Iconic Sports Commercials: Larry Johnson's Grandmama

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

How it came about

On the elevator ride up to Larry Johnson’s swanky Dallas apartment, Pete Favat’s heart raced like he had just run a six-minute mile.

He wondered what he could possibly say to coax a 6-foot-6, 250-pound basketball phenom into dressing up like an old lady for a national ad campaign.

It was only days before Charlotte would take Johnson with the No. 1 pick in the 1991 NBA draft, and shoe companies were already circling the heralded former UNLV star. Converse sent Favat to Dallas to show Johnson in person the campaigns it intended to build around him if he agreed to an endorsement deal.

At that time, Converse was one of a handful of second-tier brands fighting for Nike’s scraps in the fiercely competitive basketball footwear market. Stodgy, risk-averse leadership had long relied on marketing and design strategies of a bygone era, contributing to Converse falling behind its wealthier, more innovative competitors.

“I once had to make up T-shirts for a dealer conference at Converse that said, ‘I am not the target market,’” Favat said. “It was a bunch of older guys who had grown up before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and were still looking at basketball in their terms. Plus there wasn’t a lot of diversity at Converse either. Put it that way.”

Recognizing that Converse needed to freshen up its image and draw attention away from its competitors, new vice president of marketing Joanna Jacobson asked the company’s ad agency to come up with a bold, splashy campaign with Johnson as its centerpiece. The most audacious suggestion from Favat and partner Rich Herstek introduced Converse’s lightweight Aero-Glide basketball shoes by putting a funny twist on a familiar expression.

The script called for Johnson to show viewers the shoes and say, “They’re so light and so fast my Grandmama can whoop you in them.” Johnson would then prove that by morphing into his slam-dunking, elbow-throwing, gold-toothed septuagenarian alter ego.

Not only did Grandmama wear a flower-print dress and gray wig, she also rocked accessories like a pillbox hat, cat-eye glasses and gaudy jewelry. Johnson resembled a churchgoing elderly woman from head-to-toe, except for the black and teal Aero-Glides on his feet.

“It made sense for us to do something like ‘Grandmama’ because the competition at the time was Michael Jordan,” Herstek said. “No human being could beat Michael Jordan, so we had to travel to the land of fantasy instead.”

From the start, Favat feared Converse’s biggest hurdle would be getting Johnson on board with wearing a dress. Without the prized rookie’s approval, the Grandmama campaign would never make the leap from a storyboard to a TV screen.

When Favat began his presentation inside Johnson’s apartment, he opened with another idea that he and Herstek had for a commercial, one that had the rookie co-starring alongside Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Only after completing that pitch did Favat direct Johnson’s attention to a second storyboard still face down on the table.

“Before I get to this next idea, I’ve seen how big and fast you are,” Favat told Johnson. “I’m about flip this board over and if you don’t like it, I’m going to throw it at you and run for the elevator in time to get the hell out of here.”

His warning complete, Favat then turned over the board to reveal a photo of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald posing in a fancy hat, a knee-length dress and vintage glasses. Favat explained that Converse wanted to dress Johnson up like that and have him demolish other NBA players while disguised as an old lady.

“I was ready for him to punch me,” Favat recalled.

Replied Johnson instead, “I’m in. Let’s do this.”

Impact on pop culture

The first time Herstek fully realized the popularity of the campaign he helped create, the Charlotte Hornets held a night in Johnson’s honor during his rookie season.

Twenty-four thousand fans received Grandmama masks when they entered the Charlotte Coliseum

“Everybody in the stands had a big gold-toothed grin, a pillbox hat and a gray wig,” Herstek recalled. “For those of us who worked on the campaign, that was a fun night.”

At the height of the campaign during the early 1990s, Grandmama was a full-fledged national phenomenon. Johnson won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award in 1992 and made the Eastern Conference all-star team in 1993 and 1995, yet you’d hear more fans and SportsCenter anchors refer to him by Grandmama than by his given name.

In 1993, Grandmama even guest-starred on an episode of Family Matters. When Steve Urkel’s brother partners with someone else for a 2-on-2 basketball tournament, he turns to Grandmama to help him get revenge.

“It was something that really seemed to resonate with fans,” former Hornets communications director Harold Kaufman said. “On the road or at home, you’d hear shouts from the stands of ‘Hey, Grandmama!’ as often as ‘Hey, LJ!’

A lot of the credit for the campaign’s success should go to Johnson. Not only was he a dynamic talent before lingering back injuries robbed him of his bounce, he was also uniquely suited to play the role of Grandmama.

It was especially fun for fans to see Johnson don a flowered dress and pearls as a result of the contrast between that getup and his loud-mouthed, relentlessly physical style of play. Johnson also possessed the charisma to pull off the role and the confidence to laugh at himself instead of bristling when other players teased him.

“The Grandmama character worked for Larry because he was totally secure in his masculinity and was a genuinely playful personality said Rick Bonnell, the longtime Hornets beat writer for the Charlotte Observer. “This wouldn’t have worked with a lot of other stars of the time. For Larry, grinning with the gold tooth, it played to his charm.”

Converse’s decision to take a risk with the Grandmama campaign helped it temporarily regain a foothold in the basketball market. The company produced nine different Grandmama spots, each more over the top than the next.

In a funny 1993 spot, Grandmama laments that she’ll need “a rain check on her bikini wax” after Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin Johnson enters the hair salon and challenges her to a game of 1-on-1. In another spot that same year, Johnson and Grandmama combine to put a modern spin on the classic “Old Woman in a Shoe” nursery rhyme.

“The reason why Grandmama poked through was because it was so absurd,” Favat said. “Converse had never done anything absurd before, but Joanna Jacobson was able to talk them into it. She had to be really brave and say, ‘Screw it, let’s take a chance.’”

The commercial Johnson wanted to do more than Grandmama

Of the two concepts for commercials that Favat pitched to help Converse land Johnson in 1991, the Grandmama idea was initially the former UNLV star’s second choice

Johnson actually preferred the other clever spot that had aging Converse stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird figuratively passing the torch to him.

The premise was that Magic and Bird are mad scientists in an operating room working together to create the perfect basketball player. Once they finish, they start bickering over what to call their basketball frankenstein.

“What about Magic Bird?” Magic says.

“I don’t know,” Bird responds. “How about Larry Johnson?”

Only then does Johnson rise off the gurney where he had been lying underneath a sheet.

It’s one of those lost commercials that should have been made because it would have been great,” former Houston Effler creative director Mike Wilson said

Among folks from Converse and Houston Effler, there are conflicting memories of why the commercial never made it to production.

Some recall either Magic or Bird turning down the chance to participate. A lingering back injury frequently immobilized Bird at that time and forced his retirement in 1992. Magic announced he was retiring on Nov. 7, 1991 after testing positive for HIV.

Others remember Converse simply preferring the Grandmama idea because it was bolder and had greater potential as a multi-commercial campaign instead of just a one-off.

“We never wanted to do that one because there were no legs to it,” producer Harry McCoy said. “With Grandmama, we all knew if [Larry Johnson] agreed to do it, it was going to be amazing.”

Johnson enjoyed participating in the Grandmama campaign, but he has previously admitted he the other spot was what sold him on signing with Converse.

“I’m like, ‘What happened to Larry and Magic?’” Johnson told Larry Brown Sports in 2011.

How Ella Fitzgerald inspired Grandmama’s look

In order to find the appropriate look for Larry Johnson’s alter ego, the Houston Effler team sifted through dozens of pictures of African-American grandmothers.

“We were looking for a church lady type thing,” Herstek said. “Larry being from Texas, we wanted a certain Southern charm and gentility.”

The biggest inspiration turned out to be the picture of Ella Fitzgerald that Favat showed Johnson during his initial presentation. Herstek and his colleagues borrowed Grandmama’s flamboyant pillbox hat and cat-eye glasses from Fitzgerald’s outfit in that 1988 American Express print ad.

This is the Ella Fitzgerald photo that served as inspiration for Grandmama's distinctive look. (photo via Pete Favat)
This is the Ella Fitzgerald photo that served as inspiration for Grandmama's distinctive look. (photo via Pete Favat)

The teal flower-print dress was producer Harry McCoy’s brainchild. He wanted Grandmama’s dress to be the jersey color of the Charlotte Hornets because he figured she’d want to show that she was proud of her grandson.

Just as important as Grandmama’s look was her distinctive name. Neither Favat nor Herstek recall any discussion about what to call Johnson’s alter-ego, but they’re grateful they chose “Grandmama” instead of something more conventional and forgettable like “Grandma.”

“As soon as we said it, we fell in love with it and it stuck,” Herstek said. “It’s really amazing what a single syllable will do.”

The first time Johnson tried on the Grandmama costume, it was in the bathroom of McCoy’s North Carolina hotel room. When Johnson emerged as Grandmama, everyone in the room cracked up instantly.

“We all just laughed, including Larry,” McCoy said. “He came out, looked in the mirror and was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to do this, man.’”

The story of Grandmama’s million-dollar Super Bowl ad

Before he asked cash-starved Converse to drop more than $1 million on a 30-second Super Bowl spot starring Grandmama, McCoy stopped by a nearby military surplus store to purchase a prop.

It was a 10-inch bullet, an item that the producer hoped would carry symbolic meaning when he presented it to Converse vice president of marketing Joanna Jacobson.

“It was my job to explain how much the commercial would cost,” McCoy said. “I came into the room with this big bullet on this red velvet pillow, I got down on my knees in front of Joanna and I said, ‘It’s a million dollars. Please bite the bullet on this one. It will be worth it’”

One Super Bowl commercial may be insignificant to the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola or Budweiser, but the purchase of a $900,000 spot on America’s most-watched telecast was a landmark step for Converse. Only the popularity of the Grandmama campaign and the growth of Converse’s basketball business persuaded the company to take such a risk.

Houston Effler’s Mike Wilson and Mickey Paxton based the concept of the spot on Johnson’s unwillingness to shoot from the perimeter. He attempted less than one 3-pointer per game his first three seasons in the NBA and he made less than one quarter of those.

Borrowing liberally from Wizard of Oz, Converse’s Super Bowl commercial opens with a tornado dropping Grandmama into Three-Point Land, where she is greeted by a throng of little people playing basketball. Grandmama fears she’ll be stuck in Three-Point-Land forever until Johnson appears in the sky like Glinda the Good Witch and sends down a pair of Converse sneakers, enabling Grandmama to click her heels together and rocket home to The Low Post.

The ad probably would have been easier to follow as a 60-second spot instead of only 30, but Converse didn’t have a spare $900,000 to spend. Besides, it still cracked the top 10 in USA Today’s 1994 Super Bowl Ad Meter, not bad for a company fighting to remain relevant in the basketball market.

“It was almost impossible to get through what Nike and Reebok were doing at the time,” Wilson said. “It was all about Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Shaq. For us to even get noticed was a massive win. We were punching way above our weight, and it turned out to be something people still remember even today.”

Three Fun Facts

1. Two of the era’s most famous crossdressers crossed paths when Johnson and actor Robin Williams both appeared on David Letterman’s show on Nov. 30, 1993. Former Charlotte Hornets communications director Harold Kaufman recalls both men having a backstage conversation about playing Grandmama and Mrs. Doubtfire. “They chatted about what it was like to dress up as a woman,” Kaufman said. “It was pretty comical.”

2. Before filming the initial Grandmama spot, Converse secretly flew Johnson’s mother to North Carolina so that she could be on set. Dortha Johnson could hardly contain her laughter when her son emerged from hair and makeup dressed as Grandmama. “She just lost her s--- and he just lost his s---,” Favat recalled. “It broke the ice. I think she thought Larry looked a lot like his grandmother.”

3. One of the funniest Grandmama spots was entirely unplanned. It starts with a police lineup scene, the camera panning across a row of old ladies as ominous background music plays. When the camera reaches Grandmama, it stops and Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer barks, “It’s her! She stole the ball! I’m sure of it!” Recalled Herstek with a laugh, “That was something we invented on set while they were setting up for another shoot. I think we shot that in 10 minutes.”

One last behind the scenes story

There was one problem the creators of the Grandmama campaign struggled to overcome: The quality of their commercials were often better than the quality of Converse’s basketball shoes.

“The reality is the shoes weren’t as good as what other brands were making,” Wilson said. “In particular, the ones from the Three-Point-Land spot were downright terrible. They were big and heavy and they had laces made out of some material that wouldn’t stay tied. Larry wouldn’t even wear them.”

Clunky shoes became the least of Converse’s problems by 1995 when its biggest innovation backfired.

To compete with Reebok’s Pump and Nike’s Air, Converse introduced React Juice, a liquid gel the company put in the heel and ankle of its performance sneakers to provide increased support and comfort. React Juice proved to be a short-lived innovation because the fluid leaked from several models of Converse shoes, creating an injury risk and leading to a recall.

“The product flaws became a problem,” Favat admitted. “Nike had an R&D center with like 600 employees crafting and creating these great shoes. Converse had like three dudes in a lab in North Reading, Massachusetts. There was no way they could battle that.”

Unable to compete with its competitors, Converse declared bankruptcy in 2001 and was bought out by Nike two years later. Converse has since evolved from an athletic shoe brand into one that specializes in casual footwear.