Welcome back for Week 2 of Throwback Thursdays with the Coach. Being that we started with Boston Celtic great Robert Parish last week, we need to show some respect to the second greatest franchise in league history, the Los Angeles Lakers. Today’s choice was actually the only Laker from Showtime who ever had a chance for his throwback to land in the Coach’s collection, as having a Magic Johnson joint was never an option. Big Game James Worthy was not only an all-time great Laker; he was an all-time great player – both at the collegiate and pro level.
While Michael Jordan hit the most memorable shot in North Carolina history in 1982, the best player on that ‘82 NCAA Championship team was the All-American James Worthy. Following a McDonald’s High School All-American honor in 1979, Worthy spent three years playing for Dean Smith at Chapel Hill before turning pro after his junior season.
As a result of a Red Auerbach type move, the Lakers had the first overall picl in the Spring of 1982 following their second championship in three seasons, thanks to a 1980 trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Worthy was the perfect fit for the defending champs as he would fit right in at the small forward position alongside veteran Jamal Wilkes. Worthy gave the Lakers another weapon in the arsenal that already consisted of a Magic and Norm Nixon backcourt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still in MVP form on the post, veteran scoring forward Bob McAdoo and role players Kurt Rambis and Michael Cooper. Unfortunately for the Lakers and Worthy, #42 got injured at the end of the 1983 regular season. The Sixers led by Moses Malone, Dr. J and Maurice Cheeks then swept the Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Many heard the buzz about Worthy after making the All-Rookie First Team in 1983, but in 1984, everyone knew who he was. In arguably the best championship series ever played, the Lakers and Celtics went seven games, and Worthy had some of the most memorable highlights in Finals history. The chemistry he was a part of with Magic leading the break (yes, we called it Showtime), was some of the most exciting and acrobatic basketball we have ever seen. And that’s hard to say coming from a Celtics die-hard:
From 1984 to 1989, the Lakers won three more championships, two of them over the Celtics. While Bird, Magic and later Isiah were the “superstars,” the battles James Worthy had against Bird, McHale, Dantley and Rodman were flat-out awesome. As a small forward, he could face you up at 18 feet and take you to the rim on the bounce, or he could post you up on either block and finish with either hand. The move that would get ‘em every time was of course the baseline spin, that is, if he wasn’t filling the lane on the break like a suped up Ferrari.
This seven-time All-Star, three-time NBA champion and 1988 NBA Finals MVP, got his nickname “Big Game” James because of some of the monster games he would have in clutch postseason situations. In his first postseason in 1984, Worthy averaged 22 points per game with a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent against the Celtics. Straight through the 1989 Finals – which the injury bitten Lakers lost in four straight to the Bad Boys – Worthy was always above 20 points per game.
In 1988, the Lakers were attempting to be the first team to three-peat since the 1969 Celtics. With Detroit ahead 3-2 headed back to L.A., the Bad Boys were tasting their first championship. Thanks to Big Game James though, they had to wait another year. In Game 6, Worthy produced 28 points and nine rebounds; and then in one of the best Game 7 performances no one seems to talk about, Worthy hit the Pistons with a triple-double of 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists, capturing his Finals MVP.
Magic was Magic, Kareem was Kareem, but without Worthy, Showtime never would have reached the heights it did. Let us remember and pay homage to the career of James Worthy, this week’s Thursday Throwback.