The NBA / Sam McManis : Next Center for Lakers Must Be Very Worthy

You are the general manager of the Lakers, and you know that one of these seasons is bound to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's last.

You also know that the Lakers reside in the upper reaches of the National Basketball Assn. salary-cap bracket, that the club's drafting position usually is so low that any quality college center is gone before you get to pick, and that an inexpensive free-agent plow horse will not fit in on a team of thoroughbreds.

Your only alternative?

Trade James Worthy.

But there's a problem in that solution, too. Worthy is such an outstanding player--a 6-foot 9-inch small forward who scores inside and outside and runs the floor like a guard--that trading him for even a capable starting center seems unwise.

In fact, looking at the starting centers on the 22 other NBA teams, there aren't many big men that the Lakers would even consider acquiring for Worthy, a 1985-86 All-Star who averaged 20 points.

"You could probably count (those centers) on one hand," said Laker Coach Pat Riley, asked to speculate on life after Kareem.

Riley would not elaborate, but the Lakers obviously would take either the Houston Rockets' Akeem Olajuwon or Ralph Sampson. They would take the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing, too, and hope that his chronic knee soreness stays under control.

Right now, the only other potentially dominating center whom the Lakers would trade Worthy for is Benoit Benjamin, providing the 7-foot Clipper would remember to bring matching shoes to games.

What about other quality centers, such as . . .

Joe Barry Carroll?

The Lakers, it turns out, could have had the Golden State Warriors' talented but enigmatic Carroll for Worthy, but management reportedly thought he wasn't worth the cost.

Moses Malone?

He's too old at 31 and showing signs of wear and tear after 12 seasons of banging the boards, first in the ABA and then the NBA. Besides, if Philadelphia decided Malone couldn't do it for them and shipped him to the Washington Bullets, what does that tell the Lakers?

Robert Parish?

He's 33 and is simply not equal worth for Worthy. Now, if the Boston Celtics were to offer 6-10 power forward Kevin McHale, which they never would, it would be different.

Sam Bowie?

Too injury prone.

It is quite possible that the Lakers can survive without Worthy. But don't look for them to trade him this season or maybe even in 1987-88. And a package featuring Worthy probably still won't be enough to land a Sampson, or a Benjamin.

"When you talk about trading for a big man, look at what happened to us after Wilt (Chamberlain) retired (in 1973)," Riley said.

When Chamberlain retired, the Lakers traded 6-5 small forward Jim McMillian to Buffalo for 6-11 center Elmore Smith, who proved to be nothing more than adequate. After a combined record of 77-87 in Smith's two seasons as center, the Lakers packaged him in a trade for Abdul-Jabbar.

Back to the future, there may even be a chance that the Lakers will be able to keep Worthy and acquire Sampson, who has said that he would like to play with Magic Johnson.

Sampson's contract with the Rockets ends after this season. So does the NBA's collective bargaining agreement with the players' union.

The players' association will seek to abolish not only the salary cap system but also the current free-agent system, in which a team can only tender an offer sheet to a player. The team holding the player's rights has 15 days in which to match the offer or lose the player.

What usually happens is that the team matches the offer and either keeps the player or works a deal with the interested team or another team.

A more liberal free-agent rule might help the Lakers.

Or, perhaps, the players will strike, and the Lakers won't have to worry about finding another center.

Only in Hollywood . . . When Abdul-Jabbar finally does retire, he can pursue a movie career without worrying about things such as NBA training camps. Early this fall, Abdul-Jabbar had the permission of Laker General Manager Jerry West to miss most of training camp so that he could do a movie in Africa. But when the studio informed Abdul-Jabbar that the shooting would not end until about Nov. 1, he obviously knew that it wouldn't give him time to return to Los Angeles and gear up for the season.

"That ended the deal right then," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I was going to play an African tour guide in a story about a boy who takes an African safari and finds a friend in this exceptionally gifted primate."

Abdul-Jabbar said that Dom DeLuise is the movie's star.

"Interestingly, this is how the serious talks about Kareem playing another year (1987-88) started," Leonard Armato, Abdul-Jabbar's attorney, said. "We asked for part of training camp off, and Jerry West asked for another (contract) extension. We went from there."

Add Movies: The Philadelphia 76ers' Julius Erving, who will retire after this season, turned down a feature role in a movie called "Amazing Grace and Chuck," which revolves around a fictional Boston Celtic player.

Said Erving: "If I had to be a Celtic to be in the movie, I'd just as soon not be in a movie."

Denver's Alex English eventually got the role.

The Chicago Bulls are 2-0 going into tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs, and it's only because Michael Jordan scored 50 points last Saturday and 41 on Sunday.

Jordan may be able to stick to that pace all season, but the Bulls most likely won't be in good shape.

In some curious off-season moves, the Bulls wiped out their front line. They traded power forward Orlando Woolridge to the New Jersey Nets for two first-round draft choices and center Jawann Oldham to the Knicks for two more first-round draft choices.

Both had attitude problems in the eyes of Chicago management. Both also are quite talented.

So, who starts at center now? The vaunted Granville Waiters, playing on his third team in four seasons.

Jordan, always blunt, isn't happy about what's left in the middle.

"I'm in favor of making the team better now," Jordan said. "I know that I'm supposed to be the team leader, and I'm supposed to pick them up when they are down. But I don't think my role is to get 75 points a game."

For now, a 45.5 average will do, Michael.

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