Former UNLV star Larry Johnson, 42, is a pitchman again. He is hawking Grandmama Sweet Southern Tea for his company, Hall of Fame Beverages. Johnson also said he’d love to return to Vegas to coach his alma mater. It’s like the ’90s all over again.
You probably never imagined Larry Johnson enjoying a nice cold glass of iced tea, much less selling the product. But apparently Johnson’s trademark gold tooth is also a sweet tooth.
According to Hall of Fame Beverages’ website, the tea is inspired by sweet tea from Johnson’s childhood in Texas.
“This line of flavored teas is currently in development and will come in sweetened natural flavors reminiscent of the cool refreshment from hot summer afternoons sitting on the porch at Grandmama’s house,” the description on the site reads.
That sounds like an easy afternoon, the exact opposite of the hard labor Johnson forced upon those who tried to guard him.
Johnson, who didn’t have exemplary grades coming out of high school, started out at Odessa Junior College in Texas. He dominated that level, winning JC player of the year honors both seasons he played at Odessa.
He averaged 22.3 points as a freshman and more than 29.0 points as a sophomore there. Johnson’s play served notice to NBA scouts, many of whom said that he could have gone directly from junior college to the NBA.
Johnson instead chose to join UNLV, play under coach Jerry Tarkanian and alongside future NBA players Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony.
In his first season, the Runnin’ Rebels dispatched a vaunted Duke team, led by Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, by a record 30-point margin to win the 1990 national title. Johnson had 22 points and 11 rebounds in the victory.
With the city rallying behind it like never before – and that’s hard to do in a place laden with transplants and tourists – UNLV ran to a 27-0 regular-season record in 1991 despite claims of recruiting violations and misconduct.
The NCAA allowed the Rebels to defend their title before punishing them, a feat they almost accomplished. They went back to the Final Four in 1991 where they fell, 79-77, in a rematch with eventual champion Duke.
In that game, Johnson famously passed on an open 3-pointer, which would have been the go-ahead shot – only to pass to teammate Anderson Hunt, who clanged his attempt.
UNLV’s 45-game winning streak was over, and it would take Johnson a while to get over that loss. In March, he told Larry Brown Sports that it’s hard for him to watch the game, a contest in which he scolds himself for playing too nonchalant.
In the end, Johnson’s time in Vegas was a smashing success. He left school with the 1991 Naismith and Wooden awards before getting drafted first overall in the 1991 draft by the Charlotte Hornets.
Johnson earned his swagger with the Hornets, with whom his “Grandmama” character was born.
The name of the tea is based the character from past Converse commercials, one of the most famous shoe apparel commercials of all time in which Johnson dressed as an old grandmother but still dunked on the competition.
Of course, Grandmama almost never happened. Johnson wanted to sign with Nike, but he says the company told him they didn’t think he’d be a good pro. When Johnson signed with Converse instead, he did it with the intention of a very different ad campaign that involved getting operated on by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Johnson found success on the court as well, winning the 1992 Rookie of the Year, playing with the Hornets from 1991-96 and making two NBA All-Star teams before a back injury slowed him down.
He eventually reinvented himself as a low-post scorer and spot-up 3-point shooter on the Knicks (1996-2001), with whom he helped send to the 1999 NBA Finals with a famous four-point play against the Indiana Pacers.
These days, he does some promotional work with the Knicks but has turned down opportunities to be an assistant coach. Tom Thibodeau recruited him for his Chicago Bulls staff.
“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,” Johnson told Larry Brown Sports.
But now, Johnson – who lives in Dallas – told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he would be interested in coaching at UNLV, which recently hired Johnson’s former teammate Dave Rice to replace Lon Kruger.
“I would love to do it,” Johnson told the newspaper in April, speaking of the head job before Rice’s hire. “This situation is just like ideal. It’s close to my heart. If they hire me, we would get back to being the Runnin’ Rebels.”
Augmon, Johnson’s aforementioned running mate, has been hired as an assistant at UNLV, possibly opening the door Johnson’s hire at some point in the future. The Rebels’ staff currently is full.
For now, Johnson will have to sit back and sip on some sweet tea until the time is right.