By: Kam Willard
It seemed unlikely that Dallas Skyline High School phenom Larry Johnson would walk away from playing basketball at Southern Methodist University and attend Odessa Junior College instead. Though it seemed as if SMU doubted his integrity and academic abilities . . . West Texas?
It would turn out that Larry liked the Junior College, and had even more success.
Winning the National JuCo Player of the Year Award was understandable, and expected, in all honesty. But until Larry Johnson took the court, no one had ever won the award consecutively. The two-time Junior College Player of the Year ended up being heavily recruited coming out of Odessa, and elected to attend the University of Nevada - Las Vegas where he’d join the “Runnin’ Rebels” with famous players such as Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon.
The Rebels were a walking highlight reel, playing a style of basketball that was exhilarating and utterly unstoppable. In Johnson’s two-year tenure, the Rebels brought home a national championship in a bludgeoning victory against a highly favored Duke team led by Christian Laettner and Coach K, made a repeat final four appearance, and only lost six games total. Johnson would bring in a multitude of Player of the Year Awards to finish off his collegiate career in Vegas.
Unfortunately, like SMU, UNLV would also go under NCAA investigation behind illegal recruiting practices, and suffered post-season sanctions for the ’92 season. Larry was implicated in these allegations for speculations of receiving a 1989 Corvette from a university booster in exchange for game tickets. Regardless of the accusations, results of the implications are unknown, and Johnson finished at UNLV positioned for an exciting NBA career.
First Team All-American
Second Team All-American
NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team
Naismith Player of the Year
Wooden Player of the Year
NABC Player of the Year
First Team All-American
On June 26, 1991, the Charlotte Hornets chose Larry Johnson as the number one selection in that year’s draft. He signed a six-year $20 Million contract before stepping a foot on the NBA court and was worth every penny. In his early years, he teamed up with Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues to help assemble a young formidable Hornets squad. The early 90s Hornets were known as a gritty, tenacious, and thrilling team with a foundation of LJ and Zo in the trenches wreaking havoc on anyone that challenged them. Once again, Larry found himself in a leadership position on this team, and was crowned Rookie of the Year with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists. Impressive for a newcomer stat line. The following year was the best season of his career. Johnson played and started in every game, and racked up 22 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists, an All Star selection, and a Hornets Conference Semifinals appearance.
Johnson was off to a stellar start in the NBA, climbing the ladder faster than ever to stardom. His on-court success was matched with off-court ventures that would make him a household name.
The nickname “Grandmama” was born from a series of hilarious and prosperous ads from the Converse Footwear brand in the 90s. Larry was rewarded with his very own signature shoe from Converse, that would give him a lightweight sneaker with flexible technology called react juice, “They’re so light and so fast, my Grandmama could whoop you in em.” He states in one of the commercials, dressed in vintage grandmother attire. This character would sweep the nation becoming one with Larry himself, and would be seen everywhere including cameos on 90s sitcoms like Family Matters.
At this point in his career, both entertainment and basketball success were pouring in for Larry and his camp, and it wasn’t stopping any time soon. In 1994, SLAM Magazine—one of America’s first urban basketball publications that highlights everything basketball, from High School to the NBA—selected Larry Johnson as its first cover athletes. Larry also found himself and other NBA stars like Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing acting alongside Michael Jordan in one of our most coveted childhood films, Space Jam. Though this achievement is mostly overlooked by many people today, it was a staple in his entertainment career, something that will remain in the hearts of fans forever.
In 1993, Larry Johnson and the Charlotte Hornets agreed on what was, at that time, known as the largest contract in NBA History. Johnson signed a deal worth $84 Million over the course of 12 years. The NBA was in expansion mode, growing quickly with its sport product being in such high demand. The Hornets had only been in existence for five years, but they were willing to bet the bank on Larry Johnson and the significance he held with the franchise. The City of Charlotte seemed to have all the faith in their town’s basketball team with Larry at the helm.
Ready for the Happily Ever After? Well, unfortunately heroes don’t always have the desired endings that we all wish for. A few short seasons later, the Hornets would break up, losing Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat, and lower back injuries began to hinder Larry Johnson’s play. He wasn’t able to be the powerful, dominant, explosive Forward that once tore down playground rims from the backboards with thunderous dunks. In 1996, Larry Johnson would be moved to the New York Knicks to play alongside Patrick Ewing. His play style turned from an inside threat to an outside player forced to make jump shots. There weren’t any more 20-point games accompanied with 8 rebounds. Johnson’s contribution would be more aligned with 13 points and 5 boards to match. But even after altering his playing style he remained a force to be accounted for on the court.
Larry would help lead the Knicks to a NBA Finals appearance in the ’99 season, and there’s a wild highlight of him scoring a four-point play in the closing moments against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks would defeat Indiana and advance to face the San Antonio Spurs, which resulted in them falling to the Twin Towers, David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
Shortly after that championship run, Larry Johnson would retire in 2001, after sculpting an amazing 10 year career in the league.
#1 Draft Selection, 1991 NBA Draft
1991-’92 Rookie of the Year
All Rookie Team
1992-93 All NBA
I think back on the interview with Inside the NBA quite a bit. He mentioned that being from South Dallas, you don’t back down from any one. This fearless and confident demeanor enabled Larry Johnson to be a dominant figure no matter the level of competition he faced. This feeling started early on in his life, and he credits all of this to the neighborhood and environment that produced him. Larry was able to balance what the neighborhood taught him, and stay true to his passion, not becoming a victim of the unruly circumstances that plagued South Dallas. Life ending circumstances at that. He ascended from the drugs, crime, and violence some of his peers were unable to avoid, and instead created a lifetime filled with unbelievable achievements that will last for eternity.
The Sports Illustrated interview tells the story of Larry returning to the projects in South Dallas one summer after being in the NBA. He did what he had always done, pulled the car up to the park, opened the trunk, played his music and hung out with his people. Soon, a big crowd gathered and a squad car arrived on the scene.
After the officers realized it was Larry Johnson, they approached and told him it wasn’t wise for him to be there, and that the area was full of trouble. Larry then pointed in the direction across the street and told the policemen, “This is where I spent most of my life. This is home. I don’t forget home.”
I’m just trying to make sure Dallas returns the favor.