[Here’s a brief profile of Larry Johnson early in his NBA career with Charlotte. The fantastic Fran Blinebury wrote the piece for Street & Smith’s 1992-93 Pro Basketball Yearbook. Happy reading!]
There are guys who can talk, and there are guys who can play basketball. Then there are the guys like Larry Johnson, who do both things at once.
There he is sticking a medium-range jumper right in the face of a teammate trying to defend him during one of the Charlotte Hornets’ practices and taking a few verbal shots as they head back down the floor. There he is using his tree trunk of a body to gain position for a rebound and then asking why any of the others would even think they had a chance for the ball. There he is picking off a pass, going the length of the court and ramming in a thunderbolt of a slam dunk, raising his arms and asking everyone else in the gym, “What else can I do?”
Certainly not much more than Johnson accomplished in his first NBA season with the Hornets, becoming the team’s top scorer and rebounder, becoming the foundation of the franchise for the foreseeable future and the Rookie of the Year by a wide margin.
“He sure doesn’t play like a rookie,” said none other than Michael Jordan following his first meeting with Johnson on the floor. “He’s aggressive and plays with a lot of confidence, like he’s been in the league a long time. He’s going to be in the top 5 percent of the players—if he isn’t already.”
It seems like it’s always been like that for Johnson in the game that he grew up playing day after day and night after night to keep himself out of trouble in his poor neighborhood of the Dixon Circle housing projects in South Dallas. Johnson has now grown to a rock-solid 6-foot-5¾, 250 pounds, and he goes wherever he wants and seems to score whenever he wants, even against the best opponents in the NBA. But that’s really no different from the way it always was as Johnson took his game right up the ladder and succeeded at every level.
By the time he was in seventh grade, Johnson had already sprouted to 6-foot-2, 190 pounds and was the dominating force in the pickup games out on the playgrounds. They still talk in Dallas about the time he went up for a dunk at one of the outdoor courts and brought down the entire rim and metal backboard in his hands.
Johnson traveled across town to Dallas’ Skyline High, and after playing his first game there on the freshman team, he pestered head coach J.D. Mayo to let him suit up for the varsity game. Mayo agreed to let the ninth-greater sit on the bench, then got a bolt of inspiration and stuck him in the starting lineup. By halftime, Johnson had 17 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field and 1-for-1 from the foul line.
He was the high school player of the year in Dallas, became the junior college player of the year at Odessa (TX), and the college player of the year during his senior season at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. It was at UNLV where most of the nation became familiar with Johnson as the big gun on the club that throttled Duke to win the national championship in 1990, high-flying and laughing and talking all the way.
During his rookie NBA season, Johnson was reunited one night with his former UNLV teammate Stacey Augmon, who now plays for Atlanta. And Johnson was surprised when Augmon went in, slammed home a dunk, slapped his chest, and pointed right at Johnson. “I was thinking, ‘Stacey, why would you do that?’” Johnson recalled. It’s all style and talking and a certain way of playing the game. And Johnson knows all about talking, because it’s his second-favorite game. Not just on the court, but out on the streets as well.
Johnson is about much more than big numbers and strong post-up moves. When he leaves the Charlotte Coliseum after home games, there is usually a group of youngsters crowded around his car. They love to wait for this NBA star, because they know he’ll always stop and talk to them. It might seem like merely small talk from a big man, but it means a lot more than that to the kids when it comes from someone who is a hero.
Johnson really does feel a kinship to the kids. He was one of them, and someone who managed to avoid the temptations of drugs and gangs and other troubles. As a nine- and 10-year-old, Johnson was frequently picked up by the police in Dallas for fighting. Because the detention centers were already full, they would drop him off at a park and force him to spend his energy playing ball. That’s also where he learned to box. It was a self-defense class. There were always fights interrupting the games.
It can be difficult to put together the image of the fighter with the charming character Johnson has become as he’s grown older. He certainly didn’t look like a fighter in that sneaker commercial on TV last season, dressed up in a flowered dress, pearl necklace and bracelets, lace bloomers, white anklets, gray wig, and a pillbox hat, playing the character of his own grandmother running up and down the floor, leaping and dunking. And one of the biggest blows Johnson delivered all of last season was the $180,000 donation to the United Way of Central Carolinas to help in a fight in a very different kind.
All the while he was working to fit in as a member of the community in Charlotte, Johnson was forcing his way into the upper echelon of NBA players. For the first half of last season, the script was saying that Denver’s Dikembe Mutombo was going to beat Johnson out for the Rookie of the Year award. Mutombo, a shot-blocking center from Zaire through Georgetown University, came roaring out of the gate and captured a lot of the early attention.
But late in the year, the grind of the 82-game season began to take its toll on Mutombo. He began to wear down. But not Johnson. All those days and nights out on the playgrounds, and he never wore down. Johnson got stronger and carried more and more of the Hornets’ burden on his broad shoulders.
“He doesn’t have any weaknesses,” said Charlotte coach Allan Bristow. “I’ve been around a lot of great players—George Gervin, Dan Issel, Alex English—but all of them had weaknesses. I can’t think of a weakness in Larry. And this is just a start.”
It looks like Larry Johnson is going to be giving the NBA—and himself—a lot to talk about for a long time.