Larry Johnson (born March 14, 1969) is an American former professional basketball player who spent his career as a power forward with the Charlotte Hornets and the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association (NBA). As one of the true pop-culture icons of the 90’s Larry became a household name as “Grandmama” thanks to his Converse endorsement and also had the honor of being selected as a member of the Dreamteam II in 1994.
As a member of multiple hall of fame’s, it is safe to say that Larry Johnson left an undeniable mark on the game of basketball.
Continue reading below for a detailed timeline of Larry career and achievements.
High School Career
Larry was a standout player for Skyline Highschool in Dallas, TX, eventually being inducted into the Dallas ISD Hall of Fame. In his senior year of high school, Johnson was a member of the 1987 McDonald’s High School All-American Team.
Johnson originally made a verbal commitment to Southern Methodist University but began his collegiate career at Odessa College in Texas. He played in the 1987–88 and 1988–89 seasons where he averaged 22.3 points per game as a first-year student and over 29 points per game his sophomore year, and became the first—and to date, only—player ever to win the National Junior College Athletic Association Division 1 Player of the Year award both years he played. There were even some basketball analysts who believed Johnson could have been a first-round selection in the 1989 NBA draft (even an NBA lottery selection) if he had declared for early entry.
Johnson eventually transferred to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) to play under head coach Jerry Tarkanian. Alongside future NBA players Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, Johnson faced the Duke Blue Devils in the title game of the 1990 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament. UNLV went on to win the contest by a score of 103–73, with Johnson contributing 22 points and 11 rebounds. The Runnin’ Rebels set numerous NCAA records in the tournament, including simultaneous NCAA records for the largest margin of victory and highest score in an NCAA Tournament championship game.
In a post-season mired by charges of recruiting violations and misconduct by UNLV, an agreement was reached between the university and the NCAA to allow for the defense of their title for the 1990–91 season, which would be followed by a suspension from post-season play the following season. Johnson and the Runnin’ Rebels responded with a perfect regular season record of 27–0, with an average scoring margin of 26.7 points per game; this total included a 112–105 victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks, ranked second in the country at the time.
In the 1991 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, UNLV won the West Regional Tournament only to be upset by eventual champion Duke in the Final Four. Johnson was named a First Team All-American twice and won the Big West Conference Player of the Year and tournament Most Valuable Player awards in 1990 and 1991. He also won the prestigious John R. Wooden Award and was named Naismith College Player of the Year in 1991. To this day, Johnson is ranked 12th in career scoring and 7th in rebounding at UNLV despite playing only two seasons. He also holds the record for single-season and career field goal percentage. In 2002, Johnson and teammates Augmon and Anthony were inducted into the UNLV Athletic Hall of Fame along with the 1990–91 UNLV men’s basketball team. To date they are the only UNLV team to make back-to-back Final Four appearances.
Charlotte Hornets (1991–1996)
Johnson was selected first overall in the 1991 NBA draft by the Charlotte Hornets and won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award in his first season. He also competed in the 1992 Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Orlando, finishing second to Cedric Ceballos of the Phoenix Suns.
In 1993, Johnson was voted to start in that year’s All-Star Game, making him the first Hornet in franchise history to receive that honor; he enjoyed his best statistical season with averages of 22.1 points per game and 10.5 rebounds per game in 82 games, which earned him All-NBA Second Team honors. Along with Alonzo Mourning, Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry, Johnson played with the Hornets at the height of their popularity in the early to mid-1990s. During this time, Johnson, who went by his initialism “LJ” and the nickname “Grandmama” (because of a popular series of commercials for Converse, who signed Johnson to an endorsement contract following his entry into the NBA), was featured on the cover of the premiere issue of SLAM.
In October 1993, Johnson signed what was at the time the most lucrative contract in NBA history, a 12-year, $84 million deal with the Hornets. However, he missed 31 games after spraining his back on December 27, 1993, in a game against the Detroit Pistons. During the summer he played for the U.S. national team (nicknamed Dream Team II) in the 1994 FIBA World Championship, winning the gold medal.
Johnson had entered the league as an explosive power forward, averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. However, after the injury to his back, Johnson was forced to develop an all-around game with an improved outside shot. In the 1994–95 season, he made 81 three-pointers, 60 more than in his first three years combined, and was selected to the 1995 NBA All-Star Game.
Friction between Johnson and Mourning forced the organization to make a change, and the resulting moves made by the Hornets left both players on other teams. Prior to the 1995–96 season, Mourning was traded to the Miami Heat for Glen Rice and Matt Geiger. Following that season, Johnson was dealt to the New York Knicks for Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus.
New York Knicks (1996–2001)
Johnson averaged 12.8 points, a career-low, in his first season as a Knick, and although he would never return to his former All-Star form, he was a key member of the Knicks’ 1999 Eastern Conference championship team.
During Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he was involved in a critical play in which he was fouled by Antonio Davis of the Indiana Pacers. Standing outside the three-point line with 11.9 seconds left, Johnson held the ball, and then began to dribble. He leaned into defender Davis before jumping up. The referee called the foul about a half-second before Johnson released the ball, but it was counted as a continuation shooting foul. Johnson made the shot and converted the free throw following the basket for a four-point play, which turned out to be the winning margin in a 92-91 Knicks victory.
On October 10, 2001, Johnson announced his early retirement from basketball due to chronic back problems that had plagued him for several years, after his point production had decreased for three straight years.
In July 2007, Johnson expressed interest in making a comeback with the Knicks in some type of “leadership role”. On December 21, 2007, Johnson received a Bachelor of Arts degree in social science studies from UNLV. He was hired by the Knicks as a basketball and business operations representative on April 8, 2012. In 2008, Johnson was inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. In 2014, he was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Larry currently resides in a suburb of Las Vegas. He spends his time traveling and participating in numerous charitable organizations. Larry is in high demand for his guest and keynote speaking engagements. Larry stays active with public appearances and virtual experiences. Larry is active with the Knicks when schedules permit.
Film and Television
In 1991, Converse Co-created the Grandmama commercial featuring Larry Johnson as Grandmama. The made for television commercial which existed until 1996 was one of the best ad campaigns of its time. Numerous industry awards for the Grandmama Converse television ad skit. In 1993, Johnson appeared in the episode “Grandmama” of the sitcom Family Matters as his alter ego “Grandmama”, who becomes Steve Urkel’s teammate in a basketball tournament. Later that year, he was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. Three years later he appeared as himself in the movies Eddie and Space Jam; in the latter he had a supporting role as a fictionalized version of himself. He was one of the NBA stars who had their basketball abilities stolen alongside Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing. At the time of this writing Larry Johnson has been a virtual all-star in the e-sports platform. Larry has been a part of NBA2K for 2021, 2022 and renewed for 2023.