By: Kam Willard
Today a celebration is due for a legend that our city will never be able to replicate. A hero that deserves his roses now, versus being cherished when his achievements are relegated to a never ending list on the ESPN ticker preceded by “Former NBA Superstar dies at age . . .”
I won’t allow that.
So let me take this storybook off the shelf, blow the dust off real quick and introduce you all to the fairy tale turned real life—the story of the iconic Larry Johnson: from the South to Superstardom.
Fifty years ago today, Dortha Johnson gave birth to a son that would be considered a “Man-Child”. A baby boy that would grow to be 6’2 in stature and weigh about 190 pounds in the 7thgrade. A size and frame that would receive respect the instant you were met with his presence, a feeling widespread throughout South Dallas’ Dixon Circle Projects.
We drop you off in Sunny South Dallas, in the heart of the crack epidemic. The area was infested with crime, violence, death and of course the heavy use of drugs. Stories of young lives lost filled the newspapers along with some of the most outrageous acts of violence occurring in the city. Dortha Johnson worried about the safety of her son when learning of these news stories, but she never feared her son losing his way and partaking in any of the behaviors happening so close to home.
Larry loved to hoop, and everyone knew it. However, the tragic incidents continued, and even began to involve the same young kids Larry shared the playground courts with. Imagine waking up to your point guard slumped over a park bench murdered from the night before, or a former pop warner teammate turning to crack and eventually losing his life to gun violence. Struggle and devastation were alive and well and seemed to be getting comfortable in the Dixon Circle Project Homes.
Johnson wouldn’t fret. In a ’93 interview with, Inside the NBA, he attributes the toughness and his resilient play style to growing up in the strenuous streets of South Dallas. “Ain’t nobody tougher than me . . . maybe better, but not tougher.” said Johnson.
That’s a common attitude shared on the court in the neighborhood. No one would ever back down from confrontation. It’s so prevalent that it’s highly advised to get as comfortable as possible, as soon as you can. Larry spoke with Sports Illustrated in ’93 as well, sharing some insight on the hardcore action on the court in the hood, “Everybody fights. You’d have a fight a week. If you played Monday through Saturday and didn’t have a fight, you knew you had to be ready for Sunday because you’d surely have a fight. Myself, I liked to get my fight over on Monday or Tuesday and not worry for the rest of the week.”
Through all of the turmoil surrounding him, Larry never strayed away from basketball. He didn’t fear anything on the court. Whatever he wanted to do, wherever he wanted to go, it was happening and there was no stopping him. As unbelievable as it may sound, the only thing that gave him a slight bit of fear was the jump from playground ball to organized basketball. Originally, Larry was to enroll and play at the historic, all-Black Lincoln High School near his home, but after a coach persuaded his mother to send him across town to the illustrious Dallas Skyline High School, that was all she wrote! Skyline, located in Pleasant Grove just 15 minutes east of downtown, is America’s first magnet school, an institution recognized for academic excellence and achieved much success in athletics as well.
Johnson would take two DART buses to school every morning and faced a culture shock at Skyline. A racially diverse school that appeared to be almost a mini college with over 3,500 students. A “Fashion Show” is what Larry referred to the experience as. “UH OH! Here comes the kid from South Dallas.” Johnson told SI’s reporter, Leigh Montville.
Soon they would know him by several different names. Let’s try, Mr. Basketball, Player of the Year, or my favorite, The Number 1 pick in the 1991 NBA Draft. Larry Johnson would start on the varsity team as a freshman and started every game he played henceforth. With Larry leading the team, the Skyline Raiders would never lose a home game. He developed a wonderful relationship with his coach, JD Mayo, who he revered as a mentor and father figure. In his senior season at Skyline, Larry averaged almost 30 points and 20 rebounds, led the Raiders to a school record number 3 ranking in the state, and accumulated numerous awards. These included:
US High School Basketball Player of the Year (1987)
McDonald’s First Team All-American (1987)
Mr. Basketball (Texas) Player of the Year (1987)
Team USA, World Junior Championships in Italy (1987)
A remarkable career to say the least!
Larry had proven that he was a force to be reckoned with and the nation was well aware. Unfortunately, even after building a decorative resume and showcasing your talent on such a national and international level, adversity still doesn’t ignore you, and interferes at the worst times.
After dominating the High School competition for several years, Larry was to move on to Southern Methodist University and continue his career playing for the Mustangs in 1988. However, the SMU administration had been found guilty for illegal tactics in their football recruiting scandal in the years prior, and Johnson had to achieve a 700 on his SAT in order to receive admission, which he reached on his second attempt. SMU’s administration ended up challenging the test score and wanted Larry to retake the test. He ultimately denied the request and chose to go to Odessa Junior College.
I know, I know. Timeout.
First, there was a culture shock with Skyline? What was he going to do about moving all the way out to WEST TEXAS? I completely agree. I couldn’t believe it either. But as we’ll see in part two of this series, Larry Johnson’s story was just getting started.
Part two of the Larry Johnson story will continue in the next installment of the Hometown Heroes series.