The Los Angeles Lakers' practice had ended, and forward James Worthy was the last player to leave the gym. He moved slowly and stiffly, the effects of 12 years in the NBA showing in his stride. As he made his way toward the door, a 13-year-old boy standing near the court asked, "What hurts, James?" Worthy paused for a moment, perhaps to consider the wide range of possible answers, before settling on the simplest. "Everything hurts, my man," he said. "Everything."
What hurts? If you are a Laker these days, what doesn't? It hurts for the Lakers, who were 11-24 through Sunday, to check the standings of the Pacific Division they once ruled and find themselves at the bottom of, even looking up at the sneakers of the Sacramento Kings, for goodness' sake. "I have to turn the newspaper upside down every morning," says Los Angeles general manager Jerry West. It hurts the Lakers to hear boos at The Great Western Forum, as they did after a particularly uninspired 25-point first half in a Jan. 9 loss to San Antonio. It hurts to scan the Forum, which was filled not only with fans but also with glamour when the Lakers were winning five championships from 1980 to '88. Now there are rows of empty seats. The Lakers' 13,074 average attendance at week's end was the fifth worst in the league, and Arsenio, Arnold, Chevy and most of the other stars who used to make every Laker game seem like a movie premiere don't come around as much anymore. Jack Nicholson still shows up faithfully, but even he lacks that little smirk of superiority he wore during the Showtime years.
What hurts? The better question is, Who hurts? Or better yet, Who hurts the most? Is it West, the longtime Laker who can barely stomach what has become of the franchise and is itching to start making off-season moves? Is it Worthy, who has seen virtually all of his playmates from Los Angeles's glory years—first Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then Magic Johnson, now A.C. Green and Byron Scott—all move on? Is it coach Randy Pfund, who takes the heat for the inconsistency of his young players and hears the whispers about his not running a tight enough ship? The answer is that all of them are suffering.
"I think anyone who was around for those championship years is frustrated by this," says Pfund, who joined the Lakers as an assistant in 1985 and served under Pat Riley for five years and Mike Dunleavy for two before becoming head coach two seasons ago. "I can remember before games sometimes during those years, Pat and I would just look around at everything—Earvin and Kareem and James warming up, the packed house, feeling the electricity in the place—and Pat would kind of warn me, 'You'll probably be the head coach someday. But it might not always be like this.' He was right."
January 24, 1994
The Lakers' fall from the top began two years ago, when Johnson abruptly retired after learning that he was HIV-positive, but before this season L.A. had sunk only as far as mediocrity; the Lakers even managed to scare the devil out of the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs last season. But this year, with Green's having signed as a free agent with Phoenix and Scott's having been released—he has since joined the Indiana Pacers—the Lakers have turned things almost completely over to young players, and they could produce the worst record since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1960. "We've committed to our youth, and there are nights, a lot of nights, when we take our lumps, but it's something that had to be done," says Pfund. "We're better off right now, even with this record, than we were two years ago with Byron and A.C., because that thing was coming to an end."
What the Lakers now have is a youthful trio of perimeter players, rookie point guard Nick Van Exel, second-year swing-man Doug Christie and second-year shooting guard Anthony Peeler, all talented and all headstrong, who alternately give Pfund hope and headaches. Van Exel, although often guilty of questionable shot selection, nevertheless has turned out to be the steal of last year's draft (he was chosen in the second round, as the 37th pick overall).
Los Angeles also has big men like Vlade Divac and Elden Campbell, who are useful complementary players but hardly the ones to lead them back into contention. And they have a few veterans playing diminished roles: guard Sedale Threatt, forward Kurt Rambis, center James Edwards and Worthy, who will be 33 on Feb. 27. On those nights when Pfund can get at least two solid performances from the trio of Van Exel, Christie and Peeler, and when Worthy's aging body feels spry enough to give the Lakers a scoring boost off the bench, L.A. has a chance. Otherwise things tend to get ugly.
And when they do, the Lakers' frustration begins to spill out, as it did when Christie publicly criticized Pfund's offensive philosophy last month. "Our offense is stagnant," he said. "We just need to get it and go instead of coming down every time and seeing that a play is called." Christie and Pfund now insist that all is well between them, but a second-year player like Christie making comments like that contributes to the questions about whether Pfund is fully in control of his players. "I've heard people saying I give these guys too much freedom, that I let Nick shoot too much or somebody else talk too much, that kind of thing," Pfund says. "But these are players of the '90s. The days when a coach could completely hush his players are over. You just try to deal with problems as they arise."
There hasn't been as much speculation about Pfund's job status this year (his contract runs through the '94-95 season) as there was a year ago, and the L.A. brass seems to be leaning toward giving him a chance to remain past this season. The Lakers, intensely protective of their reputation as one of the league's classy franchises, don't want to become one of those teams that change coaches every few seasons. And, says West, "It's really not fair to judge Randy yet, because he doesn't know what he's going to get from his players every night. To be quite honest, there have been nights when certain guys just didn't show up to play. When you add that to the natural inconsistency of young players, there's only so much Randy or any other coach can do."
Some nights there's not much Worthy can do, either. After a fast start in which he came off the bench and provided instant offense, he has struggled, becoming a walking reminder of how far the Lakers have slipped. After three NBA championships and seven All-Star games, the man once known as Big Game James finds himself in nothing but small ones. He's in the unenviable position of being the one left behind after the closing of Showtime, like the guy who has to clean up and turn out the lights after everyone else has left the theater. "It's been frustration and loneliness all mixed together," Worthy says. "Losing Earvin, A.C., Byron, it's been difficult for me personally, not to mention how hard it's been on the court."
After a game the Laker locker room empties in a hurry. "That's because losing creates a kind of psychological deadness," Worthy says. "Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to even think about it. That's why everyone wants to leave so fast."
There is the sense that even as Worthy tries to impart his knowledge to his young teammates, he is looking around and wondering, What am I doing here? "You can see it in his eyes sometimes," says Christie. "We don't have the same intensity in our practices that he's used to, for instance. He gives us all the help he can, but you can tell that, deep down, this is hurting him."
Finishing his career with a losing team isn't what Worthy had in mind, but he has little choice. A contract worth more then $12 million over its remaining two years means the Lakers couldn't trade Worthy even if they wanted to. The only other option is retirement, and although he says he hasn't made any decision yet, he occasionally refers to Los Angeles's need for a leader to emerge from among its young players, "because they know I'm almost gone."
But with the Lakers 20th in the league in rebounding, it doesn't take a great basketball mind to figure out their greatest need. "We need a big bruiser up front who will say 'Not tonight' to guys who bring it in the lane," says Christie. "Somebody who thinks every rebound belongs to him." West puts it another way: "We have to have a guy we can depend on for 20 points and 10 rebounds, night in and night out." Forwards Danny Manning of the Los Angeles Clippers and Horace Grant of the Chicago Bulls, both of whom can become unrestricted free agents after this season, fit that description to varying degrees, and Laker management would love to see either of them in purple and gold next season. West will clearly have room to maneuver under the salary cap thanks to the slot made available by Green's departure, and he might have even more, depending on what happens with veterans like Worthy and Edwards.
And then, of course, there is the draft lottery. As much as the Lakers hate to admit it, that's where they are almost certainly headed, and in the long run it's probably the best place for them. "If we make the right decisions this summer, we could get this thing turned around in a hurry," says West. Christie tells friends, "If we're not in the Western Conference finals three years from now, I'll be shocked."
West might have an even faster timetable in mind. Being among the dregs of the league hurts too much, and the Lakers don't want to build up a tolerance for the pain.