Larry Johnson is calm eye of Hurricane Las Vegas

December 13, 1990|By Skip Myslenski | Skip Myslenski,Chicago Tribune

LAS VEGAS -- He moves about on legs that resemble telephone poles and that support a torso so tough it could be used as the wall in a game of racquetball. He rebounds as avidly as George Foreman eats, scores from down in the blocks with the regularity of a metronome and is so powerful that teammate Anderson Hunt remembers their first meeting this way:

"We were playing, and I bumped into him. It was just a little bump, I thought, but my shoulder didn't stop hurting. From that day on, I knew he was The Man."

But now Larry Johnson, the most impressive man among Nevada-Las Vegas' impressive national champs, is radiating none of the strength or menace that makes him one of college basketball's best performers. Instead, he is as pleasant as a balmy spring day and every bit worthy of the nickname hung on him by the other Rebels -- "the Ambassador," in honor of his diplomatic manner.

So how does it feel being The Man?

"I'm not The Man; all of us have our features," says the Ambassador with a smile. "I don't think we have one great player. I think we have a great team."

Well, how does it feel getting all the attention?

"I like it. But that's for my family, my mom. She can get out her scrapbook, put it on the coffee table and show her friends. But it's not Larry, Larry, Larry. It's Vegas, Vegas, Vegas."

What about being a top Player of the Year candidate?

"That's because I'm on this team, but I'm not even our best basketball player. Stacey [Augmon, their other forward] is our best basketball player."

"It's his attitude," says his coach, Jerry Tarkanian, after hearing this self-effacing litany. "It's his attitude that makes Larry stand out."

His attitude, his demeanor, stamps Larry Johnson as the kind of son who would make any mother proud. He walks the good walk and talks the good talk, yet as attractive as these characteristics are, they cloud some truths he would never admit. He is one great basketball player, that is the obvious truth. Less obvious is that in 1988-89, without him, the Rebs went 29-8 and were eliminated from the NCAA tournament in the West Regional. Last year, with him as the only addition to their starting lineup, they went 35-5 and won the title.

He is, to mix metaphors, the foundation, the centerpiece, the indomitable force of the top-ranked Rebels. It is Johnson, the 6-foot-7 senior forward, who most makes this team special, and gives it a better-than-even chance to be the first to win consecutive titles since UCLA did it in 1973.

His journey to this exalted state began humbly in Tyler, Texas, where he used to ride his bicycle by the trailer Earl Campbell RTC grew up in and the mansion the running back built for his mom after attaining stardom with the Houston Oilers. When Johnson was 12, his family moved to a home in South Dallas. "It's not in the War Zone, it is the War Zone," he says. There he was confronted with all the temptations that could drag him into the gutter.

He never succumbed to the worst of them, drugs, but here he started nicking candy, stealing bikes and spending some time in juvenile homes. It was only now, behind their closed doors, that he began playing sports, and the first to truly attract his attention was boxing.

He finally dropped it while in the ninth grade, the same year he established himself as a basketball starter for Dallas' Skyline High. Four years later, he was the Texas Player of the Year and headed for Southern Methodist. But after the school refused to accept his second SAT score, which reportedly was 300 points higher than his first, he enrolled instead at Odessa (Texas) Junior College.

He suffered there while watching major college games on TV. "It hurt a lot, but it made me hungry," he says. Yet it was there too that he learned of both life and the game he played so well. "It taught me that basketball was not just about putting the ball in the hole," he says, "that there was a lot more to it than that. I grew up a lot too off the court, learning to cope with my problems."

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