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Rambis Will Be Running Into Some of His Old Friends Tonight

Times Staff Writer

You can dress Kurt Rambis in a pleated teal uniform, make him change oceans and divisions, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and put him on an expansion team that might lose as many games as the Lakers will win. But you cannot change Rambis’ inimitable style and irrepressible persona.

He will still be the guy whose glasses have been knocked askew while body-slamming under the basket and whose hair falls in his face while he’s diving for loose balls.

Rambis’ rebounding and unceasing effort, which once spawned a cult following (“Rambis Youth”) at the Forum, is a constant on which the Lakers no longer can rely and, yes , now miss.

“We miss his rebounding,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “We miss his spirit. We miss those intangibles.”

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One came Thursday night when Rambis picked up a loose ball and scored at the buzzer to beat the Utah Jazz at Salt Lake City.

Tonight, Rambis, who as a free agent signed a 4-year contract with the Charlotte Hornets last summer, will make his first appearance at the Forum since helping the Lakers win their second straight National Basketball Assn. championship last spring. He will be given his championship ring in a ceremony before the game.

“It’s going to be strange coming back, but a good kind of strange,” said Rambis, who will turn 31 next month. “I think the only thing they really miss from me is the jokes I told in the locker room. I’ve only seen about 3 Laker games on TV this year, so I couldn’t even tell you what their problems are or if I have anything to do with it. Let’s just say I always felt an integral part of that team. I don’t know how losing me affected them.”

While Rambis has thrived in his new situation, averaging 10.4 points and 9.6 rebounds in 30 minutes each game as the Hornets’ starting power forward, the Lakers have doggedly carried on without him.

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It has taken some alteration of the Lakers’ game, but Rambis’ rebounding chores have been absorbed by James Worthy, Mychal Thompson and Magic Johnson.

Worthy has improved his rebounding average from 5.0 a game last season to 6.3 this season. Mychal Thompson has improved from 6.1 a game to 6.6, and Magic Johnson from 6.2 to 7.7, second only to A.C. Green’s 7.9.

Technically, free agent Orlando Woolridge was signed as Rambis’ replacement. But the expectations are different with Woolridge, a scorer but not a rebounder. Woolridge is averaging 3.4 rebounds in 21.5 minutes a game this season. Last season, Rambis averaged 3.8 rebounds in 12.1 minutes a game, leading the Lakers in rebounds per minute.

The void left by Rambis cannot be filled with statistics, however. The Lakers simply aren’t receiving that jolt off the bench they did during Rambis’ tenure, resulting in fewer fast breaks.

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“He had a style all his own,” Worthy said of Rambis. “Nobody dove on the floor like Kurt. Nobody got people going like he did. I think that’s what people miss most. But we’re still getting the job done.”

Not without difficulty, however.

“We sort of lean on team rebounding now,” Riley said. “We don’t have the one dominant rebounder. We’ve got to 5-man rebound the basketball now. Maybe that hurts our break a bit, but when you’re 20th in the league in rebounding, you have to go all-out.”

Worthy said he has put special emphasis on the rebounding aspect of his game this season because of Rambis’ absence. So far, Worthy has been able to improve his rebounding average by 1.3 a game while also increasing his scoring average from 19.7 to 21 a game.

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But Riley said Worthy is capable of getting close to double figures in rebounding every game, which he has accomplished in 3 straight games.

“That’s something I’m trying to improve on,” Worthy said. “I’ve always rebounded decently. We need more collective rebounding. We can’t depend on A.C. all the time. But we’re all trying to get the boards now.”

Actually, Riley wants Woolridge to exert himself more under the basket. “I’d like to see Orlando propel his body toward the basket on the boards like he does (when he has the ball),” Riley said.

Rambis said he does not regret leaving the Lakers, who would not give him the long-term contract he desired, and that he is happy playing 30 minutes a game, albeit on a losing team.

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“I don’t believe in looking back,” Rambis said. “I don’t regret leaving at all. I made a decision based on what was beneficial to my family. I like playing (in Charlotte). I like helping this franchise grow into something and hope to be part of it in the future.”

That may be so, but Riley thinks Rambis also may be longing for his days as a Laker. Certainly, as Riley said, the Lakers miss Rambis. “I think, deep in Kurt’s heart--I don’t care what he says--he’s got purple and gold all over him,” Riley said. “He doesn’t look good in that uniform, whatever their colors are.”


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