The Forum. Showtime. The Lake Show.
Those are just a few of the words that helped define my childhood. In grade school, I was a skinny white kid with beachy blonde hair – hardly the prototype of a basketball junkie. I remember parading around school in a #32 Lakers jersey that was large enough for #32 to wear himself. It wasn’t until years later that I learned I would never be 6’9”, dashing my dreams of becoming the next Magic Johnson.
Some of my earliest memories are still replayed with Chick Hearn gracefully providing the soundtrack.
Magic in the front court, on the block to Worthy, back out to Scott, inside to Kareem, sky hook from twelve, good!
As an elementary school kid, two things about that broadcast stuck with me: Magic and Kareem. I would imagine the rest was forced out by years of mindless Van Damme flicks, Nirvana CD’s and anything with Jennifer Love Hewitt in it.
Even so, it made perfect sense. Magic and Kareem were larger than life superstars in a city of superstars – the face of the Showtime Lakers of the 1980’s. Any L.A. fan can vividly recall Magic’s smile, his dazzling no-look-passes and the running hook that beat Boston. They remember Kareem’s demeanor, the stalwart superstar and the skyhook that never stopped giving. I was well into my High School years when I realized there was a lot more to that broadcast than I recognized as a kid.
You can blame it on the goggles, the presence of Magic and Kareem or simply his reserved behavior, but there is no denying that James Worthy was sandwiched between a pair of the greatest players in the NBA history, leaving him one of the least recognized superstars of his generation.
That observation rang true as I walked into Morton’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills to meet him on Monday afternoon. I instantly noticed that the crowd was a little bit older, especially for a 20-something sports writer who regretfully decided not to wear a suit. At the outset, I speculated that it had something to do with the economics involved with having lunch at a classy spot like Morton’s. However, it didn’t take long before I realized it was because they knew something about James Worthy that most of my generation didn’t…
That the Lakers got swept in the ’83 NBA Finals by the Philadelphia 76ers… after James Worthy broke his leg on the final day of the regular season and missed the entire playoffs.
That Magic’s baby hook in the ’85 NBA Finals broke the Boston curse… after James Worthy took over a pivotal Game 3 and averaged 24/5/3 on 56% shooting for the series.
That the Lakers went back-to-back in ‘88 by beating the Bad-Boy Detroit Pistons… after James Worthy had a triple double (36/16/10) in Game 7 and won the Finals MVP Award over Magic and Kareem.
More than an interview with James Worthy, I was getting a history lesson in an era of Lakers’ basketball I was too young to fully appreciate.
He explained that, “We (the Lakers) should have three-peated in 1989, but we didn’t because Byron (Scott) got injured and Magic pulled his hamstring in Game 1. Pat (Riley) wanted us to stay sharp and had us in Santa Barbara going through a training camp right before the Finals.”
Imagine the mainstream criticism Riley would have received in today’s media-obsessed era? Hearing that story made me feel a sense of loss over something that happened when I was 8-years-old. For a team that had just swept all three rounds of the Western Conference Playoffs, that was easily one of the biggest stomach punch moments in Lakers history.
You could hear the discontent in James’ voice as he spoke about the what-if’s of the Showtime Lakers. His team dominated the decade, bringing five NBA championships back to the city of Los Angeles – a number that was both brilliant, yet somehow strikingly inadequate. There was the loss to Philly in ’83… to Boston in ’84… to Detroit in ’89 – all reminders of what could-have-been, and in the eyes of James Worthy, what should-have-been.
One might wonder how a conversation about a team that won five NBA championships could possibly take on a regretful tone?
Before NBA players were signing $100 million contracts, hiring PR staffs and competing for prime time marketing deals, winning was the crowning achievement of individual success. It was one of the reasons why three Hall-of-Fame caliber superstars could co-exist on the same team for years – The Lakers did it (Magic, Kareem and Worthy), the Celtics did it (Bird, McHale and Parish) and the Pistons did it (Thomas, Laimbeer and Dumars). In James’ era, success wasn’t measured in dollar signs, it was measured by rings. Nothing else really mattered.
As the conversation progressed, the mood quickly turned positive at the sound of just a single word.
Worthy was decisive in calling “Magic the best player I ever played with” – quite an impressive statement for a guy who shared a court with the all-time leading scorer in NBA history (Kareem) and some guy named Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina. His respect and admiration for Johnson was hardly veiled and never more transparent than in his response to a question about Kobe surpassing Magic as the greatest Laker of all-time.
“Kobe (Bryant) is great, but in my mind, Magic will always be the greatest Laker.”
No matter who you side with in that historical argument, it is Kobe Bryant and these Lakers who appear to be on a collision course with a historical opponent that still ignites the competitive fire in the eyes of Big-Game James.
The Boston Celtics.
History has a lot to say about the vicious rivalry between the two most successful franchises in the NBA – much of it not falling into the happily ever after story for the Lakers. In 11 all-time meetings between the two, Boston has won 9 of them, including 6 in just 8 years during the 1960’s. In ’62, ’66 and ’69, the series went to a decisive 7th game.
The Lakers lost all three times.
James’ was on the court when the Lakers renewed their rivalry with the Celtics in 1984. In the do-or-die Game 7 at Boston Garden, the Lakers rallied from 14-points down only to lose in the closing minutes, 111-102. Worthy recalled the moment by describing it as “the toughest loss of my career.”
The following season, the Lakers seemed destined to repeat their failure from the previous year, losing to the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals (the famed Memorial Day massacre) by 34 points. It was the lowest moment for the Lakers in their famed contention with the Celtics – one that would provide enough rage to carry the Lakers to their first NBA championship at the expense of Boston. Additionally, it was also the first and only time the Celtics would lose the championship on their home floor.
Towards the conclusion of James’ interview, he smiled and said, “1985 was the most memorable of my three championships. I felt like I was playing for all the Lakers teams – West, Baylor, Wilt – that had lost to the Celtics in the past.”
And with that summarizing statement from Big-Game James, two things became abundantly clear. James Worthy remains the most underrated superstar of his generation; and when you talk about the history of the Lakers – from Jerry West to Kobe Bryant – you can’t do it without including the Boston Celtics.
By all indications, 2010 will be no different.
Special thanks to Maryam Zarkesh and Morton’s Steakhouse.