With the New Orleans Hornets getting the right to pick first in the upcoming 2012 NBA Draft I thought I'd take a look back at the last player that the Hornets franchise selected first overall. Mr Larry Johnson. Larry Johnson played two seasons at Odessa Junior College where he averaged 26ppg before transferring to UNLV where he teamed up with future NBA players Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony and went on to win the 1990 NCAA Championship. Johnson averaged better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in his two seasons with UNLV and was awarded the Naismith and Wooden awards for college player of the year in 1990. Johnson became an instant star in the NBA, an explosive, athletic forward with big hops and a personality to match is generally well received in the basketball world. His rookie season was a success on the court as he averaged 19.2ppg, 3.6apg and 11.0rpg which earned him Rookie of the Year honours. He was a participant in the dunk competition on All Star Weekend in Orlando finishing runner up to Cedric Ceballos. He was just as successful off the court as his alter ego Grandmama starred in numerous commercials for Converse and his signature kicks sold very well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8va59fMPZxU
Johnson backed up his rookie year by being named All NBA Second Team in the 1992-93 season. He also proved he was a fan favourite by being voted a starter in the All Star Game. His second season is what many consider to be his best, he averaged 22.1ppg, 10.5rpg and 4.3apg all while shooting 52.6% from the field. [caption id="attachment_7765" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Johnson came runner up in the 1992 Slam Dunk Contest. Photo Credit www.bleacherreport.com"][/caption] Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley were the only two players in the league to average 20,10 and 4 for the 92-93 season. The Hornets were playoff bound for the first time courtesy of Johnson and rookie Alonzo Mourning's great seasons. They beat the Boston Celtics 3-1 in the best of five series but fell to the New York Knicks in the second round 4-1. The 1993-94 season was one that Charlotte fans held high hopes for but a back sprain on December 27 was the beginning of Johnson's injury problems and the teams woes. He missed 31 games that season and the Hornets went 9-22 with him off the court. The Hornets finished the season with a 41-41 record but missed out on a second post season appearance. It wasn't all bad news for Johnson and the Hornets that year as they went 17-8 after his return from the back injury, the same back injury which occurred the day he scored 29 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists, one of the franchise's best triple doubles still to this day. In the summer of 1994 Johnson was a member of USA Basketball's Dream Team II which won the gold medal at the World Championships of Basketball. The 1994-95 season saw Johnson return from his back problems as a different player, there was less of the strong inside game and athleticism and more of a perimeter game which relied upon a newly developed mid and long range jumpshot which culminated in a career high in 3 point field goal percentage 38.6%. In turn Johnson's rebounding totals dropped considerably, a trend which was to continue for the rest of his career as he never again averaged double figures in rebounding. Johnson and Mourning led the Hornets to a franchise record 50 wins (at the time) and a second playoff appearance in 1995. They would however lose to the Chicago Bulls in the first round 3-1. Johnson's back problems may have changed the way in which he played the game but they didn't keep him off the court in the 1995-96 season. He played in 81 of the 82 games and averaged 40.4 minutes per game, sixth highest in the league. He posted very good numbers for the season, 20.5ppg, 8.4rpg and 4.4apg but the Hornets missed the playoffs finishing with a 41-41 record. The 1995-96 season was to be Johnson's last season with the Hornets as tensions between him and teammate Alonzo Mourning would come to a head at the seasons conclusion. Tensions between the pair had apparently started as early as 1992 when Johnson taunted Mourning by showing him his Rookie of the Year leather jacket and saying
"Hey, young fellow, if you play real hard you might get one of these jackets."The rest of the team heard the remark and laughed, everyone except Mourning who took offense at the remark. Whether or not this sole remark was the catalyst for the bad blood that existed between the two stars or the need to be top dog on the team was, it was clear to team management that things weren't working. Despite good seasons from both players the Hornets front office felt that a fresh start was needed and subsequently traded both Mourning and Johnson to the Miami Heat and New York Knicks respectively.
LJ's first season for the Knicks wasn't exactly a great success, he averaged 12.8ppg, 5.2rpg and 2.3apg. He did however shoot a very efficient 51.2% from the field. The Knicks finished the season with a record of 57-25 and they swept Johnson's former team the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the playoffs before coming up against Alonzo Mourning and the Miami Heat in the second round. [caption id="attachment_7766" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Johnson was a capable role player for the Knicks despite ongoing injuries. Photo Credit www.bleacherreport.com"][/caption] The series would go to seven games with the Heat coming out on top. The 1997-98 season saw Johnson's numbers improve, he averaged 15.5ppg, 5.7rpg and 2.1apg. It was clear to many though that LJ wasn't the go to guy he used to be as this team had more depth than Charlotte ever had and featured stars Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston and John Starks. He was more of a role player and had lost a lot of that raw athleticism that featured so prominently early on in his career, but still was a great contributor on a winning team. The Knicks finished with a 43-39 record and once again would meet the Miami Heat in a playoff series. This time it would be in the first round and would be remembered more for the fight that erupted in the final seconds of game four between former teammates, Johnson and Mourning than for any actual basketball played. The fight saw both players banned from taking part in Game Five, a game in which Johnson's Knicks won and which gave them the series win. They would however fall in the second round to the Indiana Pacers 4-1. The New York Knicks had another successful season in 1998-99. They would finish with a 27-23 record in the lockout shortened season and qualified for the playoffs as the number 8 seed in the East. Johnson would again see his numbers drop, he averaged 12ppg, 5.8rpg and 2.4apg. He would also average a career low 33.4 minutes per game as the Knicks aimed to get more from their bench. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWqv5fNeosc Yet again New York would meet the Miami Heat in the first round of playoffs and once again the series would go 5 games with the Knicks winning 3-2. The Knicks met the Atlanta Hawks in the second round and would easily win, sweeping them 4-0. This set up an exciting Eastern Conference Finals match up against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. The Knicks would split the first two games with a win in the first and a loss in the second. It was game three in New York that will forever be a highlight of Johnson's career with the completion of a game winning four point play. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xlCbpPN8rs&feature=related
The Knicks went on to beat the Pacers 4-2 and were the first eighth seed to make the NBA Finals in the history of the game. They came up against the San Antonio Spurs who were led by twin towers David Robinson and Tim Duncan and without their centre Patrick Ewing, who injured his achilles in the series against Indiana, the Spurs made fairly easy work of the Knicks winning 4-1. The next season saw the Knicks win 50 games and return to the post season as serious contenders for the title. They would make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals but would fall to the Indiana Pacers. Johnson missed 12 games throughout the season as his back problems resurfaced. He also averaged a career low 10.7ppg. The 2000-01 season was to be Johnson's last. His ongoing back problems were enough to have him taking medication daily and it was the opinion of many doctors that he should seriously consider giving the game away. He played 65 games during the regular season and had career lows in points, field goal percentage, assists and minutes. The Knicks made the playoffs again but fell in the first round to the Toronto Raptors. Larry Johnson never really lived up to his potential as like so many others he succumbed to injuries. His time in the league was full of highs and lows and he always seemed to find a way to get his name in the headlines but as a kid who started watching the game in the 90's he was an awe inspiring character and one that I'll never forget watching. Photo Credit: (top) www.sportige.com