he misses more the team comradery then playing.