Editor’s Note: For as long as the NBA season is stopped, we’ll be taking a daily look back at players from Lakers history that we can’t stop thinking about. Today, we remember James Worthy.
Kobe Bryant’s final game in Boston isn’t one a ton of people will remember. The Lakers legend beat the Celtics in his final time facing them, which was an upset at the time, but the details of that game will be mostly lost to memory as time continues to chug along.
If you were watching the team’s postgame show on Spectrum SportsNet that night, however, you’d have to excuse James Worthy for not acting like the game wasn’t all that historically significant. For Worthy, who has been battling the Celtics since the 80’s, this was an excuse for celebration, no matter how the current season was going.
Worthy ran laps around the studio until he had to stop for breath and pantomime that he needed an oxygen mask. He screamed “get that Celtic ass, I like that” on live television, and then made a throat slashing gesture at Larry Bird. He celebrated like the Lakers had won a title.
The Lakers, of course, didn’t win a title that year. They haven’t done so since 2010. Worthy has still been showing up though, living and dying with the team’s results right along with fans. Even through the franchise’s worst years ever, he clearly cared about every win and loss just as much as if he were actually still suiting up for the team.
Part of that is probably because Worthy has done a lot of winning with the Lakers. Before the team’s last several years of struggles (prior to this season), winning was all Worthy had really experienced in Los Angeles.
Being drafted by the Lakers with the No. 1 overall pick was Worthy’s first victory in purple and gold. A team with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar never should have been able to get the top pick in the draft, but they had acquired the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-rounder as a sweetener in a trade two years before, a deal so lopsided in retrospect that it helped lead to the so-called “Stepien Rule” that made it so teams couldn’t trade first-round picks in back-to-back years and is widely seen as one of the worst trades of all time. The Lakers grabbed Worthy out of North Carolina, adding one of the most promising rookies in the league to an already dynastic-level core.
Worthy could have been a franchise player for a ton of teams, but was happy to play the role of third option at times despite making seven All-Star games. He spent the next 12 years in the NBA, all with the Lakers, and helped the “Showtime” teams win three titles during his career while earning the nickname “Big Game James” for the way he came through in the NBA Finals. That commitment to egoless winning, in and of itself, is rare. And while it’s surely owed in part to Worthy’s personality, how seamless his fit in Los Angeles was surely didn’t hurt.
An incredible athlete, Worthy was the perfect wing fast-break partner for Johnson, swooping and gliding his way down the court for dunks and layups while averaging 17.6 points and 5.1 rebounds and shooting 52.1% per game for his career. But as one would expect for someone with Worthy’s nickname, those averages all elevated during the postseason, ticking up to 21.1 points and 5.2 rebounds on 54.4% shooting, and culminating in an NBA Finals MVP in 1988. Worthy played a six more years after that, spending his final one mostly coming off the bench before retiring in the summer of 1994.
But while retirement is where a lot of players’ devotion to a specific team ends, that was not the case for Worthy, who remained a mainstay on the Lakers’ scene, serving as a local broadcaster about the team on CBS and KCAL9 before ultimately hopping onboard Spectrum SportsNet when they took over the Lakers’ broadcasting rights in 2012.
Through it all, Worthy has maintained the same passion and competitiveness he had during his playing days for those postgame shows, from smoking cigars on-air after some wins, to smashing birthday pinatas with Larry Bird and Danny Ainge’s faces on them on live television. Speaking as someone who has been lucky enough to watch a few games at the Spectrum SportsNet studios, that passion is genuine, as Worthy’s deep-throated, celebratory screams that follow good plays can be heard all throughout the building (as can be his, let’s say, “less satisfied” reactions when something goes wrong for the team).
Worthy jokes now that he played so long ago that one of his own daughters didn’t know his number was retired by the Lakers, calling him from a game to ask if there was a player with their same last name to receive that honor. But the way the players on the team interact with him shows how highly he’s considered in their fraternity, and throughout all that time since he’s played, Worthy has made himself a mainstay in his adopted community. It’s something I will always remember chatting with him about as he delivered coffee, donuts and Lakers tickets to a surprised family who was just expecting to get their cable box installed by Spectrum that day.
“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 then. “Over 30 or 35 years you become a part of that family.”
It’s probably safe to guess that most Lakers fans feel the same way about Worthy, whether they remember his days as a player, have just heard about them or seen highlights, or mostly just know him from his sometimes magical work in the studio. Either way, he’s in their homes multiple times a week, talking with them about the game they love with the same enthusiasm they have, remaining just as passionate about the team’s on-court results and serving as a consummate teammate in whatever role he’s in, while not letting his enthusiasm turn him into a cheerleader that’s afraid to criticize something he doesn’t like. If all that’s not worth appreciating from a Lakers legend, I don’t know what is.
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