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Johnson Is Wooden Winner as College Basketball’s Best

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While it lacked the suspense of, say, Nevada Las Vegas’ recent semifinal loss to Duke, Wednesday’s 15th annual John R. Wooden Award presentation did have its moments.

One, to be exact.

That would be when Wooden stepped to the Los Angeles Athletic Club podium, opened the envelope containing the winner’s name and, with a tiny flair for the dramatic, announced that the year’s outstanding collegiate player was . . . UNLV forward Larry Johnson.

Johnson, who soon will need to rent warehouse space to store his growing number of postseason awards, immediately credited everyone except himself for the honor.

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After saying his many thank yous, Johnson glanced at second-place finisher Shaquille O’Neal, the sophomore center from Louisiana State. Barring injury, the award could be O’Neal’s next year.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Johnson, a senior. “I just can’t wait to get home (to Dallas) and show my mom, tell her, ‘I beat out Shaquille.’ My mom is a bigger fan of Shaquille than she is of me.”

The voting, by 1,000 sportswriters and broadcasters across the nation, was expected to be close, with Johnson and O’Neal vying for most of the first-place points. The predictions were correct. Johnson polled 1,646 points to O’Neal’s 1,389.

UNLV’s Stacey Augmon finished third (1,156), followed by Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson (717), Syracuse’s Billy Owens (621), Duke’s Christian Laettner (385), Ohio State’s Jimmy Jackson (362), Michigan State’s Steve Smith (222), Providence’s Eric Murdock (194), Arkansas’ Todd Day (132), Indiana’s Calbert Cheaney (122) and UCLA’s Don MacLean (29).

Johnson averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds as UNLV came within two victories of being able to successfully defend its national championship of 1990. A consensus All-American, the 6-foot-7 Johnson used his size and strength to dominate taller opponents inside and was the main reason, according to Augmon, that the Rebels won 45 consecutive games before losing to Duke last Saturday.

“I would have put two votes for Larry,” Augmon said.

The award helps to ease the pain of the 79-77 semifinal loss to the Blue Devils, who went on to defeat Kansas, 72-65, in Monday evening’s championship game. As much as Johnson will be remembered for helping lead UNLV to one national title and almost another, his playing legacy also will include “the Shot That Never Was.” With only seconds remaining in the game against Duke, Johnson passed up a potential game-winning three-point attempt. Instead, he moved the ball to shooting specialist Anderson Hunt, who missed a long jump shot before the buzzer sounded.

“I haven’t had to wake up to a loss in a while,” Johnson said. “When we lost, I think we were spoiled. A loss is a loss. You have to accept those with the wins. We lost a game when I was playing hard, and we should hold our heads up high and try to go, try to strive forward. But that wasn’t the case. It hit too hard. It was simply because we were spoiled by winning.

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“All the time we knew we could get beat,” he said. “It was never like we were invulnerable. You just don’t expect to get beat.”

Johnson is all but guaranteed a place among this year’s NBA lottery picks. He has yet to select an agent, although he has changed his telephone number 18 times by last count. “That billing is killing me,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We’re going to charge. . . .’ I’ll say, '$11.65, I know.’ (They’ll say,) ‘Oh, Mr. Johnson, hello.’ ”

Until the NBA draft, Johnson plans to go to Dallas for several weeks and then return to school. He finds himself a bit behind in his studies.

“I’ve got to get caught up,” he said. “I went to school yesterday, and the teacher said, ‘We got a new student--Larry Johnson.’ Nah, that’s a joke. But I haven’t been there for a while.”

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So Johnson’s collegiate playing career is complete. He doesn’t have the second championship ring he craved, but he has the next best thing.

“Last year, I was walking around here eating while Lionel (Simmons of LaSalle, the 1990 Wooden Award winner) was sitting in here,” Johnson said. “I was a real good friend of Lionel’s and I’m messing with him. I was telling him, ‘I should have won, I should have won.’ Just joking with Lionel. Now I’m sitting here, and Shaquille’s joking with me.”


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