Hats Off to Larry : Johnson Passes Off Much of His Success at UNLV to Teammates


He is the anti-star, the man most likely to succeed--but only if it doesn’t offend his Nevada Las Vegas teammates. His favorite dessert is probably humble pie. And he wouldn’t know how to spell ego if you spotted him the e and the o .

He is 6-foot-7 forward Larry Johnson, the most reluctant consensus All-American since Naismith started hanging peach baskets for a hobby. His numbers, 23 points and 10.8 rebounds a game, aren’t gaudy, but they could have been. That’s the scary part.

Earlier this week, Johnson was honored with the Eastman Award, given annually to the best college player in the country, as determined by the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches. Johnson didn’t have the trophy in his hand five seconds before he was blabbering away about how the award belonged to his teammates, his coaches, his family. He meant it, too. That’s the wonderful part.

“Larry can do everything that a coach dreams a player can do,” said Gerald Myers, the association’s president and former Texas Tech coach, who presented the award and has monitored Johnson’s development ever since little Larry was a junior high school player in Dallas.


It was also Myers, who, in 1973--Jerry Tarkanian’s first year at UNLV--brought his Texas Tech team to Las Vegas for the Rebels’ season opener. As the Red Raiders made their way toward the court, a UNLV fan yelled at Myers:

“Hey, Tex, where’s your horses? Where’s your horses, Coach?”

Eighteen years later and ever-mindful of Johnson’s defection from Texas to Nevada, Myers knows the answer to the fan’s question. Recounting the story for a UNLV booster luncheon crowd, Myers looked at Tarkanian and said: “Hey, Coach, you got one of our horses.”

As expected, the Rebels have ridden Johnson to the brink of a second consecutive NCAA championship. Of course, the NCAA is a four-letter word in Las Vegas. Before Johnson was allowed to attend the luncheon, nervous UNLV officials contacted the NCAA in search of a rule interpretation: Could the star player eat a meal at the get-together without losing his eligibility or causing NCAA investigators to swarm into town? After careful consideration, the NCAA said, yes, Johnson could pick up fork and knife without penalty.

“Larry, you can have lunch,” the master of ceremonies said, “but if you want a second helping, we’ll have to call for a second interpretation.”

Johnson laughed. He can afford to. After all, he is a lock as an NBA lottery choice. Awards are streaming in as if they were junk mail. Player of the year this. Player of the year that. Still, each time Johnson gets one of the things, he reacts as if it were an accident.

Next Wednesday, the Los Angeles Athletic Club will announce the winner of the John R. Wooden Award, basketball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Voters found themselves with essentially two choices: Johnson or Louisiana State center Shaquille O’Neal. For what it’s worth, Johnson’s picture, not O’Neal’s, graced the March cover of the L.A. Athletic Club’s monthly magazine. And UNLV sports information officials mentioned the club’s recent requests for more photos and information on Johnson.

If he does win, don’t expect much of a celebration. Johnson is as understated as a Brooks Brothers suit. Sure, he drives a black Corvette with vanity plates that read, “Big L-4,” but he is also a mama’s boy with manners. When an elderly couple stopped Johnson after the luncheon in the parking lot of UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, the Rebel forward treated them like royalty.

Assorted tales of Johnson’s sweetness are approaching near-dangerous saccharine levels. It started shortly before last season, when Johnson, the junior college player of the year, arrived at the UNLV campus. Back then, the Rebels had five starters returning from a team that advanced to the final eight of the 1988-89 NCAA tournament. Something had to give.

Turns out it was Johnson, who seemed grateful just to share locker room space with the Rebels. So modest was Johnson that the rest of team didn’t notice or simply didn’t mind when Tarkanian slipped him into the starting lineup.

“When you’ve got all five starters coming back, they don’t think they should sit down,” Tarkanian said. “They think, ‘Hell, the new guy . . . let him sit down.’ But Larry’s going to beat somebody out, and it’s either going to be David Butler or Moses Scurry. We all know it’s going to be Scurry, but the problem is, Butler and Scurry are best friends.

“We were watching for it, too, because we figured Butler and Scurry were going to try to cause some problems with Larry. I’m sure they would have liked to have caused a problem, but inside of a week they all loved Larry. If he wasn’t the type of kid that he was, we could have had a revolt on our team last year.”

Instead, they had national championship rings on their fingers, thanks, in large measure, to Johnson, who gave UNLV the ingredient missing from their attack.

“He provides the power game,” said Stacey Augmon, Johnson’s roommate, teammate and best friend.

Augmon and Johnson met in 1987 as members of the U.S. team that traveled to Italy for the World Junior Championships. Two years later, when Johnson completed his work at Odessa (Tex.) JC, he thought of Augmon and UNLV.

“It was really off the top of my head,” Johnson said. “There was no thought to it. Once summer rolled around, Stacey and I kept in touch. I just said, ‘OK, I guess, let me go play with Stacey. Let me go play for the Rebels. Let me go play for Coach Tark.’ There was no finally sitting down and making a decision. There was no, ‘Hmmmmm . . . ‘

“I’m not going to take too much credit for what’s happened in my life. When we’re playing, the things I do are because of my teammates. So I’m not going to take too much credit . . . except I will take all the credit when I . . . made up my mind, by myself, to come to Vegas.”

Thus began the transformation of a team. And a player, too. The Rebels could run. They could play amazing man-to-man defense. They could turn an opponent’s turnover or missed shot into a basket faster than anyone. But they didn’t have a true inside game. Until Johnson.

He weighs 250 pounds. Body fat? Not unless you’re measuring with tweezer-sized calipers.

Since the NCAA tournament began two weeks ago, Johnson has averaged 24 points and 9.5 rebounds and has converted 63% of his shots. In UNLV’s last three tournament victories--over Georgetown, Utah and Seton Hall--Johnson has outscored entire opposing teams, 27-19, during the opening minutes (from 20:00 to 15:19) of the second half.

When Johnson puts his mind to it, he is virtually unstoppable. The problem is, putting his mind to it. If anything, Johnson is too unselfish.

“It’s beyond belief,” Tarkanian said. “Absolutely beyond belief.”

Tarkanian grabbed a note pad and pen and began diagramming one of his favorite plays. The play is designed to isolate the power forward, have him establish position near the basket and score with relative ease. Tarkanian has been running the play for years.

“So I said before the Big West tournament (earlier this month), ‘Let’s put this in for Larry. This would be a hell of a play.’ ”

UNLV assistant Tim Grgurich inserted the play but with reservations.

“Yeah, you throw it to Larry and he’ll pass it back out,” Grgurich said. “He won’t shoot it.”

Sure enough, Tarkanian called his beloved play. And sure enough, Johnson got the ball and passed it to someone else.

Johnson was the same way, if not worse, last season. When UNLV lost to New Mexico State that January, Tarkanian decided a lecture was in order. Johnson had scored only 12 points on 10 shots.

“Larry, you’ve got to assert yourself, you’ve got to take over more,” Tarkanian said the next night.

Replied Johnson: “Coach, I can do more, but I don’t want to come in and try to dominate. I can do more if that’s what you want.”

Tarkanian was incredulous.

“Larry, that’s what we want.”

In the six games after the loss, Johnson averaged 26.5 points.

“Almost every great player can tell you almost every bucket (he made), where it came from,” Tarkanian said. “Like, ‘With 16 minutes left, I hit one from here. With 14 minutes, I hit one from here.’ But Larry has no idea how many buckets he has. He doesn’t care.”

Tarkanian isn’t alone in his frustration. There have been times when Augmon has all but begged Johnson to take over a game. Johnson won’t do it--unless the score warrants.

“I’ll tell him, ‘Shoot it and I’ll get the rebound,’ ” Augmon said. “He’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m going to miss, huh?’ ”

Even when the two friends play one-on-one games, Johnson finds himself looking at the big picture--victories--rather than showmanship. In fact, when told that Augmon claimed supremacy over him in those one-on-one battles, Johnson was stunned.

“Man, Stacey ain’t told you that,” he said.

The most legendary games took place a few summers ago at a local all-night sports club. Augmon and Johnson would meet there at about 1 a.m. and play for hours.

“We’d play about five games a night, but he never won a majority of the games,” Johnson said. “I just killed him. I’ve got witnesses, but I don’t know where they’re at. There was a guy who would sit there and he’d go, ‘Whoooo!’ when Stacey would get these fancy dunks. I’d be going, ‘Yeah, yeah, but the game is to 10 and I have 10 and he has seven, with those three great dunks. Or it would be 5-1, but he’d get one of his dunks and he’d be as happy as could be. Now it’s 5-2, but I’m going to do this fat man layup and it’s going to be, 6-2. He’s going to do the ol’ Michael Jordan and I’m going to do just the ol’ Adrian Dantley left hand off the backboard.”

The point? It’s not how you play the game, it’s how you win it.

Of course, do not confuse Johnson’s low-key attitude with sainthood. He has a tiny mean streak and an occasional flair for theatrics. Against Georgetown two weeks ago, Johnson began taunting and waving goodby to Alonzo Mourning when the Hoya center-forward fouled out.

That incident caught the attention of most people, including the officials, who called a technical on Johnson. Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Johnson’s mother, Dortha, was angry.

“She was very mad, very upset with my technical,” he said. “I thought I was going to be disowned. I thought I was going to have to change my last name. I told her it was just in the heat of the moment. Every time I do something bad, I tell her the South Dallas came out in me.”

South Dallas is where Johnson grew up. It is where he threw rocks at passing cars, where he learned how to steal, where he learned how to fight.

“I was too young to give a hoot,” he said.

With each incident, Johnson began to see the hurt in his mother’s eyes. As a last resort, Dortha Johnson signed a release form allowing a Police Athletic League representative to take her son, then in the sixth grade, to a recreation facility. One problem: Johnson didn’t want to go.

“A big white old bus would come,” Johnson said. “The first week or so, everybody’s running from (the bus). Three weeks later, we’re on the bus stop waiting with our badges, ready to go. That’s when I got into sports. Sports took me off the streets. That program, if it helped anybody, it helped me.”

Johnson later became a star at Skyline High. He would have stayed in Dallas, too, and played at Southern Methodist had the results of his standardized entrance exams not been questioned by officials of the Educational Testing Service, which administered the test. SMU wavered in its commitment and then finally offered Johnson an option: He could have a scholarship if he sat out a year. Johnson said no and went to Odessa JC.

“I don’t feel I was treated fairly,” he said of the SMU mess. “But look at me now. I’ve got one ring under my belt and I’m making a run for the next. Hopefully I can play in the NBA next year, so what do I have to complain about?”

For the moment, Johnson will have to settle for owning almost every postseason award possible. As for the NBA, Johnson made another difficult, but correct, decision when he decided to return for his senior season.

“I’m ready now,” he said. “I wasn’t ready last year. I knew I needed to come back. There were a lot of things I had to work on.”

Johnson can shoot from the outside now. He showed that much against the taller Hoyas, when he drifted out to the wing and began making jump shots. Johnson can play better defense now, especially away from the basket. At times, Tarkanian lets him cover point guard Greg Anthony in practice.

“Right now, (Johnson) is almost as good as Augmon defensively as a forward,” Tarkanian said. “A year ago, he couldn’t guard a guy on the perimeter.”

Like it or not, Johnson is stuck with his stardom. His college career has one, perhaps two more games of life, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s semifinal game against Duke. Johnson intends to enjoy every moment of it. To him, that’s the good part.