There was a summer when the Policemen Rode horses through the Dixon Circle housing projects in South Dallas. Some cab drivers had been robbed and killed, and this was the police response, the horses. Larry Johnson played basketball. There was another summer—a couple of summers—when the cops built a little police station in the middle of the projects, simply to handle the upswing in business. Drugs were everywhere and guns were everywhere, and this seemed to be the proper response, the little police station. Larry Johnson played basketball.
He liked to play in the morning, before the heat came, but then again, he also liked to play in the afternoon and the early evening. He especially liked to play late at night. He played all the time. His mother would look out a window in apartment 204 at three in the morning and see him on the court, playing one-on-one with his friend Air Greg Williams. She would worry about the danger of the street, but not about the bad habits. Her son did not have the bad habits, even with the drug house downstairs and the drug houses everywhere. He played basketball.
"I'd look out the window," Dortha Johnson says. "It'd be so late, but there he was. Always basketball."
Just to make sure he remembered about the terrors of the streets, she would look through the local newspapers for the reports of neighborhood tragedies. See who died. See what happened. See who was involved with drugs. She wound up with a son who not only didn't do drugs but also didn't smoke or drink or get real crazy about anything.
"It would be Friday night, and there'd be parties everywhere," Williams says. "Everybody'd be getting his beer or whatever, getting dressed, ready to go. Larry and I had our own thing. Every Friday night, we'd drive out to Pizza Pizza, get ourselves two pizzas, then pick up two pints of praline-and-cream ice cream. We'd park the car at the same place every week, sit on the fender and eat. We'd talk with everyone, laugh, see who could make the other laugh the most. We'd be wearing our gym stuff. Then, we'd go across the street to the court...."
Larry Johnson played basketball.
He is going to be the Rookie of the Year, isn't he? The Charlotte Observer recently polled writers in all 27 NBA cities. The vote was 26-1. The promise Larry Johnson brought to the Charlotte Hornets in June as the first draft choice in the land—he signed a six-year contract worth nearly $20 million before he even dribbled a ball in the NBA—was not an illusion. He is the real stuff. He is 6'5¾" in his stocking feet, weighs 250 pounds, and no one makes him go anywhere on the floor he doesn't want to go. He has long arms and a prizefighter's determination. He is often compared with Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers and with Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz and with the best rebounding forwards imaginable. He is as good as he was supposed to be. And probably better.
The games continued in spite of the gunfire and the police sirens. Williams says there always was a little worry about the old idea that "a stray bullet has no name," but that was not enough to stop the basketball. This was hard-core playground action. Take the ball to the hole. Take your chances. Twelve baskets to win. Winners play. Losers sit. Everybody fights.
"You'd have a fight a week," Johnson says. "If you played Monday through Saturday and didn't have a fight, you knew you had to be ready for Sunday because you'd surely have a fight. Myself, I liked to get my fight over on Monday or Tuesday and not worry about it the rest of the week."
He tried boxing as a little kid at the Police Athletic League, just knocking those other little kids out, and he was a nine-year-old quarterback on a 14-year-old Pop Warner football team, but basketball was obviously his game. He was one of those kids who grow fast and without awkwardness, a man's body suddenly replacing the usual adolescent frame. He was 6'2" and about 190 pounds when he was in seventh grade. There was a charmed look about him, a special quality. The man's body seemed to have brought along a man's perspective. Who could get out of this place? Who could do something? If anyone could, this kid could.