Former Hornets legend Larry Johnson discusses his return to Charlotte
Add another Charlotte Hornets legend to the list of those who have returned to town for the franchise’s 30th anniversary season.
Larry Johnson, who the team chose No. 1 overall out of UNLV in 1991, was back in town Thursday for a charity event with former teammate Muggsy Bogues. Johnson was a part of Bogues’ fundraising event for his charity, Always Believe Inc., which works with at-risk youths to foster leadership development and character building.
Johnson and Bogues met with fans and reporters at Unknown Brewing, and Johnson answered questions about his legacy with the Hornets, what he’s up to now, and more. Johnson and Bogues spent five seasons together in Charlotte, becoming one of the NBA’s more celebrated pairs during the mid-1990’s.
The answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. What’s it like to be back in Charlotte and reliving some of those memories with Muggsy?
A. It’s always great. Muggsy has a great foundation and between him and the family, I love when they bring me back. It gives me an opportunity to rekindle that love I had when I was with Charlotte, who drafted me when I was coming out of college. It just feels great to be back and see some old faces I haven’t seen.
Q. What have you been up to recently, and what do you have in the works?
A. Right now, my official title is basketball business representative for the New York Knicks, which is a great job. It keeps me back in the fray with the young guys and I go to every basketball game, and I do most of the public relations myself.
Q. And are you enjoying that?
A. You know what, it keeps me busy and it keeps me back in the game. I was out of the game once I retired for about eight years, so I’m just slowly but surely getting to know the NBA game again, which has changed so much. So that’s where it keeps me right now, and again, it keeps me active with the youngsters.
Q. How much did you miss it while you were away?
A. Not a lot. Definitely not playing (laughs). I mean, Muggs and I talk about that — never miss playing, but the camaraderie of being around the guys, miss that a lot.
Q. How often do you stay in touch with Muggsy and the guys from those Charlotte teams?
A. Well, I see Muggs practically every summer. Muggsy still comes to New York because he still does stuff for the NBA. So I see Muggs mostly all the time, we play golf in the summer — he kicks my butt (laughs). Until I start up, he kicks my butt. I’m gonna get him later.
Q. This being the 30th anniversary of the Hornets franchise, what first comes to mind when you think back on those early teams?
A. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the year that I was drafted No. 1 coming out of college to Charlotte. And I can remember, like this is the 30th year, we had been in existence three or four years, and the big jump we made drafting myself and then Alonzo (Mourning) came the next year. Then the next thing you know, we were a playoff team.
So that was just the most exciting thing to me — how you take a new franchise, and within three or four years, you’re playing the New York Knicks in the playoffs. That was definitely the high point of my Charlotte career, and winning Rookie of the Year here.
Q. You, Muggsy and Alonzo didn’t get to play together long before the team broke up. What do you think the ceiling could have been for you guys in Charlotte?
A. You know what, man, we had Kendall (Gill), Scott Burrell was just now coming into his own, so we thought the team was exciting, but I don’t know if we were really ready to win a championship. But we were definitely exciting to watch and competitive to watch, so I thought we needed a couple of more pieces, but I thought we had our opportunity to be good.
Q. What do you make of how much Charlotte and the Hornets have changed since you were here?
A. Well, the city has grown, I don’t recognize it. I got picked up last night by Muggsy and I couldn’t recognize the airport. So the city has definitely taken a turn for the best.
The team, the whole NBA has changed, right? You know what I mean, I don’t even understand NBA games now. They’re shooting 3’s, shooting 3’s, just scoring a lot of points and not playing a lot of defense. It’s different to me, but it’s exciting to watch, so I have no beef with it. As long as the youngsters enjoy it, I enjoy it.
Q. Was there a moment playing back then when you realized the reach the Hornets’ logo and brand had, even beyond Charlotte?
A. I don’t know if people know this, but my jersey was the No. 1 jersey for my first two, three years. I liked to think it was me, but I think it was the color of the teal (laughs).
That new teal and stripes, everybody was digging it at that time. I get people all the time saying, ‘I had a jersey, oh I had a jacket from Charlotte,’ and I was like, it was the teal stripes more than anything. I can remember my jersey being the No. 1 seller for like two years, and I think it was the color of the jersey.
Q. You mentioned how different the modern NBA is, so how do you think you would fare in today’s league?
A. I have (thought about it). You know how we do it, I’d like to think I would be killing right now because I could play with my back to the basket and you don’t see that a lot in the league — and I had a jump shot, too.
So I like to think I could do well, but it’s still a lot of scoring and not a lot of defense. Again, it’s exciting to watch, and if the youngsters are for it, I’m for it.
Q. For all the exciting basketball you played in your career — winning a national championship in college at UNLV, those Charlotte teams, making the Finals with the New York Knicks — is there a time that stands out the most?
A. I’ve got a couple.
Every one you mentioned was basically my high point. I only won one national championship. I didn’t win any in high school, so that UNLV thing was very special. And whenever you can be drafted No. 1 by anybody, it’s super special.
I mentioned earlier about how I was apart of taking a non-playoff team to the playoffs, so that was super special. And then just MSG, Madison Square Garden. I know we’re in Charlotte, but it is MSG, so playing in that, man, and being able to go to the Finals and hitting a four-point play, I’m sorry but it sticks. But we didn’t have Muggsy Bogues.
Playing with this guy, that’s one of the big questions I get all the time. When people talk to me, they want to know about Grandmama, they want to know about UNLV, and how was it playing with Muggsy. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to be a Muggsy fan. The shortest guy to ever play in the league, I get that question all the time.
Q. What did it mean to you to be named to the Hornets’ all-time anniversary team, and just to be part of that legacy?
A. I’m a little upset about the No. 4 (ranking) thing (laughs), but it’s always special. It’s always special.
Q. Where did you think you belonged?
A. One. One. But it’s always special, man.
I even heard that in New York. New York was like, ‘Congratulations,’ I’m like, ‘What? What happened?’ They told me I was fourth. I was like, ‘OK, I didn’t know that.’
To be a part of that is always special. I know I haven’t been back — I think my price is a little high for (owner) Michael Jordan (laughs) — but I’m here with Muggs, so we’re good.