When Larry Johnson’s “Grandmama” became a global hit

The NBA and the appeal of NBA footwear was dominated by Michael Jordan in the early 1990s (what didn’t Jordan dominate in the 1990s?).

So when Charlotte Hornets rookie sensation Larry Johnson got a Converse shoe deal, their marketing team had to come up with something “new.”


Grandmother

Larry Johnson was an exciting player. His hoop explosiveness won him fans and he performed too.

As a rookie, Johnson averaged 19.2 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. This helped him win the NBA Rookie Of The Year award.

But could Johnson do what no NBA player could do at the time and overcome the shoe dominance of Michael Jordan and Nike?

No, unfortunately for Johnson and Converse, they wouldn’t dethrone Jordan and Nike, but their campaign helped push Johnson’s shoes to the top of the basketball shoe list.

Johnson said in an interview that he originally signed the shoe deal with Converse because he was told he would eventually be featured in a commercial with basketball greats Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

That made sense, since Bird and Johnson both had shoe deals with Converse at the time. Johnson would give an interview in 2010 where he spoke about the incident:

“When I signed with Converse out of college, they said we were going to do a commercial with me, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They said they’d make me sleep on a stretcher and covered So you don’t see me. Larry Bird was on one side and Magic Johnson was on the other. They were doctors. They were creating the best basketball player. So they say we have to name him. Larry Bird was going to say: “His name should be Larry,” and Magic was going to say, “His name should be Johnson. Then they would come and go saying ‘Larry’ and ‘Johnson’. So I’d get up. So I signed with them.”

After signing his deal, the folks at Converse decided to go a different route.

“Then they come back two months later after I’ve spent the money and bought my mom a house, and they say, ‘We have another idea. We want to put a dress on you. It was Grandma’ , Johnson said.

Converse marketing directors wanted to showcase their new lightweight Aero-Glide basketball shoes.

They wanted to do a fun commercial, so they decided to dress Johnson up as a grandma.

According to Johnson, Converse wanted to prove that their new shoes were “so light and fast that my grandma can blow your mind.”

Converse officials didn’t think Johnson would agree to do the ad, but once the idea was floated, Johnson responded: “I’m in. Let’s do this.”

So, Converse shot their ad with Johnson as the new character, “Grandmama.” Johnson wore a floral dress with a pearl necklace, cat-eye glasses and a pillbox hat.

As a grandmother, Johnson would dive all over the basketball court while moving at lightning speed. If you haven’t seen the ad, watch it here:

The Grandmama commercial was so successful that in 1993 Johnson’s elderly character was featured in a Family matters episode.

Larry Johnson’s career was cut short by chronic back pain in 2001. He may have left the game too soon, but luckily for us fans, he left us great publicity and a memorable character.

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