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In Post-Kareem Era, Worthy Is the One Who Will Rise to Top

I am thinking of organizing the LAKER Society, a club that will meet at my house once a week to discuss Life After Kareem Enters Retirement.

We will invite Pat Riley over for canapes and lemonade, and then ask the Laker coach what he intends to do during the 1987-88 season, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has exchanged his golden shorts and sneakers for Bermuda shorts and a hammock.

For only one more season, after this one, will Capt. Skyhook don his goggles. Boston presumably will still have Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, and Houston presumably will still have Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, but Los Angeles will have someone else at center, someone other than Kareem.

It will be like seeing “The King and I” on stage without Yul Brynner, or like seeing the Commodores without Lionel Richie. The production continues, quite professionally, quite entertainingly, but something is missing.

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I have tried to picture the Lakers without Abdul-Jabbar, and the vision that keeps popping into my skull is one of James Worthy doing the sort things in this part of the country that Michael Jordan is doing in the middle of the country and that Larry Bird is doing back East.

In other words, it will be a forward, not a center, who will do the heavy-duty scoring from that day on. Taking over the game when the going gets tough. Putting on a show. Piling up the numbers.

“There’s going to be a day when Kareem will leave and James will step right up to be the main force,” Riley said recently. “I don’t know how much better (Worthy will get), but I’m sure that he’ll get more shots and average more points. He could average 28 or 29 a game.”

I nodded at this and could easily picture Earvin Johnson working his magic with Worthy with a game on the line, instead of lobbing the ball into the always reliable big fella and watching him swoop to the hoop.

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It was then that Riley caught me off guard.

“I’m thinking about using James eventually at the off-guard spot,” Riley said.

Say what?

A backcourt of Magic Johnson and James Worthy?

That sobbing you hear in the distance is from Spud Webb.

“Create situations where the defense has to make some drastic adjustments,” Riley said.

Yeah. Drastic adjustments. Like moving Olajuwon and Sampson to guard, too.

Wait until Bob Cousy hears about this. Guards are supposed to be little guys, dribbling between their legs and behind their backs and between other people’s legs. Guys built like Worthy are supposed to be yanking down rebounds and throwing outlet passes and dribbling only under the threat of a fine from the coach.

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In this day and age, though, a Worthy is a worthy candidate for any job on the floor.

“He can play the backcourt spot. He’s improved his outside shot enough where he can play back there,” Riley said.

Uh, sure, but would you really want the 6-9, 225-pound, windmill-dunking James Ager Worthy to stay ‘way out there 18 feet from the basket, stopping and popping? Doing the Norm Nixon/Byron Scott bit?

“Well, I think the game has changed to the point where the prototype (off-guard) player, the Byron Scott, the Mike Woodson, those kind of players, you still need, but there’s a style of basketball now where it’s power that counts,” Riley said.

“If you’re a breaking team, and you’re out on the break all the time, and you’ve got guys flying on the wing who are 6-2 guards, or you’re setting up a post-up situation, you would take away from that part of the game. I’d like to try to experiment.”

Besides, Riley said, “James can hit the 18-footer. He just never gets it. It’s like Oscar (Robertson) used to be. He used to back his man into 12, and then say, ‘I want an eight-footer.”’

Worthy can resemble Abdul-Jabbar, too, while working over a defender. “It’s incredible how he’s become the mirror image of Kareem in some ways, from his concentration and his perception of the game, right down to those goggles,” Riley said. For the time being, like in the playoff series with Dallas that continues at the Forum tonight, Riley will leave Worthy where he usually belongs, at forward, unless maybe Dick Motta reads this and suddenly tries something tricky with Mark Aguirre. For now, Worthy is “pigeonholed” at that position, to use Riley’s word, and has enough to do without the distraction of experimenting at a new position.

Whether or not we will see the World’s Biggest Backcourt at any future date remains to be seen.

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I was thinking that if Abdul-Jabbar sticks with his decision to “probably play one more year,” as repeated in this June’s Playboy Interview, Riley might do the big fella a big favor and let him play a little guard alongside Magic some night, just for a couple of minutes. Maybe some night when the Lakers are leading San Antonio, 99-55, in the third quarter.

There are not too many thrills Abdul-Jabbar has not experienced in basketball, but he might like to live out a tall man’s fantasy, playing the backcourt, and he still wants to pop a three-point shot.

The sight of Kareem bringing the ball up court with Spud Webb guarding him is a sight I would pay a million dollars to see--which is, as you know, the price of a Forum courtside seat. I am sympathetic toward the Lakers in their current NBA championship re-election campaign, incidentally, because I think they are getting a pretty unfair shake from some of the people who have been watching them.

In the beginning of the season, when the Lakers were winning games by only a few points, I heard it said that there must be something wrong with them, because they were not blowing opponents out of the gym.

But lately, while they have been burying playoff opponents by dozens of points, while they were winning their first four postseason games by a combined score of 501-392, I have heard nothing but complaints about the quality of the opposition and about how boring this is waiting for the series with Boston.

No LAKER membership cards for these people.

If you have a good team, a team you really like, a team that wins most of the time, hey, be grateful. Those of us who like the Lakers want to be like the Lakers.

We enjoy them. We admire them. We emulate them. Look at me. Do you have any idea how difficult it was, writing this while wearing goggles?


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