Worthy Hangs It Up, and so Will the Lakers : Pro basketball: Team will put retired forward’s No. 42 next to other greats on Forum wall.
He was Thursday as he had been for his previous 12 years as a Laker, eloquent and graceful, soft-spoken about his accomplishments, an athlete relating the frustration of a once-great body wearing out and making it all seem so reasonable.
James Worthy said his knees had given out more than his will had. The end, he insisted, came not after serious contemplation following the sudden death of his mother, or after struggling with a reduced role on a team whose other players talked of having watched him in the NBA finals as junior high students, but after being struck with the achy joints of April and May in October. Two-a-days had hurt too much, he said, and he could imagine how he would be feeling by Game 63.
So he retired, making it official at a crowded Forum news conference and bringing the curtain down on an era in the process. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper, among others, were there to say goodby to a friend--and the last link to Showtime.
“I’m happy that we can see James go out and we can all smile,” said Abdul-Jabbar, the former captain. “We’ll shed some tears later, but we can smile because he’s walking out happy, the way he wants to leave.”
He won’t be entirely gone, either. Worthy said he might go into broadcasting and will probably stay close to the game, but, in any capacity, he will be part of the Forum. Owner Jerry Buss has decided to retire Worthy’s No. 42 and hang it alongside those of the Laker immortals: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson. No date has been set, but the ceremony may be held in December.
That isn’t Buss’ only tribute to the seven-time all-star. Retirement could have meant that Worthy was walking away from a contract that would pay $7.2 million this season and $5.15 million in 1995-96, or at least that he would have to settle for a percentage as a buyout. But he will be paid in full.
“You make a commitment to do something, so you do it,” said Bob Steiner, Buss’ spokesman. “The same things were always true with (Johnson’s) contracts and everyone else’s contract. You sign an agreement to pay him. If you’re not obligated to it legally, you certainly are morally from what James has meant to Jerry’s happiness. Look at what the guy’s done.”
Buss is also paying $14.6 million worth of happiness to Johnson this season on a contract that was signed even as all parties realized that Magic would not be playing. In business, they call it a golden parachute. Around the Laker front office, where $26.95 million is now earmarked for two former players, it’s known as thank you.
What it means to the future of the Lakers is quite different. Because of a salary-cap technicality, they will have $1.85 million to pay another player, good until Nov. 10, 1995. That would seem lucrative enough to lure a good free agent, although probably not a top-level talent.
Worthy, 33, alluded to the front office--primarily Buss, Executive Vice President West and General Manager Mitch Kupchak--during his remarks, noting that he played with legends and worked for legends. But the most insightful comments were saved for his decision to retire after 12 seasons and three championships.
“The thing that really wore on me was that I could only play one way,” he said. “Some players, when they get older, they have a tendency to be able to adjust and find a way to continue. I just couldn’t do it. I think I may have tried it this past year, to modify, because I knew the minutes were going to decrease, but it was a forced situation. I can remember when my alarm clock would go off and I would be right up, right to practice, ready to go. It was fun. It got to the point where you hit the snooze five or six times.
“I didn’t feel good physically, and I knew I couldn’t make the contribution that I needed and wanted to. So for the sake of the younger players that are really working hard, it was a mutual agreement with Dr. Buss and the Laker front office. I was able to make some room and really avoid any further frustration or embarrassment that I might cause myself trying to compete when I knew it just wasn’t there.
“I definitely think it’s time for me. Parts of last year and a little bit of this year in training camp was like a test for me because I think you get to the point where you really aren’t sure if you’ve got enough left. So I’m almost sure that it’s the right time for me.
“I really feel relieved. I’m not looking back. I’m really just feeling very light, very happy that I was able to come to a decision and have it be the right one.”
Thursday’s proceedings were as much tribute as explanation, recollections of a spectacular small forward who probably never got his due from fans outside Los Angeles because he played with and was overshadowed by Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar. Many looked upon him as a complementary player when, in fact, he was a star in his own right. He could run the wings, even at 6 feet 9, with Magic at the controls of the trademark Showtime fast break, then a moment later embarrass a defender with a quick spin move from the low post.
Worthy scored 16,320 points and stands 52nd on the all-time NBA list. He spent more years as a Laker than anyone other than Abdul-Jabbar and West. He was at his best in the playoffs--thus the nickname “Big Game James"--averaging 3.5 more points than in the regular season and being named finals MVP in 1988. He got his first triple-double in that series--in Game 7. He got his career-best 40 points in the championship series the next year.
Johnson rates him as the second-best finisher on the break the game has seen, behind only Michael Jordan and right there with Julius Erving.
Abdul-Jabbar said, “We always respected him as the cutting edge of what it was about to be a forward.”
Kevin McHale, the former Celtic, recalled him as “a real warrior, but a very classy warrior.”
In the end, to the surprise of no one, Worthy was gracious.
“To be a Laker,” he said, “was everything to me.”
A Worthy Career
A look through the years at James Worthy, who announced his retirement Thursday after 12 seasons with the Lakers.
* FEB. 15, 1980--The Lakers trade Don Ford and a 1980 first-round pick to Cleveland for Butch Lee and a No. 1 pick in 1982.
* SUMMER, 1982--The pick the Lakers get from the Cavaliers turns out to be No. 1 overall, the only time in league history the reigning NBA champion gets the top selection. Deciding against Dominique Wilkins and Terry Cummings, the Lakers take James Worthy, a 6-foot-9 forward who left North Carolina as a junior after helping the Tar Heels to the NCAA championship.
* 1982-83--The Lakers go 58-24 and win the Pacific Division title. Worthy averages 13.4 points, shoots 57.9%--still a club record for first-year players--and is a unanimous all-rookie selection. But he suffers a broken leg in the final week of the regular season and sits out the playoffs. The Philadelphia 76ers sweep the Lakers in the finals.
* 1983-84--The Lakers go 54-28, winning the Pacific Division and Western Conference titles before losing to Boston in seven games in the finals. Worthy averages 14.5 points.
* 1984-85--The Lakers win the division title by 20 games as Worthy averages 17.6 points. He then sets an NBA playoff record for accuracy in a series by shooting 72.1% in the Western Conference finals against Denver. That helps set the stage for one of the greatest moments in franchise history: winning the championship by beating the Celtics in Boston Garden.
* 1985-86--Worthy improves his scoring average for the fourth consecutive season to 20.0 and makes the All-Star team for the first time. The Lakers start 24-3 and cruise to a fifth consecutive Pacific Division title, this time by a league-record 22 games, only to be eliminated by Houston in the Western Conference finals when Ralph Sampson makes an off-balance shot at the buzzer of Game 5 at the Forum.
* 1986-87--Magic Johnson is named the regular-season and finals MVP and Michael Cooper is chosen as the defensive player of the year, but Worthy averages 23.6 points and shoots 59.1% during the playoffs as the Lakers defeat Boston for their fourth title of the decade.
* 1987-88--What a time for the first triple-double of his career: Game 7 of the championship series against Detroit. The Lakers beat the Pistons for a second consecutive title as Worthy gets 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists and is named MVP of the finals. He averages 19.7 points during the regular season as the Lakers go 62-20 before becoming the first team to win three consecutive seven-game series for the championship.
* 1988-89--Worthy builds on his reputation as a great playoff performer by averaging 24.8 points in postseason play and scoring a career-high 40 in Game 4 of the finals. But he can’t stop the injury-riddled Lakers from being swept by the Pistons after going 57-25 during the regular season and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar farewell tour.
* 1989-90--Worthy averages 21.1 points and becomes the first player in NBA history to shoot at least 53% in his first eight seasons as the Lakers finish a league-best 63-19. The season comes to a screeching halt when the Phoenix Suns win the second-round series, the Lakers’ earliest exit since 1981.
* 1990-91--Worthy’s 21.4-point average is a career best and helps the Lakers recover from a 1-4 start under new Coach Mike Dunleavy. The Lakers put together a 16-game winning streak in midseason, finish 58-24 and win the Western Conference championship. Worthy is hobbled in the finals by an ankle injury, and after winning the opener at Chicago Stadium on Sam Perkins’ three-pointer, the Lakers lose the next four games to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
* 1991-92--The slide starts for the Lakers and Worthy, even as he makes the All-Star team for the seventh, and last, time. Johnson announces he is HIV-positive, Vlade Divac undergoes surgery for a herniated disk, Worthy spends the final 25 games on the injured list after arthroscopic knee surgery and in December the Lakers suffer through their first losing month since March of ’79. They finish 43-39 and are eliminated by Portland in the first round of the playoffs.
* 1992-93--Worthy’s scoring drops to 14.9, the shooting to 44.7%. The Lakers finish below .500 at home for the first time since 1960 and limp in at 39-43 before pushing heavily favored Phoenix to the limit in a first-round loss.
* 1993-94--Worthy goes down with the ship, recording career lows in scoring, rebounding, shooting and minutes played and failing to score 1,000 points for the first time in his career as the Lakers go 33-49 and fail to reach the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
Year Pts. Reb. ’82-83 13.4 5.2 ’83-84 14.5 6.3 ’84-85 17.6 6.4 ’85-86 20.0 5.2 ’86-87 19.4 5.7 ’87-88 19.7 5.0 ’88-89 20.5 6.0 ’89-90 21.1 6.0 ’90-91 21.4 4.6 ’91-92 19.9 5.6 ’92-93 14.9 3.0 ’93-94 10.2 2.3 Totals 17.6 5.1
Year Pts. Reb. ’82-83 ’83-84 17.7 5.0 ’84-85 21.5 5.1 ’85-86 19.6 4.6 ’86-87 23.6 5.6 ’87-88 21.1 5.8 ’88-89 24.8 6.7 ’89-90 24.2 5.6 ’90-91 21.1 4.1 ’91-92 ’92-93 13.8 3.4 ’93-94 Totals 21.1 5.2