Way, way back in the early 1990s, there was a brief period of time when the most popular player in the NBA — okay, besides Michael Jordan — wore a flower-print housedress and a pillbox hat, and answered to the name “Grandmama.” Believe it or not, I’m not referring to Dennis Rodman. Grandmama was actually the alter ego of Larry Johnson, a (relatively) short power forward who won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1992 and helped the previously woeful Charlotte Hornets make a couple of playoff appearances.
Johnson was a very good player (though never quite great; chronic back problems ended his career in 2001), but he wasn’t a phenomenon because of what he did on the court. Instead, he owes his popularity — he’s a fan favorite to this day — in large part to Grandmama. “She” was created for an ingenious Converse shoe campaign that featured Johnson, wearing that housedress, dunking ferociously, thanks to her shoes. That was just one of a few different late ’80s and early ’90s campaigns, centered on athletes, that are memorable to this day because of how effectively they appealed to guys. Think of Nike’s spots featuring Mars Blackmon, the Spike Lee character from “She’s Gotta Have It” who became Michael Jordan’s foil. Or Penny Hardaway’s Li’l Penny commercials.
(Historical footnote: Converse originally pitched Johnson a commercial in which Larry Bird and Magic Johnson stand over Johnson like a couple of Dr. Frankensteins contemplating their monster. The superstars proceed to argue about what to name their creation; Bird wants “Larry,” Magic wants “Johnson.” That commercial reportedly never happened because either Bird or Magic refused to do it; Grandmama was Plan B.)
Those campaigns resonated with men because they employed humor, they showed off the athletes doing what they do best, and they were, for lack of a better word, weird: Mars Blackmon hectoring Michael Jordan about what makes him so great, and Jordan repeatedly denying it was his shoes? A creepy mini-Penny-Hardaway marionette voiced by Chris Rock screaming at everyone while essentially haunting the actual Penny Hardaway? An NBA power forward dunking while dressed as an elderly woman? Those ads not only moved a lot of shoes, they elevated the profiles of the athletes (yes, even Jordan).
But we haven’t we seen commercials like that since the 1990s. That’s not to say we haven’t seen good commercials featuring athletes since then. LeBron James starred in a series of Nike ads in which he played “The LeBrons,” a family of four dudes who all represented different aspects of himself. Chris Paul currently stars in State Farm ads in which he plays his long-lost twin, Cliff Paul, a State Farm agent who, like his brother, was “Born to Assist.” And Peyton Manning was great in his MasterCard “Priceless” commercials. Those ads are all clever, but they’re not as exciting or subversive as the older campaigns, and so they haven’t landed with guys in the same way. (Manning’s probably came the closest.) Twenty years from now, no one will really remember Cliff Paul and the LeBrons. Mention Grandmama or Li’l Penny to a guy in his 30s today, and he’ll instantly react.
I wasn’t a big basketball fan when I was a kid. But when I heard that team owner Michael Jordan (sans Mars Blackmon) decided to change the name of the Charlotte Bobcats back to the Charlotte Hornets, I thought of Grandmama — and immediately watched his/her commercials on YouTube. When I did, I couldn’t help but wonder why s/he doesn’t have a successor. Is it because athletes now worry about their images so much that they — or their handlers — won’t approve anything too offbeat? Or is it, conversely, because athletes can now easily project whatever persona they wish to project via Twitter and other media, and so don’t want an agency deciding that for them? After all, I’m guessing Larry Johnson was not a cross-dresser in real life, and Penny Hardaway was not tormented by loud puppets.
Regardless, it’s to their detriment — and to the detriment of the products they endorse — that today’s athletes don’t play games with their personas like athletes once did. Because men would react with their attention, their fandom, and their wallets. And I’ll bet they’d even excitedly watch the commercials on YouTube decades later.