Larry Johnson on Grand Ma Ma’s Sweet Tea, UNLV, Converse, Nike, and Coaching
Former UNLV All-American and NBA All-Star Larry Johnson was the inspiration for the famous Grand Ma Ma character Converse marketed. Starring in the commercials that promoted “React Juice,” Grand Ma Ma was easily one of the most successful sneaker campaigns the NBA has seen. Years after Johnson’s NBA career came to an end, the Grand Ma Ma character is still beloved by basketball fans. Larry has used it promote a new line of Sweet Teas his beverage company is producing. Folks on the East Coast can begin to look for Grand Ma Ma’s Southern Sweet Tea on the shelves, and before long the hope is to have it in stores across the country.
Larry Brown Sports was lucky enough to talk with the former UNLV, Hornets, and Knicks star and we covered a wide range of subjects including the National Championship Game against Duke, his association with Converse and how a slight from Nike began that relationship, his feelings on coaching, and much more.
Larry Brown Sports: Recently Paul Silas said that Michael Jordan could still score 20 points a game in the NBA, what about you, how’s your game?
LJ: No, I can’t get two rebounds or score any points now. I left it all on the court when I played, my back is so bad.
LBS: Is it bad enough to hurt doing day-to-day activities?
LJ: I know my back by now so I have the day-to-day thing figured out, but I keep my weight down to keep the stress off of it. I’m an avid golfer now so if I play two days in a row, I know the next four-five days I need to ice. Sometimes I’ll show some basketball stuff to my sons and after 15 minutes, I’m done for two days.
LBS: We wrote about the Grand Ma Ma’s Sweet Tea release two months ago, how did that come about?
LJ: I started a beverage company a few years ago and started out selling spring water. We moved into a sports drink, and the guy I’m partners with came up with an idea with Grand Ma Ma’s Southern Sweet Tea to piggy back on the Grand Ma Ma Converse ads.
LBS: The Grand Ma Ma character was always huge for me growing up and popular with all my friends. Do you still get love for the Grand Ma Ma character?
LJ: Absolutely, absolutely. I can be out in public and some people will remember me for my basketball, and others might remember me for the Grand Ma Ma character.
LBS: Who came up with the idea in the first place, was it something Converse did, was it a joint effort?
LJ: It was Converse. When I signed with them they had a bunch of young guys working for them full of energy and ideas, and that one took off. It’s a funny story how it started. Coming out of college, I was going to be the number one pick. I was coming out of UNLV which is a big time Nike school and that’s all we ever wore. I couldn’t wait to sign with Nike coming out of college.
And believe it or not, Nike did not sign me. They flat out told me they didn’t think I was going to be a good pro. They went after Billy Owens, Kenny Anderson, and Dikembe Mutumbo as their three main guys. I was the number one pick and they didn’t have faith in my abilities. Converse came to me after that saying ‘we love you, we have a great idea for a commercial.’ And they pitched me a great idea.
They said I would be on a gurney like I was being operated on, and they would have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as the doctors. They would do a mock operation, and when they’re finished they’d say ‘we have the perfect basketball player’ and they were going to argue over his name with Bird saying “Larry” and Magic saying “Johnson.” I signed on the dotted line, I bought my mom a house, and they came back four months later saying they were going to shoot another commercial with me in a dress and I’m like ‘what happened to Larry and Magic?’ Eventually they told me one of the guys didn’t want to do it — they didn’t say who.
LBS: Let me ask about your career. Being from Odessa Texas, how did you wind up at UNLV?
LJ: I didn’t have the grades coming out of high school so I went to junior college. I made the junior olympic team coming out of high school — just one of three high schoolers to make that team — and my roommate on that team was Stacey Augmon for six weeks.
Everybody on the team was telling me to come to their team except him.
You can’t get 10 words from him — he’s just one of those laid back guys that doesn’t speak a lot. Stevie Thompson kept trying to get me to go to Syracuse, Gary Payton was trying to get me to go to Oregon State with him, and Stacey was the only guy not trying to get me to come to school. We kept in contact, and then we went to try out for another team a year later and wound up roommates again!
LBS: Did you give any thought to those schools guys were trying to recruit you to?
LJ: No, no, not really. The schools that recruited junior college players well got in the picture like Oklahoma and Georgetown. It was just like four schools I was looking at and UNLV was one of them.
LBS: I know you went back to school recently to get your degree, what made you decide to do that?
LJ: I needed the degree. When I have the beverage company all set, I wouldn’t mind getting into coaching. I tell people all the time I love the game but I don’t like all the b.s. that a head coach has to deal with at the pro level and sometimes at the college level. If I could do something at the high school level or even the junior high school level where I get directly to the youngsters I would love to do something like that, so I had to go back to get a degree for something like that.
LBS: What are some of the challenges that guys in the pros face as head coaches?
LJ: Unless you’re Phil Jackson or those guys in the pro level, when things are going wrong they get rid of coaches before players, so now you gotta deal with these million dollar egos — I know because I was one. Stacey’s an assistant with Denver and I ask all the time how he does it. I’ve actually turned down three assistant jobs including Chicago where I’m really close with Tom Thibodeau.
LBS: Do you think you could go back to the NBA and work as an assistant without much of a problem?
LJ: I would hope so. I go back to these New York games and see these youngsters and they almost make me cry with all the love they show me. I told Amare Stoudemire he’s the man, and he throws it right back at me. I have a really good reputation with the players and I don’t want to mess it up. I think I could coach — Thibodeau wanted me because of my passion — but I just wouldn’t want to mess it up. I had to tell [Thibodeau] that my heart wouldn’t be in it, and he said he wanted me because of my passion and my heart.
LBS: Do you think it would change for you one day where you would want to do it?
LJ: My heart is watching the guys, not being an assistant coach in the NBA.
LBS: A lot of guys say the young players don’t respect the older players or know the history as well, but it seems to me it’s the opposite for you.
LJ: Yup, it’s the total opposite for me. When I went to the Knicks game, I was getting all sorts of attention from players constantly — and those are young guys. If some of the young guys don’t know the history, they don’t know. When I was 19 there were things I didn’t know, but you never disrespect anyone. I definitely don’t see the youngsters being disrespectful and that’s what’s important.
Read Page 2 of the Interview
Larry talks about Charles Barkley being a hypocrite, coming into the Duke game unprepared, and the HBO documentary on the Runnin’ Rebels