(Long Island, N.Y.) Allan Houston has company. With the hiring of Larry Johnson as the New York Knicks Basketball and Business Operations Representative, the front office now has a pair of the starting five from the 1999 Eastern Conference champion squad.
The timing couldn’t be better, with the current version clinging on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. 13 years ago, the Knicks – also in a strike-shortened season – squeaked into the postseason and shocked everyone by making it to the NBA Finals, where they lost to a much better San Antonio Spurs team.
But the mere fact that the players and fans back then believed that the impossible can be attained made it a special spring at Madison Square Garden. Johnson, known as L.J. to his legions of fans, was the heart and soul of that run.
“I consider coming back to a franchise that I had so much success with a great honor,” said Johnson, who will be involved in player development and certain business initiatives. “As I move onto the next phase of my career, I have been given an opportunity to touch so many different areas of the organization – helping young players, connecting with the community and actively involving myself in the business of basketball. I couldn’t be more excited to get going and learn as much as I can.”
The aforementioned Houston (who is the Knicks assistant general manager and general manager of the team’s NBDL affiliate, the Erie BayHawks) made the big basket at the end of Game 5 in the opening round of the playoffs that year in Miami, propelling the Knicks further into the postseason.
That set up an even more amazing feat by Johnson in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden. L.J.’s four-point play with five seconds left on the game clock was the difference in a one-point victory and put him right up there in MSG lore.
Drafted first overall in 1991 by the Charlotte Hornets, the UNLV product made an immediate impact on the league (winning the NBA Rookie of the Year Award) and was a very marketable figure. Johnson’s “Grandmama” character on Converse sneaker commercials was a staple of early 90s television.
A back injury during the 1993 season actually broadened Johnson’s game, as the power forward who dominated the inside now also became lethal shooting from the outside, and even from three-point range. The Hornets locker room was full of bickering between the team’s two superstars and Alonzo Mourning was the first to go. It seemed as if Johnson had won the battle between the two big men, but Charlotte chose to also trade him during the offseason prior to the 1995-96 campaign.
The Knicks were the proud recipients (in exchange for forwards Anthony Mason and Brad Lohaus) and Johnson, while not being able to duplicate the perennial All-Star type of numbers that he put up in Charlotte, was a team leader and major inspiration in the locker room.
His back kept getting worse and Johnson was forced to retire in 2001, but he has always remained a key figure in conversations involving the Knicks. Now he will be around in person.
Hopefully the good luck charm that the team needs to solidify their second straight trip to the playoffs.