His post-three-pointer arm thing was just one reason I hated LJ.
I didn't always hate Larry Johnson. I started out as a huge fan.
LJ had an amazing college career, leading UNLV to the 1990 NCAA title by downing Christian Laettner's Duke Dookie squad in the championship game. The next year, UNLV finished the regular season with a perfect record (27-0) and looked like a mortal lock to repeat as NCAA champs...until the Dookies knocked them off in the Final Four.
Still, Johnson earned all sorts of awards and honors -- First Team All-American, Big West Conference Player of the Year, the John R. Wooden Award, and the Naismith College Player of the Year award to name a few -- and ended up being selected first overall in the 1991 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets.
LJ was an instant success, averaging 19.2 PPG and 11.0 RPG, finishing with three Rookie of the Month awards (December, February, and March), and being named NBA Rookie of the Year. He also took second place (to Cedric Ceballos) in the 1992 Slam Dunk Contest.
Johnson was a laughing, likeable, larger than life personality. Sort of like a more easy-going Charles Barkley. He seemed to genuinely love the game and played with serious intensity without taking himself too seriously, as evidenced by his classic "Grandmama" commercials:
Still, LJ's talent wasn't enough to turn the expansion Hornets around, and Charlotte finished the 1991-92 season with a record of 31-51 (meaning Johnson was only 0.8 PPG away from joining the 20-10-50 club). Mind you, when that season opened, Larry's fellow starters included Johnny Newman, J.R. Reid, Kendall Gill and Rex Chapman. And, by season's end, the starting five was LJ, Gill, Newman, Kenny Gattison and Muggsy Bogues.
Not exactly an All-Star team. It was barely an All-Mediocre team.
However, losing has its benefits, and the Hornets ended up with the second pick in the 1992 NBA draft. They used it to select Alonzo Mourning.
After adding 'Zo, Charlotte jumped to 44 wins and a first round "upset" of the Boston Celtics. I put the quotes there because Larry Bird had retired, Kevin McHale was playing on half a leg (although he almost won Game 2 single-handedly with a turn-back-the-clock 30-point, 10-rebound, 0-assist performance), Robert Parish was well over 100 years old, and Reggie Lewis collapsed during Game 1 (the only game Boston won) and never played in another professional basketball game. (Sadly, Reggie had a heart condition and died a few months later.)
That series was immortalized by this shot:
High drama! And, sure, the Hornets were rather easily dispatched by the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semis, but many people still had them pegged as The Team of the Future. Unfortunately, although nobody could have possibly known it at the time, Zo's game-winner was the apex of the Johnson-Mourning era in Charlotte.
Things started to take a turn for the worse as early as the next October when LJ signed a 12-year contract worth $84 million. At the time, it was the most lucrative contract in NBA history. Said Hornets owner George Shinn: "He's the leader of this team, and he will always be the leader of this team."
Unfortunately for Shinn and the Hornets, their leader injured his back two months later and went on to miss 31 games. Meanwhile, Mourning missed 22 games himself, and Charlotte's final win total of 41 wasn't enough to make the playoffs.
Trouble was brewing, folks. Mourning was jealous of Johnson's role as "team leader," and he was even more jealous of LJ's big-money contract. Mind you, there relationship had gotten off to a rocky start from the beginning. According to ESPN's Jeff Merron: "Johnson and Mourning, Charlotte Hornets teammates from 1992 to 1995, never got along. Johnson taunted Mourning in 1992, showing him his NBA Rookie of the Year leather coat, and saying, 'Hey, young fellow, if you play real hard you might get one of these jackets.' All the Hornets who heard the quip laughed -- except Mourning."
Their relationship apparently never recovered from that incident (among others). To make matters worse, Larry never really regained his hyper-athletic form after his back injury and started to transform from "dominant inside player" to "long-distance jump shooter." The season after his back injury, he went from 21 three-point attempts to 210.
Meanwhile, it was clear that Mourning had displaced Johnson as the team's best player. Not surprisingly, he wanted to be treated and, more importantly, paid like it. According to some sources, Mourning -- who was due to become a free agent after the 1994-95 season -- rejected a contract offer worth $100 million over 11 years.
Team president Spencer Stolpen told the Charlotte Observer: "I think people understand we have to do everything within reason to re-sign Alonzo Mourning. Would those season ticketholders accept a 50 percent increase? I don't know. Would those fans clamor for us to re-sign a player if that meant the team couldn't make a profit, it meant we'd eventually go out of business? Would fans clamor for us to sign a player if, in light of that player's contract, we couldn't sign anyone else for more than the minimum? Those are distinct possibilities."
Of course, such considerations hadn't been made when Johnson was re-upping for insane amounts of cash. But that was then. And this was now.
It's worth noting at this point that Mourning's agent was David Falk, so it should be no surprise that the Hornets weren't able to re-sign Alonzo, who was ultimately traded to the Miami Heat for Glen Rice, Matt Geiger, Khalid Reeves and a draft pick.
Just like that, the Johnson and Mourning era ended. LJ lasted only one more season with the Hornets before getting shipped to New York for Anthony Mason and (ha!) Brad Lohaus. Johnson's trade was the culmination of a brutal nine-month period in which Charlotte traded away 'Zo, Kobe Bryant (who had been selected in the 1996 draft, claimed he would never play in Charlotte, and was thus sent to L.A. for Vlade Divac) and LJ. Those moves -- combined with Johnson's original killer contract and back injury -- essentially destroyed the franchise. (Although, in all fairness, they did manage back-to-back 50-win seasons after the Johnson trade.)
Even worse, all the feuding, greed, and mismanagement -- in addition to rape allegations against Shinn and Shinn's insistence that the city fund an expensive new arena -- torpedoed the team's popularity. With the city's bubbling love turned into bitter hate, the Hornets relocated to New Orleans after the 2001-02 season.
Anyway, Johnson went on to become a very highly paid role player for the Knicks, and his tenure in New York is best known for his fight with Mourning (during which Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was rather infamously dragged around on 'Zo's leg)...
...and his freaking four-point bullshit play against the Pacers:
What has gotten somewhat lost to history was the incident during the 1999 NBA Finals when Johnson called the Knicks a bunch of "rebellious slaves." This drew the ire of Bill Walton, who called Johnson's comments "a disgrace." Actually, here's the full transcript of Walton's outrage (following LJ's 2-for-8 performance in a Game 4 loss):
"Larry Johnson, who spent the last 48 hours railing against the world, what a pathetic performance by this sad human being. This is a disgrace to the game of basketball and to the NBA. He played like a disgrace tonight, he deserved it."
You just knew LJ wasn't going to let that go. And he didn't. Despite the best efforts of the Knicks' PR staff, Johnson proceeded to go on a verbal rampage:
"You know what, I respect Bill. For the longest, Bill has been killing me on TV and my family, but when he sees me, you know, he's shuckin' and fussin' and going on. Don't come at me like that. If I'm on fire, don't spit on me. If you're on fire, I don't spit on you. That's respect.
"If [the Spurs] beat us, I know y'all are going to make it the last run. I'm going to be cute with my slaves quotes, which is 100 percent true, a 100 percent true.
"Y'all know it. Damn Bill Walton. Tell him to trace his history and see how many slaves his ancestors had. Y'all trace y'all history and see how many slaves y'all ancestors had. Come on, now. That's a touchy subject. But why does the truth always hurt?"
It didn't stop there.
Referring to Spurs point guard Avery Johnson: "Ave, man, we're from the same plantation. You tell Bill Walton that. We from Massa Johnson's plantation. I love Ave, all the negativity he's been through. Good brother, hell of a dude on an off the court."
It still didn't stop.
"No one man can rise above the masses of the condition of his people. Understand that. So I am privileged and honored by the situation that I'm in, no question.
"Here's the NBA, full of blacks, great opportunities, they made beautiful strides. But what's the sense of that ... when I go back to my neighborhood and see the same thing? I'm the only one who came out of my neighborhood. Everybody ended up dead, in jail, on drugs, selling drugs. So I'm supposed to be honored and happy or whatever by my success. Yes, I am. But I can't deny the fact of what has happened to us over years and years and years and we're still at the bottom of the totem pole."
And that was it. That was the point at which I could no longer take Larry Johnson. He had fallen from NCAA golden boy and potential NBA superstar/co-savior to the guy whose greed (in part) helped blow up the league's salary scale and derailed (along with an equally culpable Mourning) a potentially all-time forward/center due. Worse yet, he ended up in one of the most reviled fights in Association history and followed that up with one of the most ridiculous race-inspired rants ever spouted by a pro baller.
By the time he finally faded away -- back problems and his declining skills forced an early retirement -- there was virtually nothing left of of the smiling, happy man child who was going to change the NBA. He didn't even want a fond farewell from the Knicks.
Johnson's agent, George Bass, said: "The Knicks offered all of that -- a halftime ceremony and everything else -- but Larry said, 'I appreciate that, but I'm going to pass. Ihope he'll change and we can do that some time, but as it stands now, he'd just rather move on."
Of course, despite retiring, Johnson wanted a buyout and ended up receiving the entire $25.85 million that remained on his contract.