Perhaps it is appropriate to characterize James Worthy as one of the luckiest players ever to play in the Association. Drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982, the 21 year old Worthy immediately became a member of one of the top two teams in the NBA. Imagine if Worthy had been selected second by the San Diego Clippers, we probably wouldn’t be calling him “Big Game James.” Imagine coming into the league right out of college and trying to establish yourself as a talented player while playing under the likes of Bob McAdoo, Norn Nixon, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It is possible that Worthy might not even be in the Hall of Fame today if it weren’t for the fact that he was drafted by the Lakers.
During his three seasons at North Carolina, Worthy played with one of the greatest collections of talent ever assembled by a collegiate program. During the 1982 season, Worthy stared for the Tar-Heels alongside Sam Perkins. Joining them was a curiously talented freshmen guard named Michael Jordan. This trio carried the Heels to the 1982 Final Four, and eventually to the NCAA Championship game. Worthy and the Heels squared off against Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas, with the Tar Heels prevailing on a late jumper from none other than Michael Jordan.
That year, Worthy was rewarded for his exploits in Tar-Heel blue; he shared National Player of the Year honors with Virginia’s Ralph Sampson after averaging 15.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists. Worthy was also a consensus first team All-American. As always, Worthy was at his best in crunch time; he scored 28 points on 13 of 17 from the field and provided a key steal that helped seal a Carolina victory in the 1982 NCAA Championship game. The legend of “Big Game James” was born.
Conventional wisdom would say that a first team All-American sharing National Player of the Year honors who averaged 15.6 points and 6.3 rebounds would become an immediate star. Unfortunately for Worthy, the Lakers already had one of the league’s top small-forwards in Jamaal Wilkes. In fact, Wilkes was 16th in the league in scoring during the 1981-82 season at 21.1 points per game, and he saw plenty of action on the court, playing the third most minutes on the team (behind Magic and Norn Nixon). While he would have been an immediate star on any other team, Worthy had to wait his turn with the Lakers.
Nevertheless, Worthy played in 77 games as a rookie before a fractured left tibia forced him to miss the entire 1983 playoffs. In those 77 games though, Worthy averaged 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in limited action. His 57.9 field goal percentage remains a Laker rookie record. Despite losing in the finals to Moses Malone, Julius Earving, and the 76ers, the Lakers discovered that the young Worthy was more than capable of holding his own in the NBA. “Showtime” was beginning to take flight.
In just his second season, Worthy helped carry the Lakers back to the NBA Finals. This series marked the first time Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would renew their legendary collegiate rivalry in the NBA playoffs. Boston defeated L.A. in a thrilling seven-game series, but once again Worthy found a way to increase his production during the playoffs; his scoring rose from 14.5 points per game to 17.7. However, the ’84 Finals was not exactly James Worthy’s finest hour; with L.A leading 113-111 with 18 seconds remaining in game two, Worthy’s inbounds pass was stolen by Gerald Henderson who tied the game with a layup (Henderson steals the ball!) . Magic Johnson then inexplicably dribbled out the clock at the end of regulation sending the game into overtime, with the Celtics prevailing 124-121.
After a runaway Laker victory in game three, L.A. relinquished a 5 point lead late in game four to hand the series-tying victory to Boston. Again, Worthy was at the epicenter of the Laker collapse; after Larry Bird made a crucial jumper with less than a minute remaining in overtime, M.L. Carr stole Worthy’s inbounds pass and sealed the win with a dunk. Ouch. Many remember this game for Kevin McHale’s ruthless takedown of Laker forward Kurt Rambis on a breakaway basket, emphasizing the physical nature of the rivalry.
The series swung in Boston’s favor after a 121-103 Celtics victory in game five. This game was marked by the sweltering 97 degree heat that engulfed Boston Garden.
Facing elimination in game six, the Lakers escaped with a 119-108 victory. James Worthy renewed the physicality of the rivalry when he purposely shoved Cedric Maxwell into a basket support.
Heat was again an issue in game seven, although this time temperatures hovered at slightly less obscene 91 degrees. Boston won the game 111-102 behind 24 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists from Cedric Maxwell, Worthy’s game six shove-victim. Thus, Boston took home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Red Auerbach intensified the rivalry during the championship celebration following game seven when he said to a youthful Brent Musberger; “It feels great, whatever happened to the Los Angeles dynasty? You guys are talking about a dynasty, there it is (the Larry O’Brien trophy) right there, that’s the dynasty. We’re the best team in the world right now, the best out there.”
Alas, the colorful coach would eat his words just a year later.
The Lakers finished the 1984-85 season as one of the top two teams in the league. After storming through the playoffs, the Lakers defeated the Celtics in the 1985 Finals to avenge their loss to Boston during the previous season. By this time, James Worthy had arrived; he became the team’s third leading scorer (17.6 ppg) and second leading rebounder (6.4 rpg). Coinciding with the maturity of Worthy, “Showtime” was in full swing. Worthy, streaking down the court, flanked by Michael Cooper, perfected his signature one-handed swoop to the hoop during his third season. With Magic running the show, the Lakers developed one of the most feared fast-breaks in NBA history.
The late 1980’s proved to be the peak of Worthy’s career. The Lakers won back-to-back championships in 1987 and 1988, defeating the Celtics and the Pistons. Worthy had developed into an All-NBA talent; besides averaging 19.5 points during those two seasons (22.4 points) in the playoffs, he improved as a passer from the forward position. His assists increased to 3.5 per game in 1988 and in the 1988 Finals, Worthy was named MVP. His MVP trophy was awarded after Worthy scored 36 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and dished out 10 assists in a game seven win over Detroit. Worthy’s triple-double stands as one of the top playoff performances in Lakers history; Big Game James finally lived up to his name.
The 1988 Championship was the last Laker Championship of the Kareem-Magic-Worthy era. From that point on, the Lakers began a steady decline. L.A lost to Detroit in the 1989 Finals, then lost to Charles Barkley’s Suns in the 1990 Western Conference Semifinals. The Lakers returned to the NBA Finals in 1991, but after winning game one, were swept by Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
Worthy played three more seasons in a Laker uniform before retiring at the end of the 1993-1994 season: Laker fans knew this was the end of an era.
So what’s so great about James Worthy? Come on, the guy played his entire career with Kareem and Magic, two of the five greatest players of all time. How could he have been that good? While he may have been overshadowed in Los Angeles, Worthy put his own spin on a position defined by Elgin Baylor and Julius Earving. Worthy’s passing skills were remarkable, distinguishing him from players such as Baylor and Earving. In addition, his jaw-dropping athleticism- devastating speed, lethal first step, effortless glides to the basket- helped make “Showtime” as spectacular as it was. Certainly though, Worthy must be remembered as one of the league’s greatest clutch players; his career 54.4 postseason field goal percentage ranks among the top-ten on the NBA’s all time playoff list.
Oh yeah, and Big Game James had one of the best beards in NBA history.