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."