'I didn't have too bad a year last year, it was a shock. It wasn't even a center involved.'--JAMES WORTHY
Nothing in James Worthy's face gives even a hint as to what he might be thinking or feeling. Whether he is talking about something as innocuous as the weather or as important to him as basketball, the expression rarely changes.
That's why it is so difficult to tell how much Worthy, beginning his fifth season with the Lakers, was affected by the proposed trade last summer that had him going to Dallas for Mark Aguirre and the seventh overall selection in next summer's National Basketball Assn. draft.
Although the trade never happened, and probably never will, it had some people wondering just how long it will be before the Lakers find a Worthy deal they will want to make.
Behind the stoic expression, Worthy was wondering about that, too.
"There have been plenty of rumors the last two years," he said. "There was the Houston trade thing (Worthy in a package for Ralph Sampson), rumors about me and Indiana (for any number of Pacer big men). I was sort of expecting it a little. That's part of the NBA--here today, gone tomorrow. It's a moving job, really."
Worthy, however, had not even dreamed of moving to Dallas. He said it was shocking and mildly bothersome because the circumstances of that possible trade were different from the other rumored ones.
The other times Worthy's name was mentioned in trade talk, the deals always involved the Lakers getting a replacement for center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This
time, it was supposed to be a straight swap of small forwards.
"I was in a hotel in North Carolina the day of the draft (when the trade rumors were publicized), and there was no cable TV, so I couldn't hear what was being said," Worthy said. "But I got calls and I found out about it.
"It was a shock, a really weird feeling. I had not even heard any rumors of that trade. Then, I contacted (Laker General Manager Jerry) West, and he said it was not going to happen. But I do know the trade was trying to happen. I still have a lot of questions. . . . I don't know if West was involved or tried to prevent it, or if it was just talk between the two owners."
In the four months since the Worthy-Aguirre trade talks ended, West has tried to answer many of the questions. One thing he has made clear to Worthy, who averaged 20 points and was a starter in the All-Star game last season, is that he is not going anywhere.
"I think he'll end his career here," West said. "That is the same way I feel about Magic Johnson. They are quality people, and you don't let people like that go."
Worthy solemnly nodded when told what West had said but predicted that the trade talk eventually would resume. "Wilt Chamberlain got traded," he said. "So did Kareem. Why should I be any different? I've always known, sooner or later, some trade talk would come up. But coming this early in my career, especially after I didn't have too bad a year last year, it was a shock. It wasn't even a center involved."
The way Worthy sees it, as long as Abdul-Jabbar remains a Laker, so will he. Of course, Worthy would like to be around to welcome the new Laker center, providing Abdul-Jabbar ever retires.
"I understand that's one of the moves they have to make," Worthy said. "I sort of take it as a compliment that so many teams would want me."
Said West: "It was not an easy situation for James and it probably hurt his feelings a little bit. But we've got two players we get calls on at least once a week--Byron (Scott) and James Worthy. That's why you read their names in the papers so much. But that also tells you they are awfully good."
No one has ever disputed that in Worthy's case. In fact, if there were any doubters left, they probably were convinced after last season.
Worthy, despite playing with superstars Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, forged his own identity as one of the NBA's star players.
He has been one of the league's best for some time. He established that in 1983-84, when he came back from a knee injury near the end of his rookie season and averaged 22.1 points in the championship series loss to the Boston Celtics. In 1984-85, when the Lakers won the NBA title, Worthy averaged 17.6 points.
But it wasn't until last season that he really became a star. The fans noticed that there was another guy with the Lakers wearing goggles who could play and voted Worthy to a starting spot in the All-Star Game. Worthy averaged 20 points--scoring more than 30 points a game eight times--and shot 57.9% from the floor.
Worthy has handled this star business as calmly as everything else.
"The more productive you are, the more publicity you get," he said.
But that's not always true on the Lakers, who feature two high-profile players who like having the ball as much as Worthy.
Said West: "With James on this team, you don't see all the individual things he can do. But everyone around the league is well aware of how good he is.
"There are times when I, personally, would like to see him shoot the ball more. But with our offense, that's not possible. . . . If he were in a situation where he was the focal point of the offense, you'd see some bigger numbers. He's never going to shoot as much as (Atlanta's) Dominique Wilkins. Dominique is much more appealing to the fans. James plays like his personality--solid."
Worthy will be inexorably linked with Wilkins and Milwaukee's Terry Cummings because all three excellent small forwards entered the league the same season, 1982-83.
For five years, the Lakers have said they don't regret picking Worthy first overall in the draft, ahead of his contemporaries.
About the only area where Worthy needs work is rebounding. Worthy and the Lakers have known that all along. In his five NBA seasons, Worthy has averaged 5.7 rebounds a game, not enough to satisfy Coach Pat Riley.
And now that Maurice Lucas and other rebounders are gone, Worthy said he feels the need to improve in that area.
After last season's playoff loss to Houston, Riley told Worthy he had to get stronger. Worthy responded by adding upper-body weight training to his off-season workouts. He said he is nine pounds heavier than last season and feels stronger battling inside for shots and rebounds.
"This year, I want to establish a base for myself, where I can hold myself and get position," Worthy said. "Rebounding hasn't been a forte of mine, and now we don't have the big guys we had. I've got to concentrate even more on it."
Worthy's talk about improving his rebounding has traditionally been like Abdul-Jabbar's talk about retirement. There's a possibility it might happen, but most people will believe it when they see it.
"Rebounds go to the guys who really go out to get them," Riley said. "James is always leaving--to start the break. Well, not always. But in four years, his instincts have gone that way."
Worthy's instincts also tell him that, for as long as Abdul-Jabbar keeps playing, his name will be prominent in trade rumors.
"The way I look at it," Worthy said, momentarily cracking a thin smile, "it'd be terrible if nobody wanted you."