Larry Johnson: The $84 Million Dollar Man, 1993

[Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan . . . and Larry Johnson? That’s right. In late 1993, Johnson seemed poised to become the NBA’s next mass-marketed icon after the charismatic Michael Jordan abruptly retired from basketball for a swing-and-a-hack at major league  baseball.

Johnson, just 24 years old and in his third NBA season, already had a number of marketing deals in play. He also just signed a then-staggering $84 million contract over 12 years. This article from journalist Bruce Martin, published in the December 1993 issue of the magazine Courtside, dives into the Larry Johnson phenomena. 

The L.J. iconography, of course, turned out to be relatively short-lived. In fact, many wondered why the NBA marketing gurus wanted to give Air Johnson a lift off the ground. “This is not to denigrate Johnson’s ability, he’s one of the best young players in the league,” wrote NBA observer Bill Reynolds. “. . .  But he’s not a great one, not someone who figures to ever be remembered as a player for the ages, the kind of special player who can either lure people into the seats or make them stay home to watch him play on television.”

But these were giddy financial times for the NBA and its rising tide of stars. Johnson would make $3.12 million that season, and his contract would climax with a $10 million salary in 2000-01. Unmentioned in the article, New Jersey’s restricted free agent forward Derrick Coleman had been holding out for $90 million over nine years! To put these small fortunes into perspective, consider that just 25 years earlier in December 1968, when he was traded to the New York Knicks, Dave DeBusschere brought home $40,000 per season, then a solid NBA wage.]

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In less than two years, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan have all retired from the National Basketball Association, leaving a huge void in the league from a marketing standpoint. But more importantly, the NBA lost three of its greatest heroes.

Last season, with Johnson and Bird both retired from the game, Michael Jordan stood alone on the lofty plateau that he had shared with his former competitors. Jordan’s stunning retirement announcement on October 5, 1993 sent shock waves through the sport. An immediate search for new heroes began.

The common thread between Jordan, Bird, and Magic was their ability to transcend the normal limitations of the game. This brought them icon status. Jordan had the spectacular moves and outgoing personality. Bird had a legendary presence. And Magic combined his outstanding play with a winning personality.

But that era is over, and a new group of NBA players is ready to assume the marquee roles. At the top of that list of future NBA idols are Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets, Shaquille O’Neal of the Orlando Magic., and Mourning’s Charlotte teammate Larry Johnson. 

Ironically, the day Johnson signed his stunning 12-year contract extension with the Charlotte Hornets worth $84 million came word that Jordan was about to retire from the sport. “That was a great surprise,” Johnson said. “Mike is a better person than he is a basketball player. By Mike retiring now, I can honestly come out and say he was always the idol of mine—the best player to ever play this game.

“If I can have half as much success as he has had, I’ll be all right. The contract I got would not have been possible without Michael Jordan. I have a lot to thank that guy for, and if he were here today, I would thank him for everything he has done for the NBA.”

After just two years in the NBA, Johnson is already reaping the rewards of his outstanding play on the court, and his popularity off the basketball floor has increased dramatically. Last season, Johnson was named  as the spokesman for NBA Authentics—a line of merchandise marketed by the NBA. Past spokesmen for NBA Authentics have included Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. 

But Larry Johnson became the first player to actually be paid by the league as its spokesman. “A couple of years ago, when all the Nike players were pulling out of league marketing, Larry’s agent (Steve Endicott) spoke to me and said they were going to do the same thing,” said Spencer Stolpen, the Hornets president. “I said, ‘Guys, I think you are foolish. There is nobody in the world who is going to promote a basketball player around the world like the NBA. If you were a superstar already, that is a different story.’

“At the same time, I phoned the league and said, ‘Guys, you have to be fair. If you are going to grab these young guys and have them stick with the league, you have to be straight with them.’

“Larry was the first player ever paid by the league to be a spokesman for them. It has been wonderful. The league is happy, and Larry has been promoted. Look at his recognition worldwide—his jersey No. 2 is the second-largest selling jersey in the world behind Michael Jordan’s No. 23. We certainly think Larry Johnson, with his charisma, has that presence on and off the court.”

Grandmama, a.k.a., Larry Johnson (left) appears on TV show Family Matters.

Johnson also signed a deal with Fleer as a spokesman for the card company that issued a limited-edition Larry Johnson 12-card subset last season. Johnson has two lines of shoes from Converse. In his Grandmama commercials, he dresses up in a wig and gown and then takes to the basketball court to teach a few lessons—even to Larry Johnson. Those commercials have become some of the most popular in sports marketing.

And then came “The Contact,” which has started a trend in the NBA for league stars to demand long-term deals worth huge sums of money.

“The contract is a piece-of-mind thing for me,” Johnson said. “More than anything, this tells me those guys here are committed to winning, they think highly of me. Confidence means a great deal in this game. If you have that confidence and you know the people around you have that confidence, then your game goes much smoother. There is no pressure to go out and perform for another contract. Basically, I’m set for life.”

During his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1991-92, Johnson exceeded all expectations, leading one NBA broadcaster to say he might be the best rookie to enter the league since Michael Jordan.

He continued to perform in his second season when he led the Hornets into the playoffs for the first time in team history and was voted on the NBA’s Eastern Conference All-Star team. “By me being the national spokesman for NBA Authentics, I feel a little something that I have to take the torch as ‘The NBA Player,’” Johnson said. “We need that. I have to accept that role as being ‘The NBA Star.’ If they want to pass the torch to me, it is something I will cherish, and I will grab as quick as I can and look to Michael’s success to figure out the right way to carry that torch.

“We still have guys who are league leaders, but I still have some dues to pay. You have David Robinson and Charles Barkley, who have paid their dues. You have Karl Malone and those guys who have paid their dues. They have their shoulders wide right now because they feel they are league leaders, too. If you want it, you can get it. 

“I want it. With the contract and what is happening to Mike. He retires, and everybody says I’m sitting on Cloud Nine right now. I sign the contract and then Mike retires, and they say ‘Oh, Larry gets $84 million. Now, he’s the highest-paid player in the league. Mike is gone. I am sitting on Cloud Nine.”

But why does Johnson want it so bad?

“Why wouldn’t I want it? Why wouldn’t somebody else want it, to be looked upon as being ‘The Man’ in the NBA?

“To be the spokesman in the NBA is a great honor. If I can carry it for three or four years, then you can look back at Wilt Chamberlain, Dr. J., Michael Jordan—and Larry Johnson. Then I can go down and have grandkids, and I don’t have to tell my grandkids what I did, other kids will tell them what their grandfather did.”

Larry Johnson wouldn’t want it any other way. The NBA all-star believes he is a star of the future, and the future is now.

“That is a goal of mine—to be one of the guys who takes the league to another level or be one of the premier players, the perennial superstars in the league,” said Johnson, the former UNLV star. “That should be a goal of any player in the league. Everybody should be working to help the league out, make it stronger and better for the other generations that will follow. But not everybody has the ability to do that.”

Johnson is one player who does have that ability, as evidenced by his spectacular rookie season when he averaged 19.2 points and  11 rebounds. That allowed him to easily defeat Denver’s Dikembe Mutombo for the Rookie of the Year Award. 

But Johnson’s summer of celebration was cut short in July 1992 when he suffered a partial torn cartilage in his right knee. That gave Johnson his first experience on the operating table.

“It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever gone through,” Johnson said. “It was my first operation and my first time in a hospital that I recall since I was born. I was very upset. I didn’t know what to think. Dr. (Glenn) Perry (Hornets team physician) and the trainer told me it was a simple procedure. Nothing to it. Thirty-minute surgery.

“But to a guy who hates hospitals, I was scared to death.”

Here is a man who is not afraid to battle Charles Barkley or Karl Malone under the basket, but the thought of going into a hospital petrified the Hornets’ star. “I was mad at the doctors because they told me they were going to put me under,” Johnson said. “I told those guys that I want to get up in the morning, put on my clothes, go to the hospital, walk through the door, lay on the bed, and go to sleep. I want to wake up, and it will be done.

“Then, I went into the hospital, had to change into a gown, and they shaved my knee. I didn’t want to see all that.

“They rolled me to one place, and there is a guy over here moaning and the guy over there moaning. That just scared me. Nothing was hurting me, but I started moaning, too. I was supposed be asleep.

“I’m not afraid of Charles Barkley, but that hospital made me moan, too.”

The moaning and groaning are over as Johnson continues on a path to stardom in the NBA, earning a position in the starting lineup of the NBA’s Eastern Conference All-Star team in just a second season. Last season, Johnson increased those numbers to 22.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a contest.

That has allowed Johnson to reap the rewards off the basketball court as well. “Everything is falling into place,” Johnson said. “I’m getting a lot of great deals, and a lot of things are coming to me like promotional and endorsement deals.

“Coming into the NBA, every guy with some heart is supposed to think if he works hard and keeps doing the right things and gets on a good ballclub, things will come to him. If you keep working hard to improve your skills, you will be a good ballplayer.

“I just didn’t expect it to come so fast. I’ve always said I wanted to achieve the same status as Michael Jordan. I thought I could do it. Converse tells me I have two lines of shoes, and nobody else in the NBA has two lines of shoes. Michael Jordan should have 50 lines of shoes, but Michael Jordan just has Air Jordans. I have the TARMAX and Grandmamas—the REACT shoes.

I thought I could achieve this, I just didn’t know how long it will take.”

Armed with a huge contract, it won’t take Johnson long to hear the boos and the reaction from competing players and fans who will single him out as the NBA’s $84 Million Man. “I need somebody to remind me because this $84 million hasn’t sunk in yet,” Johnson said. “I need somebody to remind me of that. If I’m out there and I’m not playing hard, I’ll say, ‘You’re right. Let me go get a rebound or something or block a shot. I’m sorry. I forgot that I’m supposed to be doing more than what I’m doing.’”

How long does Johnson think it will take before the NBA has its first $100 million contract?

“I don’t think we are that far away from it now,” Johnson said. “I’m right there, only $16 million away. I’d say three or four years down the line, you will see a $100 million contract. I think that is the number. We are already talking about doing away with the salary cap.

“People will come to me asking, ‘What are you going to do now?’ You have guys making $11 million or $12 million a year. You have rookies signing deals for $12 million a year. What are you going to do?’

“Well, I started this thing. I’m fine.”

But is he fine when he considers talk show host Oprah Winfrey earned $98 million last year alone?

“Wooh, she made $98 million last year?” Johnson asked incredulously. “And she can’t go to her left—or her right neither.

“I’m underpaid!”

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