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."