By Brian Taylor
Why You Might Remember Him: One of the most prolific, and athletically freakish, ballers of the early 90’s, Larry Demetric Johnson got his buzz way back in his days as a member of college basketball’s SECOND best team ever, UNLV. (John Wooden’s Bruins were just too nasty for too long.) This was back in the day when college ball just started getting good, with a select few at the top every year and Duke was just starting to get on people’s nerves. With Anderson Hunt, Stacey Augmon, Armon Gilliam and Greg Anthony (yes, THAT Greg Anthony) running the show, L.J. and the Runnin’ Rebels ran through the NCAA’s, winning a title and pimpslapping the Blue Devils in the process. Larry Johnson was the sickest member of that team. Imagine a pre-drug, pre-alcohol, pre-child support Shawn Kemp, but with more muscle, and a jumper that was 10 times better, and you had “Grandmama”, nicknamed for his character on those commercials selling Converse shoes (with REACT Juice!). I remember him playing the same role on Family Matters on ABC a few times. In the NBA, he was just as raw starting out, as he was the Charlotte Hornets’ first bonafide All-Star (not J.R. Reid or Ben Stiller look-alike, Kelly Tripucka). His dunks were insane and he averaged 16 points and 8 boards per game for his career. When he teamed up with Alonzo and Muggsy, the Hornets were a legit playoff threat as the Celtics found out in 1993.
Why You Might Have Forgotten Him: This may have been a classic case of the body going before the brain, but a back injury early on in his career would continuously come back to haunt him. It happened in a charity game, when on a breakaway dunk attempt, he strained his lower back while going for another rim-punishing slam. He was just coming off an All-Star season, and once the back acts up that’s usually all she wrote, as his legs were the next things to go bad as a result of his back. Apparently, there was a beef between him and Alonzo Mourning (which boiled over and turned into Jeff Van Gundy holding Zo’s leg for dear life in one of the NBA’s wussiest cat-fights). Larry ended up changing his game however, going from a dunkaholic starter to a sharp-shooting 6th man off the bench for the Knicks after the Anthony Mason trade. He also changed how contracts are structured, as he signed a ridiculous extension with Charlotte before getting hurt again and was never the same, starting a domino effect of bad moves that lead the Hornets outta town into New Orleans. His last shining moments came against the Indiana Pacers in the 1999 Playoffs, when Antonio Davis fouled him while shooting (and hitting) a three in the waning seconds of game 3. There was also the strange “LJ” arm thing he did after three-pointers.
It was in the Finals against the San Antonio Spurs that Larry had his career ending mental meltdown, comparing the NBA to slavery saying that he and then Spurs point guard Avery Johnson were from the “same plantation”. In 2001 he finally called it quits on a decent career that could’ve been huge had he not hurt his back.