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Larry Johnson reflects on his college and NBA career while also sharing what Zion Williamson needs to do to be dominant in the NBA: "I think Zion needs to dunk more"

We had the opportunity to catch up with NBA legend Larry Johnson and revisit some of the most iconic moments from his college and NBA career while also hearing what he admires about the league and its players today
Larry Johnson had an astonishing college and NBA career

Larry Johnson had an astonishing college and NBA career

When talking about some of the most prominent players in the NBA from the 90's, Larry Johnson definitely belongs on that list. Johnson was a tremendous college player at UNLV, with whom he won the NCAA championship in 1990 and followed that by being named college player of the year in 1991. 

Johnson was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, who at the time had a good team that regularly made the playoffs. During those years, Johnson was one of the most popular players in the league, becoming a fan favorite while signing a shoe deal with Converse that landed him the famous Grandmama commercial, which was one of the most notable at that time. 

Following potential career-ending injuries from which he was able to come back, Johnson evolved as a player and found a new home in New York as a member of the Knicks. The Knicks had a deep squad that featured several great players on the roster, with Johnson being the starting small forward. They made it to the NBA Finals once, and even though they never won a championship, that Knicks squad marked their era.

Johnson retired from the league at the age of 31, way too early by today's standards, but he will always be remembered as one of the most prominent players of that era. 

We were able to catch up with Larry in an interview amid his launch of the new website, where fans have the opportunity to get in touch with him directly while also revisiting some of his best moments from in the NBA and at UNLV. We discussed his life outside of the NBA and the business he is running right now but also touched upon several memorable moments from his career and the way he sees the NBA and the league as a whole today. Larry's fans will also get more information on how they could win signed jerseys from all the major teams he played for in his college and NBA career.

It's a pleasure to do this interview with you, especially now that you're in the process of launching your new website and actually getting more into the digital space. So how is that process been going so far for you, and what is your goal with the new rebrand and the upcoming website?

The process has been going great. We're fairly new. We probably been going for about a month now, so I know it's not just going to happen overnight, but to get back out there and get my name back out there. The process has been going great with selling some products, and as you said, we've got some good feedback from people.

That's definitely good to hear. Fans have the opportunity to win some of the unique jerseys that you wore throughout your career, even the ones from your college days. When you look back at your early college career, you already became a well-known player in the country after winning the 1990 NCAA Championship against Duke. What is your favorite memory from that entire experience early on in your career?

Well, early, UNLV was such a good team, and I only went to UNLV for two years. So to go to the Final Four and win it one time, both years, and winning it one time, we were considered one of the greatest teams to ever play the game, the college team. We still keep in touch with those guys. Those guys are still great guys and still good friends of mine. And the process was just great. To be known as one of the greatest all-time college teams of all time, we just love it.

Like you said, you had a hell of a squad back in college where alongside yourself, you played with Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony; they both had respectable careers in the NBA. Did you guys stay close when you all got drafted into the league as well?

Yes, we stayed close. We actually wore the same number for a while - number two. We were all three drafted pretty high, and we just wanted to do something to remember UNLV, so we all wore number two, so we stayed close. It was great playing against those guys, and we would always come back to Vegas, too.

You faced Duke University twice in a row in those Final Four games. You won the first one. They were able to get the best out of you in the second one. What made that rivalry so special, especially knowing the fact that you faced a team that had a few remarkable future NBA players on their roster as well?

Oh, it was a good rivalry. It was only two years. Like I said, I only played in college for two years. So just to have those great teams to play against the other Duke great teams for two years, it was a good rivalry. We won one, and then we lost one, and then those guys had some great guys to play in NBA, too. So whenever you think about it, you think about like a couple of two good college teams playing with some great players, and it's just something to remember at all times. And like I said, to just go down in history as one of the greatest teams and one of the greatest rivalries, we just love it.

You were actually the college player of the year in 1991, and you were the first-round pick in the NBA draft the same year. Going back to those early days, did you feel any type of pressure from everyone around you before getting drafted to the NBA at such an early age?

Not really. I was so young that I was just loving the moment because I've been playing basketball at the time, and I was 19,20, and I've been loving basketball my whole life. It was almost like a dream come true. So it wasn't like any pressure because we were hard workers. Considered the number one pick or considered like a college player of the year if I didn't think that I deserved it, and then that's when the kind of pressure comes in. But with all of the hard work and the people behind me, the coaches, coach Tarkanian, UNLV all the players behind me, there was really no pressure. All I had to do was focus and go out and perform.

You were drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, which at that time were trying to build, and were building an up-and-coming squad that became a legitimate playoff team for several years in a row. When you look back at your time with the Hornets, what do you think the team was missing for you to make that next step and become a legitimate title contender in the NBA?

With Charlotte, we were a young team. I was young. Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Alonzo Mourning, Kendall Gill. We had some young talent that was up and coming. I think our best team was probably my third year. We won the first playoff game, we beat Boston, and then we ended up losing to New York Knicks next in the second round. I think that was the most talented team, but we needed maybe one or two more players, like a big man that could get us another ten points and ten rebounds and maybe like a guard that can score more from the outside. We just needed like a couple of more pieces to put together. But we were right there. We were young, we were hungry, guys wanted to prove themselves, but yeah, it was just a couple of more pieces that we needed.

Going back to those years, those early years in Charlotte, when talking about your career, we all remember those Slam Dunk contests in the early 90s. You came as a runner-up to Cedric Ceballos in the 1992 Dunk Contest that also featured Shawn Kemp, John Starks, and Stacey Augmon was also there. What was it like competing against those guys in a Slam Dunk contest? 

Yeah, well, back then, you come up in high school, and you come up in college watching the slam dunk contest, and then you're getting these amazing dunks in college, you're getting these amazing dunks in high school, and it's just a dream. Like, oh boy, I'm making it to the NBA, I'm going to be in a dunk contest, and I'm going to do this dunk, I'm going to do that dunk. Basically, you already have your dunks you want to do two years before you get to the dunk contest. It's a little nervous because once you do get there, once we were there, and you walk out in the spotlight, it's different from dunking in a basketball game to just having the whole gym watch you do your normal dunk. It's actually a little bit more pressure. In a basketball game, you are just playing the game, and all of a sudden, here comes a dunk. You get a fast break, here comes a dunk, or you get a chance for an alley-oop, and here comes a dunk. That happens, like, spontaneously in the game, but now you are forced to say, all right, I'm going to do this dunk with everybody watching it but nobody but me on the court. Just a little nerve-wracking. But again, I have been practicing that moment for years.

Larry Johnson in the 1992 Dunk Contest

Larry Johnson was a runner-up in the 1992 Dunk Contest

Talking about the dunk contest, which is when you look at what is happening right now, it's heavily criticized because the fans think it lost the excitement that it once had. Do you perhaps have any ideas on what needs to be changed to make the contest more appealing to the audience again?

Not really. These guys still are amazing athletes and can do some amazing dunks. If I would say, if it's not working for the fans, maybe you should just go back to the old form. There was nothing wrong with it when I was in a dunk contest with Michael Jordan. Maybe you should go back to that platform instead of the one you have now. That's about the only criticism I would have.

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Going back to your early days in the NBA, you became a superstar very early on. Back in the day, you did one of the most recognizable commercials with Converse. I saw an interview later on where you said that you were kind of disappointed because they changed up the idea for the commercial. Can you elaborate on what happened there and what you thought would happen with the commercial initially?

I signed with Converse coming out of college, and they really wanted me, and they had Ideas for commercials, and they really actually pitched another commercial to me early that didn't have anything to do with Grandmama. And then, once we got into the season, that's when they came up with the Grandmama concept. They had some young guys that were doing the commercials, and the young guys wanted something different from a normal shoe commercial. That's how they came up with this Converse ad because they just didn't want to do a normal shoe commercial that was being done at that time with guys just playing basketball and dunking. They wanted to have a little pitch to it, a little hitch to it. And that's when they came up with the Grandmama concept. I think I was with Converse maybe six or seven years, and the whole six or seven years, we was doing Grandmama commercials, and I kept saying to the guys, hey, I was the number one pick. Hey, I was a rookie of the player, and I wanted to do, like, a Larry Johnson commercial, like one that was just for me. So we had fun with it. I had fun with it. My mom loved it, but I was always pitching Converse to do a Larry Johnson commercial. And I think we did one or two with just me, without Grandmama, and they did that just to make me happy. But Grandmama was something we did, and it took off, and the people loved it, and we had success with it.

You're also a great example of a player that made a great return from serious injuries after signing with the New York Knicks. Afterward, you had a few great years in the NBA and even made it to the NBA finals. What was it like getting back there and competing on the highest level of basketball after suffering injuries that, for some players, would be career-ending?

I tell people this all the time in the NBA. You have guys like LeBron James, and you have these other guys that go to the NBA Finals like every other year, Stephen Curry and these guys. But during my time, the talent was so spread out over the league that if you made it to the NBA Finals, you may not get back there for another five years. So I only made it in my whole career, I only made it to one NBA finals, and it's like a totally different season because we made it. We played San Antonio Spurs, but once you look at it, and once you just come down, I would say, 'Hey, man, there's no other basketball being played but us. There's no game behind us; there's no game Tuesday, there's no game in front of us. Everybody's just waiting to see New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs.' So it was just a great different atmosphere at that time. I can remember Stacey Augmon and some of the college guys calling me because they wasn't playing. They're like, 'Oh, man; you'll go get them.' Giving me encouragement and wishing me good luck. But it was just amazing to be the only two professional teams playing at that time, and it was just awesome to be in the finals, and I enjoyed it. We came up a little short because our big man, our best player, Patrick Ewing, was hurt, and he had to miss the Finals.

You had a promising team with the Knicks during those years, and you were a legitimate playoff contender for a few seasons. What made that squad special, but also at the same time different than the one that you had in Charlotte with the Hornets?

I think we just had a little bit more talent in New York. We had Patrick Ewing, who was considered one of the top 50 players that ever played the game. At the time, we had traded for Allan Houston, who was probably when I was in New York with Allen, the top three two guards and definitely the top one or two shooters in the NBA. We had a guy by the name of Latrell Sprewell, who was on the top of his game, and a young guy by the name of Marcus Camby. We had a strong bench. I think our bench was much stronger in New York than in Charlotte. In Charlotte, we may have went seven, maybe eight guys deep, but in New York, we was literally eight to nine to ten guys that could get on the floor and produce. I think it was all about talent. We just had a little bit more talent in New York.

Looking back at the way the league evolved since you retired, do you even watch the NBA today, and if so, who are your favorite players?

Of course, I try to catch as many games as I can, but just here recently, I was back with the New York Knicks and doing their public relations. I mean, I didn't have anything with the team. I was just doing the public relations. I was doing the stuff in the community, myself and John Starks. So I'm definitely a Knick; I watched my Knicks as much as possible, trying to catch every game. As far as players, I just think, of course, everybody talk about the league, and the league is not as physical as when I played, but it's still a lot of basketball talent going on. But it's just not a big defensive, grind and dine, down low with big man seven-footers banging it out. It's just not that league anymore. It's more of up-and-down showtime, high-flying, athletic league. But I still love the way we played. So guys like Kawhi Leonard, who's coming back from his knee injury with the Clippers, but Kawhi, when he was at San Antonio when he was winning championships, he played defense and offense. So guys like that I really like to watch, and that's probably my number one guy in the NBA right now, would be somebody like Kawhi Leonard.

That's interesting to hear, and especially what you mentioned, he's planning a big return this season, and he's a legitimate two-way player. Looking at the game as a whole today, what are some of the things that you like or dislike about the game today compared to when you were playing in the NBA?

Well, again, I dislike that everybody is a three-point shooter. I mean, they call it a small ball now. If you play small ball and you put five guys out there that are 6'6", or 6'7" and under, then you would expect a whole bunch of three-pointers up. When you start playing seven-footers and 6'11''guys that rather play outside than inside, I don't know if I'm a big fan of that. I'd rather see more seven-footers and 6'11" guys in the paint getting their work done in the paint and banging and dunking on people. But these guys are now so athletic. You have these guys that are playing point guards and two guards, and they are just so athletic as far as jumping, and the game is much quicker now. It's more of an athletic game now, so I love to see that. As far as shooting, I think you have more pure shooters in NBA now than what I played, so I love to see good shooting.

There were also a lot of talks about the comparison between you and Zion Williamson. Do you actually see that comparison at all? Do you see that there's any relevance there?

A little bit. I think that they're really looking at our body type and our height because Zion is more a player down low, and I'm a player down low. I played down low, but both of us are around 6'6," but we're playing against seven footers and 6'10" guys. But we were both bulkier. So I think the comparison is there when you look at our body type and the way we play. But I think I was a little better outside player than Zion as far as shooting 15-footers and shooting three-pointers, and I think Zion is a much more explosive player than I am. The comparison is there, but we are two different types of players.

What would be some of the adjustments that Zion needs to make, and what would be your advice to Zion in terms of adjustments that he needs to make on and off the court to play at the highest level as long as possible? There are some people who say that he should be dunking less; what are your thoughts about that specifically?

No, I don't think Zion should be dunking less. I think he should be dunking more as much as possible. I think Zion, for me, needs to work on his outside game a little bit more. If teams are smart, they're going to play him not to drive to the basket. So, like, if I was in a league and I was guarding Zion, I'm going to make sure he doesn't get to the basket. So I may give him 3 to 4 feet and back up a little bit. He has to be able to knock that down so guys can't play him just like that. I see Zion is real left-hand oriented. I would work on that righthand too. You got to finish more with your right than your left. But he needs to get a little bit better outside game and a better right hand, and I think he's going to be okay.

Looking back at the time when you were in the NBA, a lot of fans would say that was the golden era of the league. And you also mentioned that the talent was very spread out in the league. Which players, if any, did you consider your biggest rivals during your time in the league?

Oh, yeah, I had a couple. I mean myself and Derek Coleman had some battles, and the battle started because he was the number one pick the year before I was the number one pick. So he was a young gun, and I was a young gun, and we were both number one picks. So we were definitely trying to prove ourselves against each other. A guy by the name of Shawn Kemp. I had some great battles with Shawn Kemp, and simply, again, we were both young. Shawn Kemp was in junior college, and I was in junior college, so we were battling each other for a long time. And once we got to the league, that battle continued. Of course, guys like Charles Barkley, he was one of the guys I was watching coming up, and I kind of patterned my game after. So I couldn't wait to just get my skills against Charles Barkley and put our skills up against each other; that was great. It was always an honor, and it was always a battle when I battled Karl Malone, simply because, at that time, Malone was like the number one power forward in NBA. So you always got up for those types of games, and you enjoyed those battles.

Larry Johnson had his fair share of battles with Karl Malone, who he considered the greatest power forward when he played in the NBA

Larry had his share of battles with Karl Malone, who he considered the best power forward in the NBA 

Was there any specific way you would prepare for each and every one of those matchups? Was the way you prepare for Barkley different from the way you prepare for Kemp or Karl Malone? Obviously, they were different types of players but was your process the same or a bit different, or you had to adjust certain things?

Well, the process was always the same, which is hard work, but since these are all different types of players, you played them differently. But it didn't take away from the process of working hard and going out and giving that effort. Like Shawn Kemp, I was just talking about Zion Williamson. When I played against Shawn, my main thing was not to let him dunk because Shawn didn't have a strong shooting game. At the end of his career, he shot it a little better, but I would rather have Shawn's shooting turnaround jumpers or jump hooks than dunking the basketball. But then, when it came to Barkley, Barkley was a hell of an outside shooter, so you had to get more up on Barkley, so you just played them differently. But the process of preparing for the game was all the same, which was a mental focus and hard work.

I've read the story about your first encounter with Michael Jordan when he asked you about he was talking about your mom to throw you off your game. Was that the worst trash-talking moment you ever experienced? Can you think of any other that comes to mind?

Well, not really, because all we did was trash talk. But honestly, I never really talked with Michael. I met Michael when I was coming out of college, and he was playing well; actually, I was coming out of high school, and they were playing Dallas Mavericks. Chicago Bulls came to Dallas to play Dallas Mavericks. I just won all of the high school accolades -- Dallas player of the year, Texas player of the year -- so I was in the paper almost every day for about a week. And then here comes Chicago Bulls. They were asking me in the paper who was my favorite player, who I would idolize, and my favorite player that I idolized was Doctor J. But I also mentioned Michael Jordan's name, too. So I got to go to that game, and I met Michael at high school, so he knew me, and he knew of me. So here, four years later, I'm in the NBA, and I think I got to school. He got my mom's name out of the brochure. So you look at the brochure before the game; they have your whole family history there. So I think he pulled me off my game by letting me know he knew my mom's name. And he just asked me' How is Dorothy?' Because my mother's name is Dorothy. So that was the first thing he said to me when we walked out to play. How is Dorothy doing? I'm like, 'Oh, man, she's doing all right.' But for the first five minutes of the game, I was shook because he knew my mom's name. When it comes to trash talking, some of the best trash talkers was Reggie Miller. When Reggie Miller hit a jumper, and he let you know about it, Michael didn't do too much trash talking, but Larry Bird would sure let you know when he was kicking your butt. So everybody trash-talked in the NBA.

Do you think they will ever change this to the way it was when you were playing, or it's just a generational thing where players are no longer inclined to trash talk the same way you guys did back in the day?

I consider it more of a generational thing. These guys play with each other more off-season, and they get together more. So I think it's more of a generational thing than a league thing.

Larry Johnson is organizing a giveaway, so if you want to win some of the personalized prizes from Larry's illustrious college and NBA career, the only thing you have to do is go to the website www.larryjohnson2.com and then like Larry's Facebook or Twitter page. 

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