Original Old School: Fast Breakin’

With another do-it-all Lakers forward finally making his presence felt this postseason (Lamar Odom), it’s a good time to look back at a franchise legend who made his name as a clutch performer that always rose to the occasion in the Playoffs: James Worthy. Smooth and graceful, the Hall-of-Famer was as essential to Showtime’s championship run as any other player. Alan Paul sat down with the UNC man back in December of 2003 (SLAM 74).-Ed.

James Worthy, SLAM 74, Old School.

by Alan Paul

When James Worthy announced his retirement in 1994 after 12 years and three rings with the Lakers, his longtime teammate Magic Johnson called him “one of the top 10 players in playoff history.” It was hard to argue: By then, “Big Games James” had earned an MVP Award from the ’88 Finals to go with his Most Outstanding Player award from the ’82 NCAA Final Four. On the Showtime Lakers, Worthy was generally the third-billed star behind Magic and Kareem, but he always rose to the occasion and often became the man when the chips were down. His career playoff average of 21.1 ppg far surpassed his regular season 17.6, and Worthy had his first career triple-double in Game 7 of the ’88 Finals, driving a sword through the Pistons’ heart with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.

“I really think that you should be better in the playoffs,” confirms Worthy, who now works as an anchor on the Lakers’ pre- and postgame TV shows. “You’re not traveling as much, and you’re focused on one team and often one player at a time.”

A 6-9 small forward who scored countless points in transition, often finishing the Lakers’ vaunted fast breaks with his trademark swooping, one-handed jams, Worthy played for the NBA title seven times. “James was the X factor on those Laker teams,” former Celtics center Robert Parish told a crowd at the Basketball Hall of Fame when he and Worthy were inducted together in September. “As good as Magic and Kareem were, I always felt James made the difference.”

Worthy is now trying to make a difference in another way, helping raise money for the Boys & Girls Club in his hometown of Gastonia, NC. He has long been active with the organization, and he filmed a segment of Wheel of Fortune for the long-running game show’s NBA Week (set to air in mid-November) to benefit the charity. Before spinning the wheel, he sat backstage sipping coffee and discussing his career.

SLAM: You’ve finally been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and you were named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest team, so you’ve gotten your personal accolades—but it wasn’t always clear that would happen. Did it ever bother you that Magic and Kareem overshadowed you?
JAMES WORTHY: No, no, no. I wouldn’t trade my experience with the Lakers for anything. I would never swap my three rings for a scoring title or MVP award. I might have scored a few more points a game somewhere else, but so what?

SLAM: You were in the rare position of being a college All-American and No. 1 Draft pick, and yet you ended up with the defending NBA champs, who had won two titles in three years and had a great player at your position—Jamaal Wilkes. Was it easy to fit in?
JW: It was. The infrastructure was tremendous, because so many of us came from these legendary, disciplined college programs and had the team concepts ingrained in us. I was coming from North Carolina, where we had just won a national championship, Kareem and Jamaal came from John Wooden, and Pat Riley came from Adolph Rupp. So it wasn’t like you had to teach anyone about locker room stability or unselfish play and proper spacing. Coming out of school so highly regarded, a part of you certainly wants to play more minutes. I didn’t even start and that was hard at times, but learning the game from Kurt Rambis and Jamaal was a blessing in disguise. Most first picks have tremendous pressure to score tons and turn a team around, but I escaped that. I knew that eventually I was going to play, but I was happy to sit there and observe guys like Jamaal, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon and Bob McAdoo.

SLAM: A lot of people forget how important McAdoo and Nixon were to the Lakers’ success in the early ’80s.
JW: Right. Because most people remember ’87 and ’88, but McAdoo was nearly MVP of the [’82] Sixers series, when he was huge off the bench. We don’t forget what an important part of the team’s success he was. And Norm was a blast to play with. I only played with him my rookie year, when I missed the Finals because I broke my leg, but our fast break was really unstoppable with him. He and Magic were both point guards, and teams had no idea who to focus on. Norm was a jet and he would get it and go.

SLAM: Did you as players feel the Lakers/Celtics rivalry as intensely as the fans and media did?
JW: I think so. It was always being conjured up and it went all the way back to the ’60s and early ’70s, when the Celtics always beat the Lakers. We felt like we were out to avenge West, Baylor and Wilt. It was very intense. There were a lot of angles and CBS made sure everyone knew them all—you had East Coast/West Coast, blue collar/Showtime, Bird/Magic. It got whipped up to where the players hated each other on the court—but only on the court, because that intensity was fed by mutual respect. We both knew that the other was the best and beating them was the only way to prove yourself.

SLAM: The Pistons had a long, hard-fought struggle to finally make the Finals in ’88. Could you feel their desperation and hunger on the court?
JW: Definitely. While we didn’t have the same built-up rivalry with them that we did with the Celtics, anyone the Pistons played became a rival because they were so tough and physical. They should have made it to us in ’87 but they lost a game and series they should have won to Boston, so by ’88, they were desperate and overdue. You could see that they had been clawing and how badly they wanted to win.

SLAM: When you played the Pistons in ’88, you were matched up with Adrian Dantley. How was he to guard?
JW: He was a master in the paint, creating havoc with his wide body and incredible footwork fundamentals. He knew how to bump and use step-back moves to get you where you couldn’t defend him. He was just 6-4 so you’d think you can have your way down low, but he had a lot of physics in the paint. He broke the game down to a science and could draw a foul anytime he wanted. He would find you and make you foul him, then fall down—and he got the calls because the refs saw this little guy posting up giants. He averaged 12 or 13 free throws a game.

SLAM: And then he was replaced by Mark Aguirre…
JW: …who was a very similar player, and also unstoppable when he got on a roll. Mark lacked the same scientific approach, but he had a perimeter game that extended to the three-point line and was more of a playmaker. He’d put the ball between his legs, head fake you, make you wonder if he was going to pull up.

SLAM: Playing against the Celtics, you were often matched up against Bird—but not always. How was it to guard McHale?
JW: He guarded me a lot, but I could not guard him. He was too long and tough in the post. He’s 6-11 but he plays 7-3 with those long arms. I had my hands full enough with Larry or the other guy that I got sometimes—DJ [Dennis Johnson], who was really admired and respected by all players. Dennis was a great point guard and very smart defender and he made great contributions to the success of his teams in Seattle and Phoenix, as well as Boston. Getting matched up with a true guard like DJ or Joe Dumars was a nightmare for me. Against Detroit, we’d try to take Magic away from having to guard Joe and it would sometimes fall to me. He was a perimeter player, a playmaker and a driver. Endless trouble. But every night was tough, man. You had to guard Larry on a Monday night and Julius on Tuesday. Then it’s a day off and you got to see Bernard King. Are you kidding me?

SLAM: Ah, Bernard King!
JW: He was probably the most feared forward I ever came up against. He was just an endless worker. He was reckless abandon under control and you could not outwork him. Not only was he talented with an extremely unorthodox shot, but also he would beat you down. He was a miniature-sized Moses Malone or Shaq, just physically punishing to defend. And you could not guard Bernard King tightly because he just wouldn’t allow you to be on him like that.

SLAM: Who was the toughest guy for you to score on?
JW: Rodman was the toughest guy who ever guarded me, by far. He had quick feet, and he was always getting into position.

SLAM: Dean Smith has said that you were one of only three UNC guys that he knew, when you entered school, was going to be a great pro. I don’t suspect he ever shared that with you.
JW: That is something that he would never share, which is the beauty of how Dean Smith teaches young men. The first time that he ever mentioned anything like that to me was about a month after we won the title my junior season. I had to declare if I was going pro and he told me I was ready, that he had done research and I was going to be a top pick, so it was a great opportunity for my family and me.

SLAM: Michael Jordan was not one of the three Dean mentioned. How quickly did you realize he was unique?
JW: I knew right away. As a freshman, Michael was raw and not that fundamentally sound. But even though he didn’t really understand the game, his mentality was incredible. Whether he was playing basketball or backgammon in the dorm, the guy was striving for something. I was the best guy on the team, but I could sense this guy coming. He wanted to be the best. But while I knew he was going to be a good NBA player, I had no idea that he would blossom and become what he did. He was a late bloomer and he kept getting better and better. Most guys plateau at some point and raise their games in increments, but he kept making leaps every year.

SLAM: You guys are forever linked by your roles in the final moments of the ’82 title game against Georgetown, which ended when Fred Brown threw the ball right to you. Were you surprised?
JW: Oh, yes. I was so far out of defensive position that I was behind him and I guess he thought I was on his team when I came running up. Playing in the Dome with such loud noise, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought there was a timeout and he was being cute and tossing me the ball, but once I realized it was real, I was shocked. To this day, every time I see the game I am shocked when he throws me the ball.

SLAM: You’ve been active raising money for the Gastonia Boys and Girls Club. Was it important to you as a kid?
JW: Yes, which is why I have tried to help in any way I can. I grew up there, because both my parents were working two and three jobs to put my older brothers through North Carolina Central. I didn’t want them to have to do that for me, and at the Boys Club I heard about athletic scholarships for the first time, which is why I decided to focus on basketball. I wanted to take advantage of my height, so I quit football and baseball and played basketball all the time. Then in eighth grade I went to Dean Smith’s camp and really got into the sport and became passionate about it. I was inspired by playing against the best kids in the state and seeing guys like Walter Davis and Phil Ford. I wanted to be like them.