Few players have come through the Charlotte Hornets organization and left a bigger impact from both a basketball and cultural standpoint than the legendary Larry Johnson. It was the summer of 1991 and the Charlotte Hornets had just come off a 26-56 season, a seven-game improvement over the previous year. Despite the improvement, that record helped give the Hornets the number one pick in the draft.
Taken with the first overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft more than 25 years ago, Johnson’s tenacious scoring and rebounding abilities were invaluable to the Hornets in their early years, but his influence off the court was just as important in transforming Charlotte into a big-time basketball city.
Johnson had a brief, but a stellar career at UNLV, earning two First Team All-American honors, a National Championship, and a National Player of the Year award. All of this was in just two seasons with the Runnin’ Rebels.
Essentially a full-time starter from the beginning of his NBA career, Johnson’s 6-7, 250-pound frame immediately brought an explosive element of toughness and physicality to a relatively young Hornets team. It didn’t take long for Johnson to live up to high expectations. Johnson averaged 19.1 points and 11 rebounds per game on way to earning Rookie of the Year honors. Sadly, the team only marginally improved, finishing the season 31-51.
“He was amazing for his size. He was a beast [and] a tough guy [who] did so many things well,” Curry added. “He was one of my all-time favorite teammates.”
“If he hadn’t hurt his back, he could have been one of the greatest,” said Hornets associate Head Coach Patrick Ewing, who played four seasons with Johnson in New York. “He could play with the bigs even though he was undersized. He was quick enough to put it on the floor [and] savvy enough that once that athleticism left, that he could still be effective.”
As Johnson became one of the NBA’s brightest young talents on the court, he was also quickly developing into one of the league’s most recognizable stars off of it. Known commonly as “LJ” at the time, Johnson was also widely connected to his “Grandmama” persona stemming from a series of Converse shoe commercials in which he dressed as an older woman playing basketball. He made television appearances and even played himself in the movies Eddie and Space Jam, the latter of which remains a cult classic among NBA fans.
After having a couple of remarkable seasons with the Hornets Larry was traded to the Knicks in a deal for Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus. He went on to finish his career there, playing five more seasons, though he never quite played the way he did in Charlotte.
Although he only played five seasons in Charlotte, LJ ranks among the best. He’s still in the franchise’s top five in scoring, rebounds and minutes played. Still, in many ways, his cultural impact overstates his stat line