POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 19, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 10:27 p.m. HST, Aug 05, 2011
The line through the lobby of the Outrigger Reef resembled check-in time at a Las Vegas hotel.
For almost 90 minutes, former No. 1 NBA pick and rookie of the year Larry Johnson signed anything and everything, ranging from a regulation basketball to the back of a shirt. He patiently posed for pictures, often bent over so his face was on a level playing field.
In town for a basketball camp with former Nevada-Las Vegas assistant coach Howie Landa, the two former Runnin' Rebels did the meet and greet on this late Thursday afternoon with smiles on their faces and stories to tell.
The left-handed Johnson had a practiced pen, signing with a light flourish that defied his days as an NBA insider, poking elbows for position with the best of them as he crashed the boards.
"Could you believe how Larry looked," Las Vegas Review Journal sportswriter Steve Carp asked, his voice booming in my phone. I called my former colleague the day after the autograph session. We covered Johnson and the UNLV national championship basketball team way back in the day.
"When he stood up to pose for a picture, I wouldn't have recognized him," I said. "He must have lost 50 pounds."
Johnson was never very tall by professional basketball standards. Maybe 6-feet-6 on his tiptoes, but he was wide, like Barkley, and strong. North Carolina State head coach Jimmy Valvano said to me and Carp during the middle of a game, "I can't see him dominating in the NBA like that" moments after a Johnson putback gave the Rebels the lead for good in a nationally televised nonconference game with the Wolfpack.
He did, averaging 22.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a game en route to an NBA All-Star selection in 1993.
Now he looks more like a big shooting guard, trim, but with that same Dallas drawl rolling out of his soul each time he thanks someone for stopping by.
Larry didn't recognize me. Neither did Howie, at first. Putting on 20-something years since seeing them last had changed me as much as it did them. Larry was twice as old as he was when we first met at a UNLV practice his junior season of 1989.
He was always a little wary of the press. Not quite trusting of your intentions, good or bad. While watching him sign autographs for almost a half-hour, I thought about the different encounters Larry and I had. As the beat writer for the Las Vegas Sun, you had to have some kind of a working relationship with the 21-year-old star of the team.
He and 1988 Olympian Stacey Augmon became fast friends and roommates on the road during their two years together in Las Vegas. They were joined at the hip in those days, their personalities as different as their upbringing; Larry from the easygoing streets of East Dallas and Stacey from the hardscrabble world of South Central L.A.
I went from the season opener against Loyola Marymount — where Larry's first shot as a Division I basketball player was blocked by Hank Gathers — to the Rose Garden of the White House, where we met the first President Bush in the late spring of 1990.
When you travel with the team, you have access no one can match. You are embedded. And because UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian loved newspaper guys — he used to introduce us to other head coaches thusly, "These are my writers" — we could talk to his players day and night.
One particular conversation he didn't like was when Larry asked me how much would he make a week if he earned a million dollars. We were at the John Wayne Airport waiting to go back to Vegas. At that point, he hadn't decided whether he would declare early for the NBA Draft or return for his senior season.
"Well, it's about $20,000 a week," I said. "If you work 40 hours a week, that's $500 an hour, good money if you can get it."
When we were boarding the plane, Tark pulled me aside and said, "Don't be telling him that #@#$. He doesn't know what a million dollars is. But $500 an hour is something he can understand."
Another time we were on a plane that lost hydraulics over the Mojave Desert. The Rebels had lost a stunner at Cal State Irvine the night before, so the team wasn't in a good mood on this Sunday trip home.
We briefly lost power, the plane dropped 5,000 feet and everybody's ears popped. Larry wasn't a particularly good flyer in those days. He was sitting across the aisle from me and grabbed me so hard, I had his fingerprints on my left forearm for a week. The memory made me laugh out loud.
ONCE WE GOT past hello and started talking, the three of us went through that championship season's worth of memories together in about 15 minutes. We were laughing one second and had tears in our eyes the next as we caught up on time gone by.
"Is your mom still alive?" I asked Larry. I had met her at Oklahoma before a huge nonconference game between the Sooners and the Rebels. Tark against Billy Tubbs always produced some fireworks. His mom had come up from Dallas and was his spitting image. She had to be the inspiration for Larry's famed grandmama Converse commercial he would star in years later.
He shook his head, no, but smiled and said: "People always said we favored."
We all three were particularly happy for Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Tim Grgurich. As an assistant at UNLV, Grgurich was the glue that held Johnson and Augmon together. After demolishing Duke by 30 to win the 1990 NCAA championship, they could have left the building for the NBA.
The reason they stayed? Grgurich.
"Coach Gurg got him a ring," Johnson said, obviously pleased with the Mavericks' win over the Miami Heat. He signed one more autograph, looked at Howie and said, "Let's go get something to eat."
For the last six days, this interesting twosome — Landa was an assistant under Jim Bolla, before joining the men's staff after Tark left — have imparted their wisdom to local kids at Radford High. Worth every dime.
"Guys, it was great seeing you again," I said. "Let's don't wait another 20 years."
I told Carp that Larry was living in a townhouse provided by Tark. I also told him what Larry had said about Tark: "Coach beat the cancer in overtime." And Carp said Tark doesn't get around much anymore.
He also said that Gene Kilroy, who got my wife and I seats to see Frank Sinatra at the Riviera another lifetime ago, was in Larry's corner, trying to make sure the former NBA star remained on firm footing. Kilroy was Muhammad Ali's business manager and someone my wife introduced to me after a Mike Tyson fight with James "Bonecrusher" Smith.
While I was on the apron watching Tyson do a dance with Smith that exposed the flaws of Tyson's fight game, she somehow hooked up with Kilroy and LeRoy Neiman, who were ringside that fight night at the Las Vegas Hilton three years before Larry and I would meet. I still have a telegraph Kilroy gave me that Muhammad Ali had sent him years before.
"Small world, Paulie," Carp said, knowing my history with Kilroy and Johnson.
Small world, indeed. And a good one with guys like Johnson, Landa and Kilroy still in it.
Paul Arnett is the Star-Advertiser's sports editor.