There was a summer when the Policemen Rode horses through the Dixon Circle housing projects in South Dallas. Some cab drivers had been robbed and killed, and this was the police response, the horses. Larry Johnson played basketball. There was another summer—a couple of summers—when the cops built a little police station in the middle of the projects, simply to handle the upswing in business. Drugs were everywhere and guns were everywhere, and this seemed to be the proper response, the little police station. Larry Johnson played basketball.
He liked to play in the morning, before the heat came, but then again, he also liked to play in the afternoon and the early evening. He especially liked to play late at night. He played all the time. His mother would look out a window in apartment 204 at three in the morning and see him on the court, playing one-on-one with his friend Air Greg Williams. She would worry about the danger of the street, but not about the bad habits. Her son did not have the bad habits, even with the drug house downstairs and the drug houses everywhere. He played basketball.
"I'd look out the window," Dortha Johnson says. "It'd be so late, but there he was. Always basketball."
Just to make sure he remembered about the terrors of the streets, she would look through the local newspapers for the reports of neighborhood tragedies. See who died. See what happened. See who was involved with drugs. She wound up with a son who not only didn't do drugs but also didn't smoke or drink or get real crazy about anything.
April 19, 1992
"It would be Friday night, and there'd be parties everywhere," Williams says. "Everybody'd be getting his beer or whatever, getting dressed, ready to go. Larry and I had our own thing. Every Friday night, we'd drive out to Pizza Pizza, get ourselves two pizzas, then pick up two pints of praline-and-cream ice cream. We'd park the car at the same place every week, sit on the fender and eat. We'd talk with everyone, laugh, see who could make the other laugh the most. We'd be wearing our gym stuff. Then, we'd go across the street to the court...."
Larry Johnson played basketball.
He is going to be the Rookie of the Year, isn't he? The Charlotte Observer recently polled writers in all 27 NBA cities. The vote was 26-1. The promise Larry Johnson brought to the Charlotte Hornets in June as the first draft choice in the land—he signed a six-year contract worth nearly $20 million before he even dribbled a ball in the NBA—was not an illusion. He is the real stuff. He is 6'5¾" in his stocking feet, weighs 250 pounds, and no one makes him go anywhere on the floor he doesn't want to go. He has long arms and a prizefighter's determination. He is often compared with Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers and with Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz and with the best rebounding forwards imaginable. He is as good as he was supposed to be. And probably better.
The games continued in spite of the gunfire and the police sirens. Williams says there always was a little worry about the old idea that "a stray bullet has no name," but that was not enough to stop the basketball. This was hard-core playground action. Take the ball to the hole. Take your chances. Twelve baskets to win. Winners play. Losers sit. Everybody fights.
"You'd have a fight a week," Johnson says. "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 about it the rest of the week."
He tried boxing as a little kid at the Police Athletic League, just knocking those other little kids out, and he was a nine-year-old quarterback on a 14-year-old Pop Warner football team, but basketball was obviously his game. He was one of those kids who grow fast and without awkwardness, a man's body suddenly replacing the usual adolescent frame. He was 6'2" and about 190 pounds when he was in seventh grade. There was a charmed look about him, a special quality. The man's body seemed to have brought along a man's perspective. Who could get out of this place? Who could do something? If anyone could, this kid could.
"We called him the Marshal," Alex (Mud) Gillum, the recreation director at the Redbird Rec Center, says. "That was after Marshal Matt Dillon. Do you know how Matt Dillon goes into a place and just slams his hand on the bar and everything stops? That was Larry. Everybody just looked up and respected him. Our worry never was that he'd get in trouble, but that other people would be so afraid of him—knowing that if he hit 'em with a fist, he'd just kill 'em—that they'd go out and get a gun and shoot him. That was the worry. That someone would be so afraid, he'd shoot Larry."
The court at nearby Green Bay Park eventually became Larry's little theater. The long wait for the next game did not exist for him. Rules were broken. You lost, Larry? I have next game. You're on my team. He was an attraction. The girls would come to watch, and the guys would get out of his way. He rolled around people and through people and over them. He would take Air Greg under the basket and just dunk, every time. How do you like that? Air Greg would foul him to death.
"He ripped the basket off the backboard one day," Williams says. "That's the most impressive thing he ever did. The screws must have been loose, and he hit it the right way—Larry dunks with authority—and the basket came right off the backboard in his hands. The little kids, you should have seen them screaming, even though that ruined the court for a few days. It was an amazing thing to see."
"People still talk about that all the time," Gillum says. "It's amazing that Larry didn't get hurt. All that iron, and the force...the thing came right down on his knees when it fell. You think about the jagged edges just cutting into his leg or something. He stood there at the end, just holding the rim in his hand."
Every day was the same. Basketball. More basketball. The tragic stories rolled through the neighborhood at the usual mindless pace. A kid named Tiny from Johnson's Pop Warner team eventually moved into the crack cocaine, and his body was found with a bullet in it. Another kid, called Pear Head, a good point guard from the playground, eventually was found the same way, body slumped over, a bullet inside. There were stories and more stories. Johnson's story continued in its own direction.
"Guys didn't bother us," Williams says. "I think they just respected Larry. They'd even say, 'Hey, you'd better get out of here,' when they were doing the bad stuff, the drinking, the gambling, whatever. They didn't want him to be a part of it."
"It's just so tough," Gillum says. "Guys start smoking the stuff. You have the Len Bias things happening. Guys die on the court. We had a kid die on the court at the recreation center just last summer. Guys get smoking, and they don't think it's going to affect their ball. The guy was guarding Spud Webb and just fell out. Spud Webb was home for the summer. He took the guy to the hospital in his car. The guy died, just like that. I think Larry, more than anyone, has helped the situation. Kids have been able to look up to him, to see his success. I think Larry has helped a lot."
"He was a rookie for one clay," Hornet guard Kendall Gill says. "He didn't sign his contract until the last day of training camp, so he played the first game of the season after just joining us. We were getting ready to go on the floor for warmups in Boston, and [guard] Dell Curry told Larry that it's a Charlotte tradition that a rookie lead the team out for the first game of the season. Larry went running onto the floor at Boston Garden. We all just stayed hack and watched him and laughed."
That was it. Johnson looked around, realized the joke that had been played on him, then scored 14 points and collected three rebounds in a 111-108 loss to the Celtics. He has averaged 19.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and three assists per game since that opener on Nov. 1, and he has collected double figures in points and rebounds in 43 of the 78 games.
The big jump was to Skyline High. The questions now are about the jump from college to the pros, the difference in abilities and styles, but Johnson says that the big jump was from junior high to high school, from the playground to organized basketball. He was supposed to attend all-black Lincoln High, near his home, but a junior high coach convinced his mother it would be better to send Larry to Skyline, a racially mixed school on the other side of the city. His mother spoke. Johnson went to Skyline.
"I remember going there in ninth grade," he says. "I was known as the kid from South Dallas. 'Uh-oh, here's the kid from South Dallas.' It was a place that was totally different from what I knew. They called it the Skyline Fashion Show. All these kids with all of these clothes. The pretty women. I'd just look around, watch. I'd take the city bus, two transfers, just to get there. It was like a miniature college. I didn't know anyone. Then basketball started."
He gained the instant attention of coach J.D. Mayo. Johnson was not shy. He introduced himself. He said he was good enough to play on the varsity in ninth grade. Mayo smiled. The school has about 3,500 students, a number of them basketball players. There was a freshman team, a junior varsity team and the varsity. Johnson kept petitioning for the varsity.
"First day of the season, there are three games," Mayo says. "The freshman game is first, the varsity game last. Larry plays with the freshmen, but I ask the other coach if it would be all right if I let a freshman sit on the bench for the varsity game too. The coach said there's no problem. Larry plays the freshman game, then there's the junior varsity game and just before the varsity game I have a sudden idea. Why don't I start the kid? Just to see?
"At the half he has eight field goals in eight attempts, one for one from the foul line. He comes over to me and says, 'Coach, how am I doing?' I tell him, 'Larry, if you keep your great attitude and keep working hard, you're going to be fine." Well, he starts every game for four years. We never lose a game at our gym. He was right. He was as good as he said he was."
The new nickname he got from Mayo was Baby. By the end of Johnson's sophomore season, it had been changed to Baby-Man. By the end of his junior season, it was simply Man, and Mayo was telling Johnson and his mother that the NBA was a possibility. Mayo hasn't said this to another player, before or since.
"He knew what he wanted, and he had the body to get it," Mayo says. "I told his mother, 'If he takes care of business, he'll be a household name.' "
Air Greg also went to Skyline and became the big cheerleader in the stands, making jokes as Johnson rolled up and down the court. It was a laugh. Johnson was now just Larry or Big LJ in the school, not the terrifying kid from South Dallas. He fit.
In his senior year he became the top-ranked prospect in the country. The well-known talent scout Bob Gibbons had him ranked 49th, then finally saw him play a game and moved him to fifth. Gibbons later told Johnson he knew he was first, but how could a talent scout be any good if he moved someone from 49th to first that fast? The college coaches started coming, and that was when things became a little messy.
Johnson decided to go to SMU but did not get the 700 required on his SAT to be able to play during his freshman year. He took the test again. He passed the magic number. The SMU administration, spinning from football recruiting scandals, worried about the new score. The administration questioned the second result, meaning Johnson would have to take the test again. Johnson refused on principle. He said, Forget it. He was going to Odessa (Texas) Junior College.
"Odessa never even had recruited him, but another kid from South Dallas, Tony Jackson, was going," Mayo says. "Larry just said he was going to go with Tony. I asked him if he at least knew the name of the coach at Odessa. He didn't know. I didn't know. I had to look the coach's name up in the book and tell him that Larry Johnson wanted to go to his school. The coach said he probably could schedule an interview that afternoon."
It worked. That is the crazy part. It worked. Johnson went to Odessa, and it turned out to be the right place for him. He was the junior college player of the year for two seasons, then moved along to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. That also worked. A national championship in his junior year. Player of the Year in his senior year. It all worked. Well, nearly. He wasn't pictured in any hot tubs with any convicted fixers, but there was a question at one point—the school says it is still investigating the matter—about his use of a $32,000 Corvette. Meanwhile, Johnson did what he always did. He played basketball. He finished, after summer school last year, three courses short of a degree. He says he will get that in the next few years.
"We put up a banner at Skyline," Mayo says. "It is his retired number, and there is a stripe that says he was high school player of the year as a senior, another stripe that says he was junior college player of the year as a freshman, another as a sophomore, another—he was named by somebody. I think—as college player of the year as a junior and another, when he was named by everybody, as Player of the Year as a senior. I left one space open. For this year. NBA Rookie of the Year. Didn't I do the right thing?"
"He doesn't have any weaknesses," Hornet coach Allan Bristow says. "I've been around a lot of great players in my life—George Gavin, Dan Issel, Alex English—hut all of them had weaknesses. I can't think of a weakness for Larry...and this is just a start."
He now owns houseplants. He owns a lot of other things, too, with his Grandmama shoe commercials and his new money—a house on Lake Wylie near Charlotte filled with designer furniture and a Mercedes-Benz and a Corvette and a four-wheel-drive wagon and stereo equipment and clothes and a penthouse in Dallas—but the houseplants are the shock. He walks around his house at one or two in the morning with his watering can. Houseplants. He cannot believe this.
"There's not much else to do at that time around here," he says. "Everything closes. The third night I was in Charlotte, I had a date with a girl. It was about one o'clock, and she asked what I wanted to see next. I asked her to take me to the projects. We went to this place...everybody was sleeping. One o'clock at night. These were low buildings. Everybody was sleeping. I said, "These aren't any kind of projects.' "
Williams is now in the Navy in Norfolk, Va., and he goes down to Charlotte some weekends to visit. Tony Jackson visits. Dortha Johnson is going to visit, but she is busy, shopping for a new house somewhere in Dallas. She drives her new Cadillac while she looks. The highlight of her son's first NBA year, and there have been a number of highlights, was the Hornets' trip to Dallas to play the Mavericks on March 11. Dortha distributed more than 150 tickets, and half of Reunion Arena seemed to be filled with people from South Dallas. Larry lit up the sad Mavericks for 24 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
"I got him going," Gillum says. "I told him those Mavericks were mad that they let him get away, and they'd be coming after him with hacksaws and chain saws and all kinds of hardware. He played like they were coming. Yes, he did."
He has, in fact, played that way from end to end. The story for much of the season was that someone else was going to win the Rookie of the Year award: Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets. It was a pleasant story, to be sure, a player from Zaire, a faraway land, coming to America and conquering adversity and triumphing in the end. Mutombo, still a light for the future, has faltered a bit in the second half, and Johnson has become better and better.
"This is my favorite thing to do in the world," Johnson says. "I drive the Benz back to the projects in South Dallas. I park near the court. I pop the trunk. I play the music from the speakers, and everybody just comes around and we talk. There could be the greatest party ever, just across the street, and I wouldn't go. I'd just stand there and talk with the boys and look at the girls."
He says he did this last summer sometimes. One night, late, real late, a crowd had gathered. A number of impressive cars had been parked next to the Benz. Everyone was talking and laughing. A patrol car arrived and the policemen took note of the gathering and ran a check on all of the license plates. One of the policemen came from the cruiser and asked to talk to Larry Johnson. He said he was surprised that Larry Johnson would be in this place. He warned him that this was a place of trouble. Johnson pointed at a window across the street.
"See that?" he said. "That's where I lived. This is where I spent most of my life. I shouldn't be here? This is home. I don't forget home."