Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, no shrinking violet, has said he has NBA Rookie of the Year honors sewn up.
But Charlotte Hornets forward Larry Johnson, who will face the Washington Bullets for the first time tonight in a game at the Baltimore Arena, says he just gave Mutombo a head start by missing training camp while settling his six-year, $20 million contract.
"I told Dikembe in Denver last month that I'm going to steal his candy by the end of the year," said Johnson, the first player selected in the 1991 NBA draft after leading Nevada-Las Vegas to consecutive NCAA finals.
Charlotte coach Allan Bristow, who was vice president when it
came time to make the expansion franchise's most critical decision, is certain he made the right one, despite Mutombo's positive impact on the Nuggets while the Hornets struggle in last place.
"When we rated the top big men available, Johnson came up No. 1 in most of our categories," said Bristow. "But the main thing we liked about him was his competitiveness and leadership. He's a proven winner."
Playing for Odessa (Texas) Junior College and UNLV, Johnson experienced losing only 13 times in 147 games.
That convinced the Hornets brass he was special. Basically, it came down to a choice between Johnson and Syracuse forward Billy Owens, who did not display the same take-charge attitude in summer interviews.
"We've got enough followers on this team," said Dave Twardzik, the Hornets personnel director. "We needed a leader."
The toughest decision for the Hornets was deciding which position he should fill. During his college career, Johnson, 250 pounds, was listed at 6 feet 7. But official NBA measurements put him at 6-5 1/2 , which hardly fits the prototype of a power forward.
But Johnson's toughness compensates for what he gives up in inches, and he soon replaced veteran J.R. Reid as the starter. Playing consistently against bigger forwards, he is averaging 17.0 points and a team-high 11.8 rebounds.
After a recent encounter, the Chicago Bulls' Horace Grant said: "Larry Johnson is a rock. He's very hard to get around. I think he'll be an All-Star very soon."
Because of his unusual jumping ability and athleticism, Johnson has been likened to the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley, a perennial All-Star.
"He has every bit of what Barkley has," said Los Angeles Lakers forward James Worthy. "He's a great talent who can only improve."
Johnson's drive to excel began when he was a youngster in south Dallas.
"We never played ball for money," he said. "We played because it was fun and I was good at it. But a lot of guys get paid big money to play this game, and I have a family I want to help out. But basketball will always be a game to me."
Johnson, however, is already enjoying the fame and fortune that go with being the first lottery selection.
He purchased a home in one of Charlotte's upscale districts, drives a 560 Mercedes with "Big L 2" on his license plate and has made a sneaker commercial dressed as "Grandmama." Even Barkley was never that brash.
The one thing Johnson hasn't grown accustomed to in the pros is losing.
"It hurts to lose night after night," he said. "I just keep thinking in the back of my mind how good it is going to be when we start winning regularly and I'm a part of it."
Short and sweet
When Larry Johnson was selected first overall by Charlotte in the NBA draft, he became the shortest No. 1 pick in 15 years and the fourth shortest since the end of the NBA's territorial draft in 1966:
Year Player, School .. .. . .Hgt.
1967 Jimmy Walker, Providence 6-3
1976 John Lucas, Maryland .. .6-3
1966 Cazzie Russell, Michigan 6-5
1991 Larry Johnson, UNLV .. .6-5 1/2
1981 Mark Aguirre, DePaul .. .6-6