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Back To Basics

Larry Johnson is trying to restore his damaged body and tainted image to NBA All-Star form

Larry Johnson is done with lifting gigantic stacks of weights in the Dallas garage of his friend and trainer, Ken Roberson, and now, flushed from a day's work and glistening with its sweaty residue, he is thinking about a basketball player he knew not long ago. This guy, he recalls, would be on the wing on a break when Muggsy Bogues, the Charlotte Hornets' point guard, would dish the ball to him somewhere near the outer extremities of the lane. The player, without prudent calculation, would immediately launch himself toward the rim.

Johnson reenacts what he remembers of the leaper's forays to the basket, though he is walking in slow motion, not soaring, halfway across the garage with an imaginary ball cocked in his right hand.

"O.K.... all right...uh-huh," Johnson says with each stride. He is smiling at these intermittent altitude checks that find the player airborne each time. Now the rim is finally upon him and..."Boom!" he shouts. The phantasmic ball is violently buried through the phantasmic cylinder. Johnson lets loose that locomotive laugh of his. the rumbling wooooooo-hoo that can clear every mile of track in Dallas County.

Then his voice goes soft and quiet. "Yeah," he says. "Consistent. Like running water."

Larry Johnson, 25 years old, is remembering Larry Johnson.

"Man, I miss that," he says. "I haven't played to that level in a year. It didn't happen at all last season. I'd get the ball, I was never even looking to jump."

Johnson is a mechanic now, tinkering in this garage, trying to get it to happen again. He must make his body stronger and more limber and livelier and just about everything else short of bulletproof. That is, just about the way it was (and then some, maybe) before that charity game in Washington, D.C., in July 1993, when he rose for an easy, three-quarter-speed jam and felt a hot pain shoot from his lower back through his right leg.

About a week later, while Johnson was backpedaling at his basketball camp for children in Dallas, his right leg collapsed, and he went to the ground. Even before he was up, he recalls, his first thought was, "Man, let's go get on a plane to Charlotte." He knew he needed a doctor.

Johnson had a herniated disk in his lower back. For the first time his mighty body had failed him. Here is a man who cannot remember missing a game before the injury. "Never," he says. "Going back to junior high, even." Here is a man who laid claim to the NBA's 1991-92 Rookie of the Year award, a starting spot in the next season's All-Star Game and the valuable flooring immediately beneath the baskets of both ends of NBA courts. He did so with 250 pounds of ferocity and explosiveness packed into a frame that does not quite reach 6'6". At the same time, off the court, he created an image for himself as a smiling, approachable fan favorite with a whimsical side: For Converse commercials he dressed up in a gray wig and an old lady's housedress to play the role of his fictional Grandmama.

But last season, racked by two damaged disks that caused back and leg woes, Johnson missed 31 games (the Hornets went 9-22 without him) and was but a shell of himself in most of the other 51. His scoring average dropped from 22.1 in 1992-93 to 16.4, and his rebounding average fell from 10.5 to 8.8. He turned sullen toward teammates and fans and, what's worse, soft; he confesses now that he "ran away from the ball."

When he was next on view, at the world championships in August, Johnson emerged not only rusty but also tarnished. Playing unimpressively, he averaged 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds in 15.1 minutes a game. And where Johnson was once considered among the Heir Jordans, the future standard-bearers of the sport, now his image, too, degenerated. On view on the global stage he shoved a Puerto Rican player, shouted obscenities at Australians and contributed to the victorious Dream Team II's rap as the ugly Americans—all without a game to back up his machismo. ("We didn't come here to make friends," Johnson explained after practice one day in Toronto. "We got enough friends. We came to play our game, and that includes a little talking now and then.")

So, in hopes of restoring his body completely, Johnson returned to Roberson's garage, where he had begun working out in May. This Friday the Hornets open camp, and no one knows whether the rebuilt Johnson will be as good as new. He says he has his strength back. But is his game back? Even Johnson doesn't know.

"If it's not, it's not," he says. "I'm just going to keep working and keep trying. God willing, it will all come back, and I'll be well. But I don't know. I won't know until I'm out there against pro players on the court.

"After four days of training camp—even three, even two—I'll know what kind of season I'm going to have. If I have all my strength and explosiveness, I'm fine. If I'm not back now, I will be back. So much of this is confidence. I don't know how lone that will lake.

"I do know this: I ain't dead. And what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Johnson likes a good challenge. "Just tell me I have to work harder," he says. "I love that." Often, the goading comes from Roberson, 32. When the two of them began training together after Johnson's junior year at UNLV, Roberson suggested that Johnson cut out pork from his notoriously awful diet. "I said, 'What, give up my bacon? My pork chops?' " Johnson says. "I did, though. No swine."

When Roberson suggested this year that Johnson limit himself to one meal a day, at four in the afternoon, Johnson shot back, "Man, that's crazy. That ain't nothin'." Yet Johnson adopted the plan this summer, ordering his cook to prepare a low-fat meal, albeit a large one, at the appointed hour.

"See, Larry has a big sweet tooth," Roberson says. "You walk into his room, and you have to clear a path through all the Butterfingers. I tell him, 'If you want to run like a top dragster, you've got to put in the highest-octane fuel you can.' "

Sure enough, according to Roberson, Johnson has remained at 250 pounds but has become even more chiseled, adding muscle while losing an inch off his waist. There is still work to be done on the diet, though.

"You know Little Debbie's snack cakes?" Johnson says. "Man, keep me away from them. If I get near them, that's it. Got to have them."

His willpower is being severely tested by his bride, Celeste Wingfield, whom he married at a 400-guest ceremony with reception in Charlotte on Aug. 27. Wingfield is 7½ months pregnant and dealing with her own cravings. "The other day she brought home Twinkies," Johnson says. He is busting up just thinking about it. "I said, 'Man, what are you doing to me?' "

It has been a long time since Johnson—one of the best trash talkers in the league—could laugh like this. He has spent the past year dealing, and not dealing, with pain. After he hurt himself in the charity game, his weakened right leg would convulse whenever he ran on it. Nevertheless, he says, "I was in denial."

On Oct. 5 of last year the Hornets, with full knowledge of Johnson's injury, stunned the NBA by reworking his original six-year, $20 million deal, which still had four years to go, to cover 12 years at a cost of $84 million. Beginning in 1997-98, the Hornets will pay Johnson salaries of $7.3 million, $8.8 million, $10.3 million, $10.8 million, $9.8 million, $8.3 million, $6.8 million and, in 2004-05, when he turns 36, $6.1 million.

"It was a big shock, and I think it was that way to everyone in the league," says New York Knick president Dave Checketts. "No one ever expected Larry Johnson to suddenly become the richest player in the NBA—by far. By far!

"There's never been a contract signed in the NBA that had the same ripple effect as Johnson's contract did," Checketts says. "[Hornet president] Spencer Stolpen admitted before the [league's] board of governors, 'I don't think he's the best player on our team.' But this is coming from the guy who did the negotiation. Now what does that mean they're going to do for Alonzo [Mourning, Charlotte's MVP]? And what effect does that have on David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing?"

A few days after signing that new pact, Johnson struggled to get through the opening three-line drills of training camp—a guard in the middle, two big guys on the outside. The big guy who had once shattered the Hornet record for leg strength on the Cybex machine could hardly get up and down the court.

Johnson tried playing through the pain during the first two months of the season, and the results were often poor. During that time he was also hit with a paternity suit by a woman in Baltimore. After a blood test Johnson acknowledged that he had fathered the woman's baby girl, though his financial liability has yet to be determined in court.

On Dec. 27 Johnson had a triple-double, with 29 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists, against the Detroit Pistons. Glenn Perry, the Hornets' physician, remembers how reassured he felt. "That night, I'm just breathing a sigh of relief," Perry says, "and Larry walks up behind me. He puts his arm around me and says, 'Doc, I hurt my back again.' "

This time Johnson had torn a ligament that runs along his spine and suffered a ruptured disk. He missed the Hornets' game the next night, ending at 184 what was then the third-longest active NBA streak of consecutive starts. He would not play again until March 11; the Hornets, who in the preseason had been widely considered title contenders, eventually would miss the playoffs by two games. Johnson spent his time on the injured list doing rehabilitation exercises in a swimming pool (surgery was never considered). Dogged by questions about his contract and his back, he shut off the media and snapped even at his friends.

Says Stolpen, "I'd walk by him and make even the most innocent comment—'Hello, how are you?'—and he'd take it the wrong way. He'd barely answer. He just closed the whole world out. For the first time his body let him down. He had a difficult time dealing with that."

"I was O.J. last year—in the papers every day," Johnson says, laughing about it now. He breaks into a newscaster's basso profundo. " 'Day 29. Larry Johnson still not playing. Just sitting on the bench in a fast suit.' Man, what are you going to do? Quit or keep going at it? That's a stupid question."

Roberson turns a key, and the brown electric door rises, revealing a modestly equipped workout room in what would otherwise be a two-car garage. "Welcome to Slim's Gym," he says. Johnson begins one of the last of his five-day-a-week workouts before leaving for Charlotte. He had interrupted his schedule for his Dream Team II stint, one that raised more questions than it answered. Says Stolpen, "I didn't see the explosive, slam-dunk basketball we saw before. His outside shot looked better."

Latching on to an improvement in Johnson's perimeter shooting is akin to complimenting the 5'3" Bogues on his post-up ability. What good is a premier power forward without his power?

What if Johnson is healthy enough to play, but not at his former level? While Johnson's original contract is not in question, such a scenario could produce a legal battle if the Hornets wish to avoid paying to a limited player the added $64 million called for in the contract extension.

"If he's not the same player and it is directly attributable to his back, we would have no obligation in the extended portion of the contract, where the big dollars are," Stolpen says. "We could waive him and not be obligated."

"That's incorrect," says Johnson's agent, George Bass. "The contract is guaranteed against everything."

"It is a situation that hopefully we will never have to address," Stolpen says.

Johnson looks just fine pumping out 10 repetitions with 610 pounds on the leg-press machine. Last year at this time he couldn't move 250 pounds. "Pitiful. Just pitiful," he says with a grin. Last year he couldn't joke about it, either.

"He is coming out of his shell," Stolpen says. "My wife and I talked to him and Celeste at his wedding. He was getting on me about something I was wearing. I could see he was smiling, confident. Four months ago you would not have seen it."

Last week Roberson saw, and heard, something else in one of his and Johnson's frequent one-on-one games. Sure, Johnson pounded him under the basket, but he destroyed Roberson with his ego-cutting, manhood-stripping, hide-the-women-and-children trash talk of former days. "Talked to me like a stepchild," Roberson says. "Just killed me. Right then I knew: He's back, and it's going to be a long training camp for somebody who goes up against him."

Johnson hopes it is true. He is bent over in laughter thinking about it, roaring with that famous hoot that has people checking their train schedules. Maybe it will all be the same again. Familiar. Natural. Like running water.

"Man," he says, "imagine if I wasn't hurt last year and was coming back like this, working this hard. Oh, yeah, look out for the big fella."



Johnson rehabbed his back by working out five days a week in his trainer's garage in Dallas.



Johnson was floored last season when he lacked the thrust that had lifted him to stardom at UNLV.



[See caption above.]



In the Johnsons' nuptial lineup: NBAers Bogues and Dell Curry (seated, from far right); standing, Johnny Newman (far left), Stacey Augmon (third from left), Kenny Gattison (fourth from right).