Give Thanks for James’ Big Games

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There was a party at the Planet Hollywood on Wilshire Boulevard at around 1:30 Sunday afternoon. James Worthy was guest of honor. A cake was cut, then a Laker jersey and goggles, once worn by Worthy, were presented to Robert Earl, the restaurant’s president and chief executive officer, to be framed and mounted near the other famous superhero costumes, like Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.

Oh, and a place east of Hollywood also requested a pair of Worthy’s goggles.

The Smithsonian Institution.

“I’ve only got one pair left. I’ll have to borrow some goggles from Kareem,” said “Big Game” James, the retired sultan of swoop, whose golden tank top No. 42 was immortalized on the Forum’s wall of fame Sunday night, flanking (from left to right) Earvin Johnson’s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s, Jerry West’s, Wilt Chamberlain’s and Elgin Baylor’s.

Aside from asking for his eyewear, the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., has requested Worthy’s participation in a new project, an oral history of American sport. The institute needed someone eloquent, so who better than James?


The man knows his history. No longer a Laker, having retired Nov. 10, 1994, after a 12-year career, Worthy brought down the house by recalling a coin flip to determine the NBA’s top draft choice of 1982.

“That flip was between the Clippers and the Lakers, and I’ll tell you . . . thank God!” Worthy told the Forum crowd, dropping to one knee. “Thank God !”

At a halftime ceremony, the North Carolina native referred to his L.A. years as the “most enhancing, most rewarding, most exciting experience that I ever had as an adult.

“I came all the way from Tobacco Road to the roads of Hollywood. It was an immediate learning experience and the best years of my life,” Worthy, still only 34, said in a familiar baritone.

Broadcasting needs such a voice. That’s why another objective of Worthy’s in civilian life is to launch a TV career, which he soon will for the Prime Sports cable network, on college basketball. He can be heard soon at a UC Irvine game. As weeks go by, “Big Game” James will get bigger and bigger games. He’s good at those.

He has also done some acting--he played an alien in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode--and sits on the board of directors of a Los Angeles beverage company.

Worthy should be good at whatever he tries.

“He’s a special person,” said his college coach, Dean Smith, who came 3,000 miles from North Carolina on a flight that landed Sunday afternoon, just to honor his former player. Smith flew home straight from the Forum ceremony.


“We knew it right from the start. He came to our camp as a kid, and we took one look and said, ‘Move him up. Put him with the older guys,’ ” Smith said. “James always had that aura about him. Didn’t he, Magic?”

Standing nearby, Earvin Johnson said: “James? Oh, James; James was something else. James played the most beautiful basketball I ever saw.”

Also within earshot, Doug Collins, the Detroit Piston coach, called over: “What’s that, Magic?”

“Just talking about James.”

Collins said: “James Worthy? They don’t come any better than James Worthy.”

“Lakers should use him tonight,” a helpful sportswriter suggested.

“Hey, he’d get his 20,” Collins shot back.

The formal unveiling of James’ jersey on the Forum wall came at halftime of the Laker-Piston game. Six years ago, Worthy popped for 40 points against the Pistons, his highest total ever. And those were the Laimbeer-Mahorn-Rodman, enter-at-your-own-risk Pistons, against whom no one scored easily.

“I spoke to [Detroit guard] Joe Dumars tonight,” Worthy said. “He was about the only Bad Boy I liked.”

James had too many big games to mention. His own favorite: “Beating the Celtics in the Garden in 1985, simply because of the unbelievable history behind the rivalry. None of us participated in the domination by the Celtics back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when [the Lakers] suffered so many agonizing losses. But that motivated our team. That ghost of having never beaten the Celtics was thrown on our shoulders. That was like climbing Mount Everest.


“To beat the Celtics then, and again in 1987, en route to something that hadn’t been done in 19 years--back-to-back championships--was very special.”

Except to the Celtics.

Kevin McHale, who played for Boston, forwarded a message for his fellow retiree for Sunday’s festivities: “I wish I could say it was a pleasure to play against James Worthy, but it wasn’t,” McHale said. “He was too good.”

Laker executive Jerry West called his new wall-mate a consummate professional.

“James, you played the game with class and style,” West said. “You were part of the greatest teams I think I ever saw in my life.”

Worthy won three championships and scored 16,320 points. With his father, Ervin Worthy Sr., and older brothers, Ervin Jr. and Danny, on hand for the ceremony, as well as former teammates such as A.C. Green, who flew in from Phoenix for the occasion, Worthy’s distinctive style of swooping to the hoop with the basketball palmed in one hand was what was remembered about him most fondly.

Said Magic Johnson: “I no-looked him the ball, and James put it in that big mitt of his, and voila . . . Statue of Liberty.”

The Forum fans cheered.

“Thanks,” Worthy said, waving. “I love you too.”