The NBA and the NBA shoe appeal were dominated by Michael Jordan in the early 1990s (what didn't Jordan dominate in the 1990s?).
So, when Charlotte Hornets rookie sensation, Larry Johnson, was given a Converse shoe deal, their marketing team had to come up with something “fresh”.
Larry Johnson was an exciting player. His explosiveness to the hoop won him some fans and so did he play.
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 defeat Michael Jordan and Nike's shoe dominance?
No, unfortunately for Johnson and Converse, they would not dethrone Jordan and Nike, but their campaign helped skyrocket Johnson's shoes toward 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'd eventually be featured in a commercial with basketball greats, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson.
This 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 told me we were going to do a commercial with me, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They said they would have me on a gurney sleeping and covered up 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 then they say we have to name it. 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 go back and forth saying 'Larry' and 'Johnson.' Then I would raise up. So then I signed with them.”
After signing his deal, the people at Converse decided to go in a different route.
“Then they come back two months later after I spent the money and bought my mom a house, and they say, 'We’ve got another idea. We want to put you in a dress.' That was Grandmama,” Johnson said.
The marketing directors at Converse wanted to showcase their new lightweight Aero-Glide basketball shoes.
They wanted to make a funny commercial, so that's why they decided to dress Johnson up as a grandmother.
According to Johnson, Converse wanted to prove their new shoes were, “so light and so fast my Grandmama can whoop you in them.”
The heads of Converse didn't believe Johnson would agree to do this ad, but once pitched the idea, Johnson replied, “I’m in. Let’s do this.”
So, Converse shot their commercial with Johnson as the new character, “Grandmama”. Johnson wore a floral dress with a pearl necklace, cat-eye glasses, and a pillbox hat.
As Grandmama, Johnson was dunking all over the basketball court while moving with lightning speed. If you haven't seen the commercial, check it out here:
The Grandmama commercial became so successful that in 1993, Johnson's elderly character was featured in a Family Matters episode.
Larry Johnson's career was cut short from chronic back pain in 2001. He may have left the game too soon, but luckily for us fans, he left us a great commercial and a memorable character.