INGLEWOOD- When you're told to meet James Worthy in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box bright and early on a Saturday morning, you don't ask questions. Well, you do, but you wait until the Los Angeles Lakers legend shows up to answer them.
Any questions on this particular morning have to wait at least a little while, because the longtime Lakers analyst first needs to meet with a small camera crew, a cable installer and an employee from Spectrum Sportsnet to prepare to surprise a recent cable subscriber and his family with free installation, donuts, coffee, and a visit from a Hall-of-Famer.
After Worthy’s small caravan makes it’s way to the doorstep of the family of Inglewood native Donte Adams, who was buying cable for his sister, the ever confident Worthy strolls to the door, donuts in hand, to surprise a fan who happened to grow up watching him play.
"I’m beyond surprised, beyond shocked. I was just trying to schedule an appointment for my family, and we open the door and it's James Worthy,” said Adams, who described himself as “usually a motor-mouth.”
The motor stalled out.
“I'm kind of speechless,” Adams continued.
Worthy certainly wasn’t. Instead, he appeared to be in his element, making conversation with Adams’ niece and nephew as if they were his own. Making community appearances isn’t something that comes effortlessly to all former or pro athletes, but to Worthy, it’s just giving back to a community that the North Carolina native says has embraced him as one of their own since he was a Lakers rookie.
"After spending so many years in the city, you become part of the city. I feel like I'm the son of Los Angeles and Inglewood. We played basketball over here at the Forum, so I got to know a lot of people over the years, from going to the barbershop, from going to churches, from going to the grocery stores,” Worthy said. “Over 30 or 35 years you become a part of that family."
Worthy says that connection is why he’s helped a woman whose house was damaged by fire rebuild this year, as well as participating helping out with a basketball camp for underprivileged children.
To those who know him best, Worthy’s love for the community comes as no surprise.
“When visitors come by, or someone brings their kids, he lights up. He's unbelievable with kids. He's been like that since day one whenever my kids have been around,” said Spectrum Sportsnet host Chris McGee, Worthy’s most consistent postgame show partner since the regional sports network came together. “Whenever there's visitors, or he's out in the community the enthusiasm is there. I think he doesn't take it for granted.
“There's a right way to act, but Hall-of-Famers and pro athletes, they don't always act like that,” McGee continues. “For me it's just a genuine ability to connect with people that I think is the coolest thing for sure."
It’s those interactions Worthy values most, especially with children. McGee recalls a time he brought his family to the studio early in his and Worthy’s time together, including his young children, as well as his nieces and nephews. The two were about to go on air, but Worthy had other plans.
“'Who wants to go get hot chocolate?!” McGee recalls Worthy yelling. “He literally left the studio and just went and made hot chocolate with the kids as we're going back on air.”
With 23 years having passed since Worthy last suited up in an NBA game, these children don’t always recognize him, either. Adams’ niece didn’t, exclaiming “I don’t know who he is” when told to come say hello.
It’s no bother for Worthy, who recalls one of his daughters not even being aware his jersey was retired by the Lakers, calling him after the game to ask if a player with the same last name as them had their number in the rafters.
"If you weren't born early, you don't know,” Worthy chuckles. “I'll always say 'Google me. I'm Denzel Washington.'"
Other than offering them hot chocolate and poor search engine advice for finding his bio, Worthy also doesn’t reminisce to children about his playing days, or tell them how they can become an All-Star in the NBA. He instead raves about an academic award recently received by Adams’ nephew, quizzing him about his favorite school subjects and telling him to listen to his teachers.
"In today's world so many kids get brainwashed because of social media and what they see on television,” Worthy said. “I've seen a lot of athletes without an education use all their money and not have any idea how to live socially. That's a short career. I'd rather see kids strive to be Kobe Bryant's accountant. It's okay to play sports because you learn a lot of good things, but there's only 400 slots.”
As Worthy walks away from Adams’ home, he’s nearly ready to get whisked away to his next destination when the thud of a window opening stops him in his tracks.
“Hi Mr. James Worthy,” calls out the voice of an elderly neighbor of Adams’ family, and another person in the Los Angeles area Worthy has touched without ever meeting them before that day. "I'm so glad to see you in person. All these years I've watched you play."
"Hello lovely, how are you?” Worthy responds, chatting briefly before heading off with a reminder of the pride he feels in his adopted community.
"I grew up over here. You know that, right?"