Q&A: James Worthy talks ’82 NCAA title game and March Madness

The 30th anniversary of one of college basketball’s landmark games has arrived.

Three years after Magic Johnson beat Larry Bird, and a year before North Carolina State shocked Houston, North Carolina in 1982 edged Georgetown, 63-62, in a riveting championship game.

It was Michael Jordan’s first of many clutch performances, Coach Dean Smith’s first title. And James Worthy capped a most-outstanding-player tournament by scoring 28 points and gladly accepting a game-clinching mistaken pass by Georgetown’s Fred Brown in the final seconds.

After winning three NBA titles with the Lakers in the 1980s, Worthy, 51, is back at the site of his heroics at New Orleans’ Superdome for an Allstate promotion at the Final Four, with Kentucky Coach John Calipari trying to win his first national title Monday night against Kansas.

Can you believe it’s been 30 years since the Georgetown game? You can make the case that your game was the best among those three classics in five years.

“I’ve not only lost my hair, I’ve lost my beard. What a great anniversary it is. Coach Smith getting his first. Versus John Thompson. In the dome. I’d vote for it [as greatest], given the circumstances of who played in that game, the fact that we had lost to Bob Knight and Indiana the year before. Myself going against my high school rival from Gastonia, N.C., “Sleepy” Floyd. Playing that deep Georgetown team with Patrick Ewing. Big game going in, back and forth all the way, and the way it ended with Michael’s big shot and that pass.”

What specific memories do you take from that game?

“Georgetown was relentless. They were intent to make us crack with their defense, and they nearly did. There was a point they had gone up three or four, and back then that was a big number. So [North Carolina’s] Jimmy Black misses a layup and Michael flies in and tips it back in — an ‘Ice’ Gervin, finger-roll tip-in over Ewing. I might have been the outstanding player, but Michael Jordan emerged from the ACC tournament on that year. To watch him say, ‘This is my ball, this is my court’ was amazing.”

And then it ends with the surprise Fred Brown pass to you. What were you thinking? Have you spoken to Brown since?

“He picked up his dribble and then in panic, I think, he thought I was on his team and passed to me. There was a delayed reaction by me. I thought the play had stopped, that there was a timeout.… Once I realized he made a mistake, all I could do was dribble. I knew there was a little time left on the clock. I concentrated not on myself or the team, but on the fact it was Coach Smith’s first title, that we’d finally gotten him one. [Regarding Brown], ESPN did a thing on it, how he shouldn’t be entirely blamed, and that’s right. But my rookie year [with the Lakers] we flew in to Washington to play the Bullets and stayed 10 minutes from Georgetown. We actually practiced at Georgetown. I walked in through these big swinging doors toward the gym, and there’s Fred Brown. We didn’t even speak then. And we’ve never had a beer on it.”

What are your thoughts on this year’s final?

“Kentucky’s to win. They could beat a couple of NBA teams. Great team, and they have an attitude. [I thought] if anyone could figure it out, it’s [Louisville’s] Rick Pitino. That center [Anthony Davis] certainly knows how to play his position, and I know Michael Jordan [now the Charlotte Bobcats owner] is licking his chops to draft this kid.”

What’s the common denominator you usually see in an NCAA champion?

“Longevity, consistency, how they handle adversity. The great teams don’t dwell on it, they get right back in your face. That’s the key. The attitude can be more important than the talent. The teams that get in each other’s faces, that argue and monitor each other. Kentucky has that, and with Calipari going for his first, he has a great chance.”

What do you think of what Magic Johnson has done in purchasing the Dodgers?

“It’s huge, the biggest thing Magic has ever done, and that’s saying something, because he’s done some amazing things. I know he always wanted to do major things, be involved. Magic’s a doer, a winner. He put this group together, now he’s the guy for the job. He wants to win, he knows how to win, he has this great group behind him and the players will love him. He always said when he first came here to the Lakers, the Dodgers had the front page of the newspaper and he wanted to change that. Now that the Lakers have it, he’s taking it back with the Dodgers.”