Trust Worthy, Praise Worthy

James Worthy, L.A.'s All-Star forward, has no gift for gab, but his vast talent speaks for itself
James Worthy, L.A.'s All-Star forward, has no gift for gab, but his vast talent speaks for itself
May 18, 1986

It is said that a man's eyes are the windows to his soul, but James Worthy doesn't do windows. Worthy, a gifted 6'9" forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, does wear protective eye goggles, which could be considered the storm windows to his soul, but that's it. Most of the time Worthy's eyes are barely open wide enough to be the windows to his face, much less to what are thought by NBA existentialists to be the sunless rooms of his soul.

Worthy's face usually looks sort of sad and vaguely worried, like that of a burglar who has just heard a dog growl. He has the kind of face you might see representing something pathetic or depressing in an Ingmar Bergman movie with subtitles. It is the kind of face that, were you to turn around suddenly during a funeral service, you might very well find standing at the back of the mortuary, counting the house. "Actually, James looks like he'd make a good undertaker," says Worthy's teammate Mitch Kupchak.

Most NBA stars look forward to life after basketball in lucrative careers as TV color men. But Worthy has other plans. "I'd like to be an entrepreneur of some kind," he says. Worthy is planning for something much larger than life; he is planning for life after death. His life, other people's death. "If I could find me a partner who has a funeral home," he says, "I'd like to get into the cemetery business. That's something I could really enjoy. Back in my hometown, that was something that was needed. It could be a good business, especially in the right location. And you know it's going to be steady because people are always going to be kicking the bucket."

When they do, Worthy wants to be there, offering comfort to the bereaved and eternity furniture to the departed. He and his wife, Angela, already ask visitors to their home in Los Angeles to sign a guest register, just as funeral homes do, although in the Worthys' case it may be done more in the tradition of the Southern hospitality in which they both were raised than as a career move. Typically, Worthy has kept fairly quiet about all this, never inquiring of his teammates how they plan to dispose of their everlasting remains. In fact, the only evidence he has ever given of trying to drum up business has been on the basketball floor, where Worthy has been killing people for years.

Last week he helped the Lakers bury the aroused Dallas Mavericks 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinal playoffs, scoring 21 points in the sixth and final game of the series in Dallas on Thursday. Although he was relatively quiet in the opener of the conference finals on Saturday, scoring 12 points in the Lakers' 119-107 win over Houston (see page 56), productivity under pressure has come to be expected of Worthy, who averaged 21.5 points a game last year in the playoffs. More significantly still, his scoring average rose in each series the champion Lakers played, reaching a high of 23.7 in the finals against Boston.

"The bigger the game, the more important the situation, the better James plays," says L.A. coach Pat Riley.

Worthy has proved that rather convincingly by becoming the NBA's alltime leader in career playoff field-goal percentage (.600), topped by an astonishing 72% shooting performance in a five-game series with Denver last season. This season he was the Lakers' second-leading scorer, averaging 20 points. Yet Worthy has done all this without ever taking 30 shots in a game.

A few people still feel Los Angeles blundered in the 1982 draft by taking Worthy over Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins, who led the NBA in scoring this year. "Wilkins missed over a thousand shots this season," Riley points out. "James has barely taken a thousand shots. We don't need that much scoring from him now, but I think James understands that the day will come when he'll not only be asked to do more, it will be demanded of him. And when that time comes, you may see James Worthy lead the league in scoring."

If that does happen, Worthy might allow himself one of those big, sorrowful smiles of his, the kind that makes his face light up like a 40-watt bulb. Worthy knows that it still bothers some people that he looks gloomy most of the time. This is especially true because he plays in L.A., a city where you can be hospitalized and subjected to random urinalysis for giving off bad vibes.

"I see so many players who put on such a phony front that it's nauseating," says Angela, "but James always wears the same face." And that is important to Worthy.

"People may like a Magic Johnson because he's a people person, and he can show that enthusiasm all the time," Worthy says. "I'm a serious people person. There's no plastic on my face."

If Worthy is a mystery to the gladhanders who come panting into the locker room with Lakers owner Jerry Buss after games, he is almost as much of a puzzle to his own teammates and coach. "We know him, but we don't know him," Magic says. "Nobody knows him, I guess. When he leaves here, he goes home to his life with his wife and his dogs, and beyond that I don't know what he likes to do. Whatever it is, it's not going to be where a lot of people are."

Though there is a Southern courtliness to his manner, Worthy also maintains about him an air of perfect Eastern inscrutability. "After four years with him, I still don't have a handle on what James is thinking most of the time," says Riley. "Most great players will tell you in the locker room what they think of what you're doing—what's working, what's not. James just looks at you."

When someone suggested to Worthy recently that the people who were supposed to know him best didn't know him at all, he was unmoved. "I'm comfortable with that," he said. "I think they know enough. Sometimes you let people know how you are, and they try to take advantage of you. And I'm the type of person who could easily be taken advantage of."

There is a well-known code word in sports for an athlete who enjoys hearing himself talk and isn't a sworn enemy of the English language. The press refers to this happy specimen as "articulate." Worthy has generally avoided that label, though he actually has quite a lot to say; he just spends most of his time trying to keep anyone from making him say it.

For a long time Worthy shunned interviews the way people in primitive parts of the world avoid being photographed, for fear the camera will rob them of their souls. "When you're in the limelight, people get an idea of what you are, and that's what you're supposed to be," Worthy says. "I've never gone to the extreme of trying to make myself seem dull, but when I came to Los Angeles everybody thought I was quiet, low key, and ever since then that's the way I've been treated. That's been my strategy all along."

His first few years in Los Angeles he was leery of the media gangs that crowded around his locker after games. "I was so concerned about saying the right thing, I wasn't saying what I really felt," he admits. "I was just saying something to get them out of my face." For those of you keeping score, that's one face, hold the plastic, hold the press.

Definitely put a hold on any thought of teaming Worthy and Sean Penn in a remake of The Defiant Ones, because Worthy has long been contemptuous of Hollywood and all its glittery starlets. Well, all the starlets except one. Angela has decided to become an actress, and she has some fairly powerful ambitions of her own. "I'd like to be working regularly, acting," she says, "so that when we walk in some place they say, 'Oh, that's Angela Worthy's husband.' That's important to me."

Seated next to her, Angela Worthy's husband looks as though he might be thinking of some particularly stirring funeral music. He has said that he is supportive of her career, but Angela believes he would prefer it if she found another line of work. "Acting is so much networking and being seen at the right parties, and that goes completely against James's anti-Hollywood attitude," she says. Worthy simply sees Hollywood as frivolous. "I think there's something wrong with a business where you can be the best person for the job," he says, "but the part calls for blonde hair and blue eyes, so you lose it to somebody who's been acting for two weeks."

Worthy's disdain for Hollywood extends to a sense of unease with the fast-lane life-style of Los Angeles, in general. "Around here you might see a nine-year-old girl standing on a street corner in Westwood, with her hair pink, smoking a joint," he says. "I'm not taking anything away from the way people choose to live out here, but I don't think the values and the mores are the same."

Worthy saw precious little pink hair when he was growing up in Gastonia, N.C., a textile mill town of just under 50,000 people, where his father is now an ordained Baptist minister. The youngest son of Ervin and Gladys Worthy, James was never called Jimmy or Jim ("I refuse to acknowledge that," he says), and at home he wasn't even called James. "James never really registered," he says. Instead, everyone called him Ager (pronounced AY-gur), his middle name, which was derived from the name of his grandfather, Agie Worthy, the son of a full-blooded American Indian.

Worthy first discovered the paralyzing effect his glare could have on people not on any basketball court, but when he began driving an elementary school bus at the age of 16. "When those kids acted up, I would just stop the bus dead in its tracks, no matter where we were," he recalls. "They'd be yelling and hanging out of the windows, and I'd look up in the mirror and give them one of those mean looks you learn from your parents." Since those days, the NBA has often seen that glare of a school bus driver at the end of his patience.

Worthy's patience was tested during his freshman season at the University of North Carolina as well, when he tore ligaments and shattered a bone in his right ankle while cutting to the basket. Two screws and a six-inch metal rod were implanted in the ankle, causing such searing pain that Worthy had to be sedated for nearly two weeks following surgery. He came back the next season with the screws still in his leg, and despite being unable to practice for two days in a row without having his ankle swell up, he helped lead the Tar Heels to the 1981 NCAA championship game against Indiana, which they lost 63-50. A year later Worthy was the MVP of the Final Four in which Carolina defeated Georgetown 63-62 in the Louisiana Superdome to win the NCAA title.

It was during the summer of 1981 that he started dating a stunning Carolina cheerleader named Angela Wilder. After one date early in their relationship, Worthy got back into his car, drove it over the curb and onto the sidewalk, and started chasing Angela. "I just wanted to see how fast she could run," he says.

The two were married three years later in a wedding that was the social event of the season in North Carolina. Although the wedding itself—not to mention the thought of having to talk to some 600 people—unnerved Worthy, he was ever mindful of his duties as a host. Sensing that the ceremony was taking on an air of excessive solemnity, Worthy, when told he could kiss the bride, lifted Angela's veil, gave her the traditional first kiss, looked into her radiant face for a moment, then out at the crowd and, with perfect timing and a sly smile, lowered the veil peremptorily back over her face. The congregation broke up.

With the blessing of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, Worthy had decided to turn pro in the spring of '82, and Los Angeles made him the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Lakers chose not only to have him come off the bench, they also made him play out of position at power forward. Worthy never said a word. "We had just won a championship, so the last thing we wanted was problems," says Magic Johnson. "We already had a great small forward in Jamaal Wilkes, then James comes in the number one pick, knows he can play, and has to sit the bench. 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."

A broken leg suffered late in the regular season kept him out of the playoffs his rookie year, and it took him nearly half of the next season to fully regain his quickness. "He has unbelievable footwork," says Laker forward Maurice Lucas. "James just kills guys with his first step. His first step is awesome, and his second step is in the hoop."

Worthy doesn't feel a defensive player has much to say about it. "I just decide I'm going to go around him when I'm setting up," he says, "and when I get the ball, I go." Worthy's quickness is exciting to behold and often embarrassing to the man he's going around, yet Riley says, "I don't see any flash in his game. James goes to the open space, wherever it is, and creates the move that is necessary to get the job done. His game is created as it's being played."

Worthy created some interesting situations against the Celtics in the '84 championship series, dominating the first three games so completely that the Celtics used newspaper stories that conceded him the MVP award as a rallying point prior to Game 4. During the final moments of overtime, Worthy had a chance to tie that game. But with Boston's M.L. Carr chattering at him as he stepped to the free-throw line, he missed the first of two shots, and the Lakers went on to lose. After that, Los Angeles never really regained its momentum, dropping the series to the Celtics in seven games. "I really didn't appreciate that," Worthy says. "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."

Things got so hot during those '84 finals that hostilities even broke out among the players' wives. "We had gone out of our way to be nice to their wives," says Angela Worthy. "We made a special point of not talking about basketball after we had beaten them really badly in the third game of the series. But then, after they won the next game, the Boston wives came right up to us and were giving us the choke sign, and talking right in our faces about whose husbands had choked. They're so arrogant. The attitude problem they call 'Celtic mystique' is so strong it must affect even their wives."

After last season's redemptive victory over Boston, Worthy is eager for another attitude-adjustment session with the Celtics. He and Angela have finally bought some furniture after living nearly two years with a small battered sofa and a couple of beach chairs in a house otherwise virtually empty. "We didn't want to just rush out and buy a bunch of stuff," Worthy explains. Maybe now that he has his own eternity furniture in order Worthy will invite Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and all the Celtics to drop by so they can sign his guest register. They might just die when they see what he has done with the place.

PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHAn enigma to friend and foe alike, Worthy says he's comfortable with that because he doesn't want to be taken advantage of. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONWorthy's first step is quick as a flash, and his second step is worth two points. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAIn Worthy company before this year's All-Star Game (from left): Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler. PHOTOJOHN McDONOUGHAt home in L.A., the James gang includes two boxers and a former cheerleader, Angela.

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