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 sell 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 reputation 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 line."
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," Bristow said.