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A Talent Worthy of Name

The thing about James Worthy is, you don’t know whether that’s a name or a description.

You don’t know whether he’s James the Worthy--like one of those old-time kings who were Charles the Great, or John the Good, or Richard the Lion-Hearted.

Whatever he is, he’s basketball royalty. He didn’t exactly come into the league with banners waving and trumpets blaring. He wasn’t “Magic” or “Air Jordan” or “the Mailman.” He was just James.

In fact, hardly anybody was throwing his hat in the air around the Lakers when they drafted him No. 1. A lot of people thought the new general manager, Jerry West, blew it. He should have picked the flashier Dominique Wilkins or the long-shooting Terry Cummings or even the speedy Sleepy Floyd. They thought James was Unworthy.

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When you’re on a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Byron Scott and Jamaal Wilkes, it’s hard to get noticed. It’s not that easy to get the basketball. After those guys, everybody else is Kurt Rambis.

James Worthy didn’t explode into a whole bunch of 50- or 60-point nights. He didn’t spend half his game flying through the air like a Wallenda. He didn’t win any slam-dunk contests. He was just, well, Worthy.

He never showed elation when he won. He never showed frustration when he didn’t. James never let anyone know what cards he was holding. He missed a shot with the same poker-faced resignation as he hit one. He almost never fouled out. He was disqualified only once in the last six years.

He was as dependable as sunrise, as unflappable as a cigar store Indian. “James always showed this great dignity and poise,” his coach, Pat Riley, recalls. “I remember when he first came up and we shook hands, I noticed his palms were sweating, but he had this calm, quiet look on his face. All he said was, ‘Just don’t call me Jim.’ Somehow, a proper name fit. You don’t need a nickname for a Worthy.”

The Lakers got 40 minutes of impeccable basketball a night out of this Worthy. Somehow, it wasn’t enough. The league knew about Worthy. The Boston Celtics’ coach, K.C. Jones, was once heard to observe: “We knew what we had to do about Magic and Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes. We had no clue about James Worthy.”

But the general public overlooked him. Magic was adored. Kareem was held in some awe. Michael Cooper was “C-o-o-o-p!” Worthy was just the subject of rumor mills: James Worthy was going to Dallas for Mark Aguirre. Then it was for Roy Tarpley. The story around the league was, West announced flatly he would resign if James Worthy went for anybody. They were not getting worth for Worthy, he told them.

The moment of truth arrived when Kareem retired. Now, the smart money said, the Laker franchise would turn back into a pumpkin. Its lineup would just be an orphan asylum.

The “orphans” only posted the league’s best won-lost record, 63-19. As the season wore on, Magic Johnson-James Worthy became as effective a combination as a ballroom dance team--or the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They moved in tandem. Whenever Johnson was double-teamed, which was most of the time, Worthy was like a man who had just been let out of a cage. “W-o-o-r-t-h-y!” rang through the Forum night after night as he flipped, shoveled, arc-ed or tapped in 1,685 points, including 711 field goals, and took down 478 rebounds, praise-Worthy statistics. But Worthy does not make the top 10, just the playoffs. “James is the best post-up player in the league,” Riley explains. “Our offense moves through James. Magic is the artillery, James is the shell. James cannot be handled one-on-one. He is the best in the league with his back to the basket. He’s our first option going to the basket, and when Magic is double-teamed, he spots it instantly and goes right for the glass. He has the quickest feet of any post player I’ve ever seen.”

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He’s like a guy stealing a pie when he gets the ball. Of course, he got a late start in the game. He was clear up to 4 years old before his brothers could get a basketball in his hands at Gastonia, N.C. By the time he was 6, he had every move Elgin Baylor ever had.

He plays the game in a pair of space-cadet goggles that make him look as if he came to weld the backboard. There’s nothing wrong with his eyes--he just wants to keep it that way. Earlier in his career, he got a fingernail in his cornea and doesn’t like the notion of a repeat.

The Lakers seemed to have their boots off and their guns out of reach when the Phoenix Suns surrounded them in the opening game at the Forum Tuesday night. They scored a limping 18 points in the final 12 minutes to lose by two. One more loss and they might as well go to Phoenix in a blindfold with a chaplain and a Bible and make ready to go to lie down in green pastures.

But Thursday night, James was Worthy again, and Magic was, so to say, up to his old tricks--making the basketball disappear, sawing Phoenix in half.

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They only evened the series. When Phoenix won Game 3 Saturday, it was right back to the wall for L.A. The Suns seemed to be looking down the barrel at them and squinting for the kill. But, they still have to win four. And they still have to overcome a most Worthy opponent.


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