When he was still at UNLV, Larry Johnson was one of the most dominant college basketball players in history. My dad still uses him as a reference point for college centers and power forwards he considers potential superstars, having compared both Elton Brand and Emeka Okafor to the college version of LJ in the past. Unfortunately, Johnson was never really the same after he hurt his back during his third year in the league. Even though he made a few All-Star teams, and had an extremely popular shoe commercial where he dressed up as his own grandmother, LJ didn't live up to expectations.
Eventually he ended up on the New York Knicks. Before the 98-99 season, he re-invented himself and his game. He converted to Islam. He became a vegetarian. Lacking the leaping ability and strength that he had before, LJ developed a perimeter game. He took far more three-point shots - and made more of them - than ever before. Perhaps most importantly, he started throwing up The Big L.
Right fist clenched, elbow bent, pointing at the roof. Left arm perpendicular, left fist pointing at his right elbow. It formed a great big L. L for Larry. Larry Johnson would run to the other end of the court holding the Big L high, infuriating the other team and probably some of his own fans, and then he'd set himself for some half-assed defense.
I'm not sure it occurred to Larry that making an "L" with your fingers usually signifies "Loser". But maybe it's different when you use both arms, I dunno.
The Big L gained its greatest fame during the 1999 NBA Playoffs, when LJ was fouled while attempting a three-pointer against the Indiana Pacers, and ended up converting a game-winning four-point play. Of course, between the successful shot and the subsequent free throw, LJ threw up The Big L, and that became the lasting image of the game.
The post-game interview was classic:
LJ: Praise Allah.
Reporter: So, Larry, were you just in the zone?
LJ: No, no. No zone. Allah Akbar.
Reporter: Um, that's a prayer...
Eventually, the Knicks went all the way to the Finals, where LJ made headlines for refusing to talk to the media, then cursing about his unwillingness to talk to the media, then finally talking to the media and calling the Knicks a band of "rebellious slaves", then getting criticized by Bill Walton, then telling Walton he should "check his history and see how many slaves his ancestors had." Tremendous stuff. Incidentally, the Knicks lost in five games to the Spurs, and LJ shot 2-18 on three-pointers.
My favorite response to The Big L came later in the Pacers series, and may or may not have been a shot at Larry Johnson's Muslim faith. One of the Pacers' guards (I think it was Travis Best) sunk a three-pointer, and then made a very LJ-like arm gesture as he ran down the court. When asked after the game, the player stated that he had thrown up "The Big J". Which stood for Jesus, of course.