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UNLV rejecting Larry Johnson was a bad idea

August 02, 2011 3:00 AM by Mark Mayer

There’s a lot of love for Larry Johnson at Twain and Swenson’s Bagelmania. But, only a few miles away at UNLV, the present administration hasn’t shown the same for its all-time greatest basketball player.

"I don’t like those Arizona people (AD Jim Livengood came over from the University of Arizona) in the administration and they don’t like me," Johnson said. "It’s not UNLV Runnin’ Rebels no more, it’s UNLV Wildcats right now."

Hard to believe, but it was nearly a generation ago that LJ, his best pals Stacey Augman, Greg Anthony and Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels were national champions – the toast of the town.

"Outside of gambling, we put Las Vegas on the map," said Johnson, who at age 42 is a successful businessman with a 15-year-old son, Lasani. "I was bitter for years at the way they treated us and Coach Tark. The administration looked at us as villains. Tark was like my father. If they messed with him, they messed with me."

Johnson’s anger was lessening over the past two seasons as he and then coach Lon Kruger were putting the pieces back to a program that lost touch for years with the community.

"Kruger gained my respect for what he was doing and the way he was trying to bring back previous Rebels, who had a bitter taste in their mouth with the University for how the Tark situation was handled," Johnson said. "Lon did an excellent job extending the olive branch. I was attending more games, going to alumni banquets and all the alumni golf tournaments. I was getting back involved."

When Kruger left for the University of Oklahoma and Johnson reacted by saying he would love to coach the Rebels, that bitterness returned when the administration never contacted him.

"People all over town, wherever I went, asked me if I wanted to coach," Johnson said. "They wanted me and Stacey, knowing he had been an assistant coach. They had to hire him (as an assistant), knowing they would never consider me."

And just like UNLV lost LJ, they have failed to keep a number of outstanding players from Bishop Gorman and Findlay Prep in-state.

"It’s all about recruiting and identification with past performers at the school," Johnson said. The administration turned its back on us and consequently players have left for Texas, Duke and other top national programs. Today, I would probably do the same."

Johnson did smile recalling his only casino experience while at UNLV.

"Gambling wasn’t a temptation to me, said Johnson, who wasn’t even aware UNLV games could be wagered on in sports books. "Me and Greg had about $60 between us. We were about to eat and go catch a show. Greg is from Vegas and wanted to stop at one of the casinos. He put like $20 on blackjack and ended up winning $40.

"Greg then turned that $60 into $100 and I thought it was pretty neat to see that happen in just four or five minutes," Johnson said. "That was the extent of my gambling the two years I was here."

Johnson lives in Las Vegas and still never bets on games. He will, however, play golf anytime. And, well.

"When I am not doing promotional work for my beverage company, I am playing golf," he said. "My company is based in New York due to my connection with the New York Knicks."

It was during the 1998-99 season with the Knicks that Johnson was involved in the last NBA lockout. It resulted in a 50-game shortened season with Johnson’s Knicks losing to San Antonio in the NBA Finals.

"I see the same thing happening this season," Johnson said. "It’s a catch-22 with the economy definitely not in a good place right now. I never in the past was on the owners’ side, but I do feel their pain. I think the players need to make some sacrifices."

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