Larry Johnson burst on the college basketball scene in 1989 and took over. He was a man dominating boys. Physically, nothing could be done with him, whether he was at the three point line or hulking around in the paint.
He had this jumper that he took right in your face – daring you to block it, but you couldn’t. He bodied up with defenders and powered up and when he came down with his jersey untucked smiling, defenders felt like they were physically whupped. LJ seemed like he was playing with his sons. Before he was a Rebel, he averaged 25 points in 2 years at Odessa College where he was a 2-time Jumior College Player of the Year. Once he got to Vegas, the two-time first team All-American scored 1,617 points in 75 games at UNLV and shot a Rebel all-time best .643. In those four years, his teams went 134-13 and he shot 66.2 percent from the field.
How could this cat be this strong and this good while still in college? With averages of 21.6 points and 11.2 rebounds, he clowned the opposition and along with his UNLV teammates, left college basketball at his mercy. Johnson was a championship boxer – Jack Johnson of sorts on the basketball court. He beat you up with encapsulated strengh. It wasn't normal to see a man of his size and power enter the arena. It wasn't just about his physique, for Johnson damn near looked as old as his head coach Jerry Tarkanian. At that time, the game wasn't focused on weight training, but when Larry Johnson took over the sport, there was no choice for coaches other than getting their talent inside the weight room. Today power forwards sit out on the three point line or bring the ball up while every body yells '"big guard"! Back then, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Johnson took you down low, banged on everyone, spun and scored over and through everyone and simply made everyone look inferior. If there is anyone on the college level that could be labeled a power forward, it was LJ.
Johnson bullied everyone and took their basketball will with the meanest of intentions. He wanted to embarrass his peers and the John Wooden Award winner had no peer at his position.
UNLV was the squad the block supported because folks in the hood identified with the team as if they were playing for the Shark themselves. UNLV apparrel was everywhere and worn proudly. Folks defended UNLV against the status quo because this was the team they wanted to see.
The Rebels were appropriately named because the establishment was overly critical of their rebellious nature. They were seen as villains in the media, in the same vein as their successors, the Fab Five of Michigan.
Regardless of what really went down on Jerry Tarkanian’s watch, college basketball was witnessing the last true juggernaut. The NCAA was not ready for this type of team whether it was put together by traditional means or otherwise. This was Vegas. They were the embodiment of everything the city is on every end of the spectrum.
They were fast, strong, relentless on the break and talented, shutting down the opposition in Shark's omeba defense. Tarkanian had assembled the NCAA’s worst nightmare and the gold tooth and part in middle of Larry Johnson’s hair symbolized a new era of independence on the college level.
It was a time when college basketball wasn’t seen or reported with superficially corrupt eyes. The sport was protected back then by media and announcers alike because the game was as pretty as anything gold. There was no talk of paying athletes en masse, and the surburban lads entering the college landscape were as naïve to what really went down in the inner-city as the sport itself was to branding teams such as the Rebels.
They were too black, way too strong and ridiculously before its time. UNLV was Georgetown to the umteenth power because the discipline (or lack thereof) was different. Tarkanian let his athletes dominate physically instead of creating a defensive squad maintaining a respectful image under the guise of great coachessuch as John Chaney and John Thompson.
Chaney and Thompson did it their way and Tark definitely did it his way. The Rebels were unapologetically brash and told you what they were going to do with you before they did it with bass. Demolishing Duke in 1990 by an incredible score of 103-73 like it did almost every opponent before, the Rebels did it most certainly without a pause.
The decided favorite to win it all in 1991, LJ and UNLV were upset by the same Blue Devils, two games before becoming undefeated and immortal. Many question why Larry Johson double-clutched and passed up an open three with an opportunity to win, especially after Greg Anthony picked up a controversial 5th foul. But what they won't question is the greatness of his time on the college hardwood.