Larry Johnson's Charlotte Hornet teammates have seen the mischief
in his gold-toothed grin often enough to know that allowing him
access to their hair with scissors and electric shears would be a
foolish risk indeed. So they greeted with caution the news that
Johnson plans to open a barbershop and hair salon in Charlotte
this month, complete with a basketball motif of hardwood floors
and hoops at both ends. ``Uh, LJ's not going to be doing the
actual cutting, is he?'' asked center Robert Parish. ``Maybe I'll
just go and shoot the breeze with the fellas, the way they do in
those Nike commercials,'' said point guard Muggsy Bogues. Only a
few Hornets are unafraid to put their hairdos in Johnson's hands.
Forward Scott Burrell is one of the bold ones. Of course, Burrell,
who shaves his head, is also one of the bald ones.
But the Hornets can relax because Johnson promises that except
for giving Burrell an occasional buffing, he will leave his
customers' heads in the hands of professional hairstylists. And
he has no doubt that his teammates will become part of his
regular clientele. ``These guys know, if they come to my shop,
they'll get treated the right way,'' he says. ``Just have a
little faith in LJ, and everything will be all right.''
The Hornets have already shown considerable faith in LJ, and,
sure enough, everything is again all right. At the beginning of last
season, Charlotte seemed on the verge of becoming one of the NBA's
elite teams. The Hornets were expected to build on their success
of the 1992-93 season, when they had won the first playoff series
in their history, over the Boston Celtics, and then, in the second
round, lost a tightly contested series to the New York Knicks. But
last season, injuries -- particularly back and leg woes that made
the 6'7", 250-pound Johnson a power forward without much power --
transformed Charlotte from championship contender to playoff
spectator as it missed the postseason entirely.
There were whispers that the ailing disk in Johnson's back might
prevent him from ever regaining All-Star form. The Hornets had
signed Johnson to a 12-year, $84 million contract in October
1993; all they could do was cross their fingers and hope that he
would be his old, explosive self after a summer of rehabilitation.
Now Johnson is healthy again, and so is his scoring average (19.2
points a game through Sunday). Hale, too, is the Hornets' other
All-Star, center Alonzo Mourning, who missed 22 games last season
with a torn calf muscle and a sprained ankle. Thus it's no
coincidence that even after Sunday's 103-92 loss to the Suns at
Phoenix, Charlotte sported a 34-21 record and was in a virtual
three-way tie for the Central Division lead with the Cleveland
Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers.
``These young guys are finding out how nice the scenery is up
here,'' says the 41-year-old Parish, who during 14 seasons with
the Celtics often took in that rarefied view.
It has been a quiet climb for Charlotte. Other teams have drawn
most of the attention in the Eastern Conference this season -- the
Orlando Magic for their gaudy record, the Cavaliers for their
surprising success in spite of crippling injuries, the Knicks for
being the Knicks -- but the Hornets have steadily improved and
have recaptured their previous promise. ``We don't have as flashy
a record as some teams, but we kind of like where we are and the
pace at which we're improving,'' says 43-year-old Charlotte coach
Allan Bristow. Still, the Hornets sense that the rest of the
league is reserving judgment about them until they prove
themselves in the postseason, and they welcome that uncertainty.
``That means we can sneak up and sting 'em,'' says Mourning, using
the appropriate Hornet imagery.
Charlotte choked on declarations like that last season. With
young, brash players like Mourning and Johnson, Charlotte had
developed a cocky, trash- talking persona and a re- putation as a
team that thought it was better than it really was. The silver
lining of last season's 41-41 record was that it brought into line
outsiders' expectations and the Hornets' opinion of themselves.
Bristow compares his team to adolescents who tried to be adults
too soon. ``It's nice to be 16 and act like we're 16,'' he says.
``Before, it was more like we were 13, we were acting like we were
16 and people were expecting us to be 20.''
Charlotte's improvement hasn't always been smooth. Bristow
endures questions about his competence whenever the Hornets
slump even slightly (through Sunday they had endured two
three-game losing streaks), and even the compliments he receives
are often of the backhanded variety. Owner George Shinn
acknowledged in January that he had come close to firing Bristow
when Charlotte began the season 3-5, but Bogues, Johnson and
Mourning had persuaded him to stand pat. ``The players told me
the problem was not the coach,'' Shinn said at the time. ``If
they hadn't been so supportive, Allan might be selling
hamburgers right now.''
Bristow has made slight adjustments in the Charlotte offense this
season: To take better advantage of Mourning's and Johnson's
post-up skills, he has called more set plays than in the past. The
Hornet attack has been ably directed, as usual, by the 5'3"
Bogues, whose 5.76 assists-to-turnovers ratio is the best in the
league. ``And of the turnovers Muggsy does commit, most of them
come early in games,'' says Bristow. ``You'll almost never see him
make a mistake with the ball down the stretch with the game on the
But the most dramatic changes for the Hornets have come on
defense, where new assistant coach John Bach, the architect of the
pressure D that helped the Chicago Bulls win three straight
championships, has brought added aggressiveness. Before this year
Charlotte had never held opponents under 100 points more than 28
times in a season. This year the Hornets had already done it 32
times through Sunday, and they were ranked seventh in the NBA in
defense (giving up an average of 98.5 points per game) after
finishing 24th (with a 106.7 average) last season.
The other key to Charlotte's more effective defense has been
Burrell, the second-year forward who is making a serious bid for
the league's Most Improved Player Award. After struggling with
injuries as a rookie, Burrell has blossomed into both a fine
outside shooter (at week's end he was averaging 12.5 points and
ranked 15th in three-point shooting percentage) and a defensive
stopper. His signature effort was a smothering performance last
week against Chicago's Scottie Pippen in which he held Pippen to
nine second- half points to help the Hornets wipe out a 19-point
deficit in a 115-104 home win. ``What he did in the second half of
that game was one of the best performances ever on this floor,''
The 6'7" Burrell, who pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm
system for parts of three summers while at the University of
Connecticut, is arguably Charlotte's best all-around athlete and
inarguably its biggest cutup. ``Scottie's like a full-grown Dennis
the Menace,'' says forward Kenny Gattison. Burrell has been known
to put on a wig and impersonate comic Flip Wilson's Geraldine, and
he's a Jim Carrey aficionado. ``I think he must have the script of
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective memorized,'' says Gattison.
The Hornets showed how confident they were that Burrell would
emerge as a solid player at small forward by trading Kendall Gill
to the Seattle SuperSonics before last season and shipping Johnny
Newman to the New Jersey Nets (he's now with the Milwaukee Bucks).
``It definitely helped to know they believed in me,'' Burrell
If Burrell is Charlotte's off-the-court jester, third-year pro
Mourning is its dark prince. He is admired around the league for
the fury with which he plays, but he's also been criticized for
occasionally letting that rage burn out of control. If there had
been statistics kept on stare-downs and chest-to-chest
confrontations with opponents during his first two years, the
combative Mourning surely would have been among the league
leaders. His low point came last season when with five games left
and the Hornets making a last-ditch playoff run, he was heaved
from a game for fighting with Bull center Luc Longley. It was
Mourning's fourth ejection of the season. Without him, Charlotte
lost to Chicago -- it was the Hornets' only defeat in a crucial
10- game stretch at the end of the season -- and ultimately missed
the playoffs by two games.
But this season Mourning has displayed a newfound maturity,
walking away from confrontations that in his first two years might
have led to technical fouls (Mourning was called for 18 T's last
season but has only six so far in '94-95) or worse. ``Zo has
finally realized that when you're one of the top- five centers in
the league, you don't have to go out and prove it with an overly
aggressive attitude,'' says Gattison. ``When you're the baddest
dude on the block, you don't need to keep reminding everybody.''
Mourning, who through Sunday was leading the Hornets in scoring
and rebounding with 20.5 and 9.8 per game, respectively, credits
an off-season trip to South Africa with fellow former Georgetown
centers Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo with helping him grow as
a person and a player. ``I got a chance to see the conditions
under which some people live over there,'' he says. ``It helped me
realize what's important and what only seems important. I don't
think you can make a trip like that and not come back a more
mature person than you were when you left. I've found out that I
can play with the same emotions and keep them under control.''
If Mourning needs any reminders about how to exhibit maturity
and maintain control, he need look no further than Parish, the
league's oldest player. There are nights when Parish is exactly
the experienced backup center the Hornets were looking for when
they signed him to a two-year contract last summer, and there
are other nights when he looks every one of his 41 years. But
his contributions as a locker-room leader are a constant.
``Robert's like the guy in the Kung Fu series,'' Bristow said
early in the season. ``They ask, `What hand is the stone in?'
And you're thinking he'll say the right or the left, and instead
he says, `It's in the hand it should be in.' And you're
thinking, Oh, man, that was the best answer.''
When Johnson was out with a foot injury in the preseason, the
Hornets began running one of his favorite plays for Parish. Some
of the other Hornets were needling Johnson in practice about
Parish taking his play, but Parish said exactly the right thing.
He smiled and said, ``No, LJ. I'm just keeping it warm for you.''
As it turns out, that is exactly what Parish was doing, because
Johnson is now as good as new in most areas. His injury woes began
when he suffered a herniated disk in a July charity game after the
1992-93 season, and things grew worse in December '93 when he tore
a ligament in his back and ruptured another disk in a game against
the Detroit Pistons. He wound up missing 31 games last season, and
he wasn't himself in most of the other 51, as his scoring average
dropped from 22.1 to 16.4 and his rebounding fell from 10.5 to
8.8. But the numbers didn't indicate the way his trademark
explosiveness had been drained from his game because the damaged
disks had caused a weakening in his right leg. They didn't show
the frustration of having to shoot fallaway jumpers in situations
that before the injuries would have led to powerful dunks.
Johnson finished last season on the injured list and went home to
Dallas for a summer of rehab (SI, Oct. 10, 1994). He came to
training camp feeling healthy, but unsure of how well his back
would hold up. ``He had to get past the mental barrier of not
knowing if his body was going to fail him,'' Parish says. ``Once
he broke that down, you knew LJ was going to be all right, and if
LJ's all right, we're all right.''
But it remains to be seen whether the Hornets will be all right
the rest of the season (they started their current brutal six-game
Western swing with two losses) or in the playoffs. Johnson hasn't
been quite the rebounder he was before his injuries, and Charlotte
would have liked to have acquired another rebounding forward
before last week's trading deadline. But the Hornets couldn't make
a deal, and their weakness on the boards could catch up with them
in the playoffs. But perhaps Charlotte has a trick or two up its
sleeve for the postseason, as Johnson does for getting his
teammates into his barber chairs. ``The first cut will be free,
just to get them hooked,'' he says, winking. ``Then -- bam! -- 20
dollars a pop.''
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Johnson (2) has recaptured his old fitness and form, while Mourning's fire bursts forth less often. [Larry Johnson; Alonzo Mourning]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN A vote of confidence has helped Burrell lift his game at both ends and bid for Most Improved honors.[Scott Burrell]
COLOR PHOTO:TIM O'DELLDetroit's Oliver Miller may dwarf the 5'3" Bogues, but Muggsy is a giant talent. [Muggsy Bogues]