Larry Johnson is known to many people as the intimidating basketball player that led a competitive Charlotte Hornets NBA franchise as a forward in the 1990s. Other folks may best known his name because of the tough guy personality that appeared in notable shoe commercials as alter ego Grandmama (Johnson dressed in drag as an elderly women with exceptional basketball skills and athleticism). Finally, a specific niche of now young adults that were the target market age when the movie Space Jam (starring Michael Jordan alongside Bugs Bunny) came out in 1996 best associate him alongside a hodgepodge of NBA players who mysteriously lost their basketball powers to cartoon aliens. In addition to Larry Johnson the motley crew of NBA players whose basketball skills were fictionally zapped by aliens included Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Patrick Ewing, and Mugsy Bogus.
Long before the movie Spam Jam came out or the character Grandmama was selling shoes Johnson was making his mark with the University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) Runnin’ Rebels where he led the team to its only NCAA tournament basketball national championship in 1990. Larry Johnson, also commonly referred to as LJ, did not join the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels hoops team right out of high school, and instead the Texas native first began his collegiate career at Odessa College. After playing one season (1988-1989) with the Odessa, Texas based junior college LJ made the move to Las Vegas and joined the Runnin’ Rebels team where he made an immediate impact.
While playing for coach Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV Johnson had the benefit of playing with two other future NBA players in Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon (who had the curious nickname “plastic man” as a result of his unique ability to stretch). The 1990 March Madness run that the Rebels team made for the Final Four ended with a matchup against the high profile Duke Blue Devils. In a championship game that the media hyped as a matchup between contrasting styles of play the Duke University team led by Christian Laettner was described as a fundamentally sound and disciplined team while the Larry Johnson led UNLV team was labeled an athletic squad that had a more physical street ball style of play. Ultimately in what was expected to be a competitive game for the ages the UNLV Rebels ran away with the championship 103-73 in a game in which the Las Vegas team set NCAA records for most points and the largest margin of victory in a championship game. Larry Johnson pitched in 22 points and 11 boards in a contest that was largely decided well before the final buzzer.
Larry Johnson’s team would go unbeaten in the regular season the following year posting a record of 27-0 before being upset in the Final Four by the Duke Blue Devils who would go on to win successive national championships after being dismantled by the Runnin’ Rebels in the first of three consecutive trips to the championship game.
Larry Johnson was named a First Team All-American in each of his two seasons at UNLV and even won the coveted Naismith College Player of the Year award following the 1990-1991 season. Interestingly roughly twenty years later LJ still ranks 7th all-time in rebounding and 12th all-time in scoring in spite of the fact that he only played two years and his numbers are compared to many star players that posted impressive statistics for all four years of their eligibility. In recognition for his efforts UNLV retired his number four jersey.