In 12 years with the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, “Big Game” James Worthy was known for his ability to maneuver around opposing players at a dizzying pace. “I just decide I’m going to go around [a defensive opponent] when I’m setting up and when I get the ball, I go,” he told Sports Illustrated. He also thrilled fans with trademark one-handed swooping dunks. With the Lakers, Worthy helped his team capture three NBA championships. “I don’t think there has been or will be a better small forward than James,” former Lakers coach Pat Riley told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “He was always such a quiet guy. But when he was in his prime, I can guarantee you, there wasn’t anybody who could touch him.”
James Ager Worthy was born on February 27, 1961, the youngest son of Ervin and Gladys Worthy. He was raised in Gastonia, North Carolina, where his father was a Baptist minister. Worthy started playing basketball around the age of four, though he acknowledged during his Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech, “I just hated the sport,” according to Newsday. His parents inadvertently changed his mind. The Worthy family believed in hard work and hard study and it was expected that their children would go to college. However, on a minister’s salary that was not so easy to accomplish. Worthy saw his parents struggling to pay college tuition for his brothers and decided to get a scholarship to help out. “[That] was the only reason I wanted to play ball,” Worthy continued.
By ninth grade Worthy was making local headlines. By tenth grade colleges were after him. Already nearing his full height of six feet, nine inches, Worthy was very big, very fast, and very good. As he led Ashbrook High to victory after victory, even his opponents cheered for him. By his senior year he had played on five All-American teams, earned Conference Player of the Year, and amassed an incredible average of 21.5 points per game (ppg) and 12.5 rebounds per game (rpg). Scholarship offers poured in. Worthy stayed close to home, choosing the University of North Carolina (UNC). His decision again was influenced by his family. “[UNC Coach Dean Smith] talked to my parents and promised two things; I would go to class and I had to go to church unless I had a letter from my parents,” Worthy told Hoophall, the Web site of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “From that point I knew I wanted to play for Coach Smith.”
Worthy donned the UNC Tar Heel uniform in 1980 but midway through his freshman year he slipped and shattered his ankle. Doctors had to implant two screws and a six-inch metal rod to repair the damage. He missed 14 games and began to doubt his future in basketball. “I wasn’t sure I would be able to come back with the same type of intensity I’d always had,” the NBA Web site quoted him. His fears were unfounded. His sophomore year, with the screws still intact, Worthy stormed back onto the court. He averaged 14.2 ppg and 8.4 rpg, helping to lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA championships. Though they lost to Indiana, Worthy’s reputation as a top college player was cemented.
Worthy entered his junior year at UNC at the top of his game. “He was the quickest guy on our North Carolina team,” a former UNC coach told Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “And we had Michael Jordan as a freshman. But James was a man among boys underneath. And when the big games came, his eyes got big.” With an average of 15.6 ppg in the regular season, Worthy led his team to the 1982 NCAA championships. In a pattern that came to characterize him, Worthy shifted into high gear during the playoffs and scored 28 points in the final game to seal the championship.
In three years at UNC Worthy was named to 11 All-American teams, voted Most Outstanding Player of the 1982 NCAA Final Four, chosen Helms Foundation National Player of the Year, and of course, earned an NCAA championship. He was ready to go pro. He left UNC just before his senior year and threw his name into the 1982 NBA draft. The Los Angeles Lakers did not hesitate to make him the number one draft choice.
In 1982 the Lakers were the reigning NBA champions and their roster boasted superstars Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson. The team also had Jamaal Wilkes as small forward—the position Worthy was drafted to play. On just about any other team, Worthy would have become an immediate star. On the Lakers, he was relegated to the background. “We could all see he was a big-time player, but I think what everybody appreciated most under the circumstances was that he kept his mouth shut,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated. In fact Worthy gained a league-wide reputation for his stoicism. He did not scream for joy over a win, nor complain loudly about a loss. He shunned media attention and did not engage in locker room banter. “We know him, but we don’t know him,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated. This quiet demeanor came to be an essential part of his success in pro ball. “James was a great player within a system,” Jerry West, former general manager of the Lakers, told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.
While he was still a rookie, Sports Illustrated called Worthy “one of the best players to come into the NBA in the last decade.” He earned that praise, playing in 77 games and scoring the highest field goal percentage of any rookie in the league. He also became the fourth rookie in Lakers history to score 1,000 points. Worthy’s feats landed him on the NBA All-Rookie team. Coaches and fellow teammates were also impressed. “He has unbelievable footwork,” Lakers forward Maurice Lucas told Sports Illustrated. West agreed, telling the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, “James was an impossible matchup. Put a smaller guy on him and he’d go over him. Put a taller guy on him and he’d go around him. Put a smaller, quicker guy on him and he’d still go around him. That was his special skill.” Unfortunately, near the end of the season Worthy broke his leg and was sidelined during the playoffs.
Back on court by the middle of the 1984 season, Worthy racked up a 14.5 ppg average. Again, he turned up the heat during the playoffs, increasing his average to 17.7 ppg. Worthy and team went on to face long-time rivals the Boston Celtics in the championships series. According to Sports Illustrated, “[Worthy dominated] the first three games.” By the fourth game, the Celtics—and their fans, known for taunting opposing teams in order to unnerve them—had had enough. As Worthy took the floor for a potentially game-tying free-throw, the heckling began, not only from the fans, but also from Celtic players. Worthy missed and the Lakers went on to lose the series. “I really didn’t appreciate that,” Worthy told Sports Illustrated. “I just thought it was kind of low. It was my first experience with the Boston mystique. It was kind of cheap—but that’s the Celtics.”
In 1985 the Lakers returned to face Boston in the NBA championships. After losing the first game by 40 points, the usually quiet Worthy spoke up. “Before Game 2, I remember James saying, ‘Let’s go out and play like the Lakers,'” teammate Michael Cooper recalled to the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. “Now, that doesn’t sound like anything special. But it reminded us that we hadn’t been ourselves.” Taking his own advice, Worthy, whose season average had been 17.6 ppg, increased his average to 21.5 in the playoffs. In the finals against Boston he nudged even higher, to 23.7. “The bigger the game, the more important the situation, the better James plays,” Riley told Sports Illustrated. Playing like a Laker, Worthy helped the team win the championship. “That was the one I cherish the most,” the NBA Web site quoted Worthy. From 1959 to 1969, the Lakers had faced the Celtics seven times in the championships, losing each time. In breaking that losing streak, Worthy and crew became Los Angeles heroes.
For the first time in his professional career Worthy’s scoring average topped 20 ppg in the 1986 regular season. He also made the first of seven consecutive appearances in the NBA All-Star Game. The All-Star series—held mid-season each year—features players voted on by fans. Worthy’s inclusion proved that he had finally come out of the shadow of Jabbar and Johnson. Worthy and the Lakers faced the Celtics again in the 1986 championship. Boston won but the Lakers bounced back the following year. In 1987 the Lakers tore through the playoffs and then trounced the Celtics in six games to retake the NBA crown.
By 1988 Worthy was a superstar. During home games the stadium shook as the crowds chanted his name. Sports journalists across the country wrote that Worthy was indeed “worthy”—of praise, fame, even basketball history. Characteristically, Worthy stayed focused on basketball. His scoring average again topped 20 ppg, helping the Lakers coast to another championship appearance. This time their opponents were the Detroit Pistons. The series came down to the wire in the seventh game. Worthy, again proving his grace under pressure, pulled off the best game of his career. He scored an astounding 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists. In basketball, when a player attains double-digits in three different game statistics, it is called a triple-double;—an amazing feat that attests to a player’s versatility. By scoring the first triple-double of his career, Worthy helped the Lakers beat the Pistons, 108 to 105. Worthy donned his third championship ring and was named Most Valuable Player of the Finals. He also earned the nickname that has come to define him: “Big Game” James.
The Lakers lost the NBA championship to the Pistons in 1989 and did not make it past the semi-finals in 1990. They returned to the finals in 1991, but lost to the Chicago Bulls. As the Lakers fell, Worthy’s play also declined. In 1991 he posted the best scoring average of his career with 21.4 ppg, yet his field goal percentage dropped for the first time in eight seasons. The following year Worthy had surgery on his knee and sat out most of the season. When he came back in 1993 he had record low averages in every category. He was suffering tendonitis and knee pain. “Physically, he’s beat up,” teammate Sam Bowie told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. Worthy decided to retire a week into his thirteenth season with the Lakers. He was 33. In addition to his physical ailments, Worthy admitted to Hoophall, “I lost the love of [playing] the game.”
Following retirement, the previously media-shy Worthy took on several high-profile jobs. He covered the NCAA Final Four for CBS and appeared on Fox Sports News. He guest-starred on Everyone Loves Raymond and Star Trek: The Next Generation. On the professional speaking route, he began commanding up to $20,000 an appearance. He also wrote a basketball column for Sports Ya!, a Spanish-language Web site. Meanwhile, he received several prestigious honors for his years with the Lakers. On December 10, 1995, Worthy became only the sixth player in Lakers history to have his jersey—number 42—retired. In 1996, the NBA named Worthy one of the 50 greatest basketball players in history. And in September of 2003 Worthy was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “This is the ultimate,” Sports Network quoted Worthy as saying during his acceptance speech. “It is more than an honor to be amongst the Hall of Famers tonight.” However, in typical modesty, he clarified to Hoophall, “of all my goals, this was not one of them.… I played basketball to try to get my parents from working so hard.” He not only succeeded, he became a basketball legend in the process.