When James Worthy retired before the 1994-95 season, it was fitting that Magic Johnson was there to describe Worthy’s career. Johnson, after all, had made the passes on the fast break that set up hundreds of Worthy’s trademark one-handed swooping dunks.
“James Worthy was one of the top 10 — top five — players in playoff history,” Johnson stated at the news conference in which Worthy announced his retirement.
No one argued with that assessment. By the time he retired, Worthy owned a Most Outstanding Player Award from the 1982 NCAA Final Four and a Most Valuable Player Award from the 1988 NBA Finals. He was a member of three NBA championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers (in 1985, 1987, and 1988). His career postseason averages of 21.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game were higher than his regular-season averages of 17.6 points and 5.1 rebounds.
He recorded his first triple-double in arguably the biggest game of his career: Game 7 of the 1988 Finals against Detroit, in which Worthy collected 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists. He also holds the all-time record for the highest field goal percentage in a five-game playoff series, .721 in the 1985 Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
Never was a nickname better suited to a player than Worthy’s moniker of “Big Game James.”
By the time he was a ninth-grader at Grier Junior High in Gastonia, N.C., Worthy’s basketball exploits were already making front-page news. Coached at Ashbrook High by a Dean Smith disciple named Larry Rhodes, Worthy attended summer basketball camp at Chapel Hill and early on seemed destined to wear Tar Heel blue. Averaging 21.5 points and 12.5 rebounds as a senior at Ashbrook, Worthy was a unanimous selection as a prep All-American. His stardom at the University of North Carolina seemed assured.
Then, midway through his freshman campaign, Worthy slipped on a wet spot on the Carmichael Auditorium floor and broke his ankle. He missed the last 14 games of the season and, for a time, it appeared his career might be in doubt.
Typically, the unflappable Worthy made the best of an unfortunate situation.
“I wasn’t sure I would be able to come back with the same type of intensity I’d always had,” Worthy told Sportmagazine in 1991. “I wasn’t traveling with the team, I wasn’t going to all the practices, and I wasn’t a part of the day-to-day routine. It really made me wake up and expose myself to all kinds of people — not confine myself to just basketball.”
Fully recovered, Worthy became an All-Atlantic Coast Conference forward as a sophomore. He averaged 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds that season while shooting .500 from the floor.
It was his junior year at UNC, however, that became legendary. In 1981-82 Worthy was part of one of the greatest collections of talent in collegiate basketball history, a squad that included Sam Perkins and a freshman named Michael Jordan. The Tar Heels stormed through the regular season. A consensus First-Team All-American, Worthy averaged 15.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting .573 from the floor. He shared national Player of the Year honors with Virginia’s Ralph Sampson.
The UNC squad reached the 1982 NCAA championship game as the slight favorite over Georgetown and Patrick Ewing. That contest would set the pattern for the rest of Worthy’s storied career. As always, he was at his best in the biggest game, scoring 28 points on 13-for-17 shooting and making a key steal of a Fred Brown pass to seal North Carolina’s victory.
Worthy was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four, yet his heroics were at least partially overshadowed by Jordan’s storied game-winning jumper. Despite his greatness, it was Worthy’s fate to be overshadowed by his more celebrated teammates: Jordan in college, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the pros.
The Lakers had won the NBA championship in 1982, and they had one of the league’s top small forwards in Jamaal Wilkes. But astute trading had given Los Angeles the top pick in the draft. During the 1979-80 season the Lakers sent Don Ford and a 1980 first-round pick (which became Chad Kinch) to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Butch Lee and the Cavs’ first-round pick in 1982. When that pick turned out to be the No. 1 overall selection, the Lakers claimed Worthy, who had decided to pass up his senior year at North Carolina. Worthy became only the second overall No. 1 draft choice the Lakers have had since moving to California in 1960. The first, of course, had been Magic in 1979.
Wilkes was still at the top of his game when Worthy arrived. Wilkes averaged 21.1 points in 1981-82 (16th in the league) and played more minutes for the Lakers than everyone but Johnson and Norm Nixon. On most NBA teams Worthy would have been the immediate star; on the Lakers, he had to serve an apprenticeship.
Magic would recall that the way Worthy handled himself that first year showed immediately that he had the brains to go along with his physical gifts.
“Even though he was the No. 1 pick in the draft, he had made up his own mind that he was gonna learn from Wilkes, and he accepted his role,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Daily News after Worthy retired. “That told me he was a team player, and a winner too. Most rookies would be complaining and griping, but he never did that.”
Worthy nevertheless put together a respectable rookie campaign. He played in 77 games before fracturing his left tibia and missing the 1983 playoffs. His field goal percentage of .579 topped all other NBA first-year players and remains a Lakers club record for rookies. He averaged 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds and was unanimously selected to the All-Rookie Team. The Lakers were swept in the NBA Finals by the Philadelphia 76ers, but “Showtime” had more appearances to come at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles.
Prior to the 1983-84 season, the Lakers traded Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for Swen Nater and the draft rights to rookie Byron Scott. Worthy started 53 games, and the Lakers had the nucleus that would carry them to NBA titles in three of the next five years.
In the 1984 NBA Finals, Los Angeles lost to Boston in a thrilling seven-game series that included two overtime games. As he would throughout his career, Worthy increased his production during the playoffs: He averaged 17.7 ppg and 2.7 apg in 21 postseason games, compared to 14.5 ppg and 1.7 apg in the regular season.
In 1984-85, L.A. was the dominant team in the league. The Lakers had the second-best regular-season record, one game behind Boston at 62-20, and led all teams except Denver in scoring. The Lakers swept through the playoffs, losing only three games through the Western Conference Finals, and beat Boston in six games for the NBA championship.
And James Worthy had arrived, becoming the third-leading scorer (17.6 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (6.4 rpg) on the club. As always, he shot well, finishing the regular season with a .572 field goal percentage.
With Worthy, Scott and Michael Cooper filling the lanes and Magic running the show, the Lakers developed one of the most feared fast breaks in the history of the game. Again, Worthy rose to the occasion in the postseason, scoring 21.5 ppg. He later called it the championship that meant the most to him.
“It’s not just because it was my first NBA championship, but that we did it in the [Boston] Garden,” he told Sport magazine in 1991. “That was the one I cherish the most. There was a lot of attention to the fact that they’d pretty much dominated us, even though that was back in the ’60s. Plus, we had lost to them the year before, so we had a lot of incentive.”
The NBA championship swung back to the Celtics in 1985-86, although Worthy had the best season of his career to date and made the first of seven consecutive appearances in the NBA All-Star Game. He upped his scoring average to 20.0 ppg, the first of four times Worthy would average 20 or more points in the regular season. He equaled his career-best .579 field goal percentage in the regular season. In the playoffs he averaged 19.5 points — the only time in his career when his scoring average did not increase in the postseason.
The next two seasons proved to be the peak of not only Worthy’s career but of the Lakers’ dominance in the 1980s. Los Angeles had the best record in the league both years, winning 65 games in 1986-87 and 62 in 1987-88. They beat Boston in six games in the 1987 NBA Finals and the Detroit Pistons in seven for the 1988 NBA title, becoming the first team in two decades to repeat as champion.
Worthy was superb, adding his own take to the position defined by Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving. Besides averaging 19.5 ppg in those two seasons (22.4 ppg in the playoffs), he became an excellent passer from his forward spot. His assists increased to 3.5 per game in 1987-88. And in the playoffs he was, as always, Big Game James.
The Lakers struggled through the 1988 postseason, surviving seven-game series against both the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks before facing the Pistons in the NBA Finals. In 24 playoff games Worthy averaged 21.1 points, 4.4 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting .523 from the floor. He capped the year by scoring 36 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and handing out 10 assists as the Lakers beat Detroit, 108-105, at the Forum to win the title.
That was the last of the Lakers’ NBA championships during the Magic-Kareem-Worthy era. Los Angeles was swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 Finals, lost to the Phoenix Suns in the 1990 Western Conference Semifinals, and fell to the Chicago Bulls in five games in the 1991 NBA Finals. As the team’s fortunes declined, however, Worthy’s role continued to grow.
He led the Lakers in minutes played in 1988-89 (36.5 per game) and averaged 20.5 ppg. In 1989-90. he had perhaps his finest year statistically, scoring 21.1 ppg and pulling down a career-high 6.0 rpg. He averaged more than 24.0 ppg in the playoffs in both 1989 and 1990 and earned the first of his two All-NBA selections (on the Third Team) in 1990.
In 1990-91, Worthy averaged 21.4 ppg, his highest single-season mark. But he shot .492 from the floor — the first time in his career that he had registered a field goal percentage below .500 for a season. Worthy had posted a field goal percentage higher than .530 in each of his first eight seasons in the league — something no other player had ever accomplished to date.
The Lakers again advanced to the NBA Finals in 1991, but after winning the first game, they lost four straight and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls captured the first championship in franchise history.
Worthy played three more seasons before retiring prior to the start of the 1994-95 campaign. He took with him 16,320 career points and a truckload of golden moments. Fans and former teammates viewed his departure as marking the end of an era, and the always-cool Worthy was not oblivious to the feelings.
“I can remember coming into the league and being under the likes of Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes, Magic, Norm Nixon and Bob McAdoo,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Now I find myself in that situation. Guys are telling me how they were in junior high, watching us beat the Celtics in ’85. I can’t be that old.”
Worthy will be remembered for his breathtaking athletic skills — the blinding speed, the smooth, effortless glides to the hoop, the one-handed tomahawk jams. And he will be recalled as the ultimate clutch player — his career postseason field goal percentage of .544 ranks among the top 10 on the NBA’s all-time playoff list.
“I don’t think there has been or will be a better small forward than James, and I don’t think people appreciated that,” said his coach, Pat Riley, to the Los Angeles Daily News upon Worthy’s retirement. “He was always such a quiet guy. But when he was in his prime, I can guarantee you, there wasn’t anybody who could touch him.”