Below is the second part of a recent interview I had with James Worthy, who will be the Lakers representative for the NBA Draft lottery on Tuesday in New York City. Worthy, who won three NBA titles with the Showtime Lakers, is currently an on-air analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the Lakers’ flagship station.
How confident are you that Kobe Bryant can stay healthy and play effective after having two major injuries?
Worthy: Everything still surrounds Kobe. He’s still the franchise player and he will tell you he’s in uncharted territory in having two major injuries and if this will allow him to play in games. It’s going to be a test for him. He’s going to have to adjust his game and play below the rim. His role takes on another dimension. Or can he come back and surprise us all as he does and play like a 20 year old again. I’ve always said he’s not human. He and LeBron James are like aliens. It’ll be interesting to see what planet Kobe will be coming back from. He can do it.
But I remember when my knee was bad. I’m not comparing myself to Kobe Bryant by any means. But it’s tough. I didn’t have the mental fortitude that he has. I worked for it. But I don’t think I had the work discipline that he had , the work ethic in getting up at 5 in the morning and all of that kind of stuff. But it’s tough when you have to change your style of game. I remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t push off his foot to throw down the skyhook. I remember Magic Johnson making the adjustment in being a total postup player in his last couple of years that he came back. Can Kobe make the adjustments? Can Kobe take on a role like that and still be the franchise player? We’ll have to wait and see.
What about Steve Nash?
Worthy: He can bring a lot of coaching stability, especially on who they bring in. Any veteran like that, I look at Steve Nash like Jason Kidd. He’s kind of a role that he can play as a player coach. I think Steve could be healthy and move and be mobile. Defensively he’s always going to be an issue. But there are ways Steve can have an impact on the floor and particularly with the stability in the locker room and that kind of thing.
I know this question largely hinges on how the Lakers upgrade their roster. But based off their performances, which players on one-year deals are worthy to have a chance to return with the Lakers?
Worthy: Obviously this a big window for Swaggy P [Nick Young]. He’s going to get offered a package that he probably can’t refuse. If he wants to stay in L.A, it’s going to be decision. It won’t be because he’s getting a maximum contract. But the Lakers can find a way to keep him and sell him on the marketing abilities that he has here, he’ll probably make more money with that than the extras in the soundtrack.
I like Xavier Henry because of his upper body. He’s no LeBron James by any stretch of the imagination. But if you look at his upper body, he has that big, strong upper body that can take contact and get in the lane and deliver. He has a big upside and gets to the lane a lot. I remember games he would get to the line eight, nine or ten times a game. Then he can shoot. If Jordan Farmar is healthy, I think he has a shot at being the future point guard over the years. He can do a lot of things. He can attack offensively and defend and can stay in front of some of the top guards a few seconds longer than most and that’s all you need.
Jodie Meeks was the most improved player on the Lakers team. They should try to see if they can build around Pau Gasol. Jordan Hill is amazing. He reminds me of a Charles Oakley or a Dennis Rodman. But he didn’t get to play much because of [Mike D'Antoni's system]. It’s the system with small ball without any defensive concepts and it looked like they were a mess. It was a mess.
How do the Lakers become a good defensive team?
Worthy: It takes a lot of communication. You don’t have the Bill Fitches and the Pat Rileys who would pull your teeth with a pair of flyers with no pain killers. You have Gregg Popovich who does that, but he has experienced players. It takes a lot of communication to take a high school player or a one-year college player. It’s a big difference from when you’re getting a four year player like Jamaal Wilkes than a guy right out of high school. That window and gap is amazing.
It’s going to take some structure. The most important thing I see that works whether you’re an old school coach or whether you’re a Zen Master like Phil Jackson, it’s still going to take accountability. I didn’t see that [last year[. I saw a system that was believed in despite the defense There were times we haven’t made the playoffs before, but it never had been where people come in and stomp over the Lakers’ logo and pretend that it doesn’t exist. That is unacceptable. There were a lot of cases where they should have been held accountable for their player and I felt like they weren’t from the outside looking in. That’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take an honest coach who players like and that believe in their philosophy and they have fun and are engaged in the process. It’s not an easy sell.”
What’s been your approach as an analyst in mostly being both honestly critical about the Lakers and being even-handed?
Worthy: Just through an exercise of watching a lot of video tape over the years. My college coach Dean Smith was a video guy. When you see it, you feel like you have the right to express it. It’s not like it’s something you’re making up. I combine my method drills learned from Pat Riley. I break things down so I tell why something happened as opposed to saying this player just got beat defensively. I enjoy the teaching part of it.
There’s the Chick Hearn factor. He just laid it out there. You couldn’t argue with his analysis. He saw it on video and called it like it was. It’s just the way it is. I think people appreciate that. Jerry West used to pull me to the side all the time. I was [upset] at the beginning because I thought he was picking on me. He was really being extremely constructive. He always pointed out things and he was a constructive guy where you knew he was telling the truth, but it got under your skin just a little bit. You’re either going to be a real man or win him out. That’s how I look at it.
What were your memories when the Lakers selected you in 1982 with the No. 1 overall pick?
Worthy: My college coach was so protective. I was in summer school and I had a professor that wasn’t going to bend. Draft day or no draft day, if you miss this exam. It’s over. I didn’t go to New York. I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chick Hearn was there. Chick was really [ticked]. He never said this or told me that he was. But I wasn’t there for the No. 1 draft pick.
My feeling was the only thing I wanted out of this basketball thing was a scholarship so may parents wouldn’t have to struggle. They already put my two older brothers through college. I was like how are they going to do that? That was it. Then I broke my ankle freshman year in college and thought I was done. I just thought it was a blessing. When you’re a young kid, the first thing I thought about about was I kept my fingers crossed. I just wanted to buy my mom a house. That’s all I was thinking about.
How did you handle the pressure?
Worthy: I came in with my eyes wide open and was willing to learn. For me, coming from a conservative program, it was a blessing in disguise that I went to the best team, they traded me their draft pick and landed me there. I didn’t have pressure. I got to sit behind three players in Jamaal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo and Michael Cooper. I don’t know if I would’ve been a Dominique Wilkins type of player coming in to the NBA. It would have taken me a couple of years to get into that rhythm of being a scorer and being the guy. I could’ve gotten there offensively, for sure. But it wasn’t my mindset. But Jerry West knows what he’s doing when he’s picking. It was the perfect fit. It was all good. I thought I could take Kurt Rambis out and start at power forward. But he kicked my [butt] all around my first game and I thought can’t deal with this wild guy. I’m going to have to change my position.
It wasn’t a smooth adjustment for me. Coming from North Carolina, I was in a small town. The 405 [freeway], population and total diversity was different. I was quiet and an introverted kind of guy. I started missing home. I was going through what every rookie goes through and got injured and pulled my groin a little bit. I had Jerry West pulling me in questioning whether I was tough enough. It was difficult for me from training camp until February and then things started to click for me.
Mitch Kupchak and Bob McAdoo were the guys sitting over my shoulder all the time. Bob was blunt and had no problems telling me, ‘You don’t think they’ll trade you? They’ll do it tomorrow.’ He would be straight up and he would beat the crap out of me every day. He was going to see if I had it or not. Magic wasn’t messing around. He was the no. 1 pick and he always said, ‘We really don’t need you.’ Those guys were tough. They treated Byron Scott the same way after they traded Norm Nixon.
In the meanwhile, Dominique Wilkins was a scorer and a human highlight film. Terry Cummings at that time was more efficient than I was. He couldn’t run as fast and didn’t have athleticism. But he was rookie of the year. But from training camp to the next year, I was determined.
When you measure your three NBA championships, Finals MVP and triple double performance in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, how would you rank your Lakers accomplishments?
Worthy: It’s two fold for me. One, I remember K.C. Jones said after we beat Boston in the 1985 NBA Finals, I can remember him in a post game interview talking about Kareem obviously being the most valuable player and talked about Magic being the leader. Then he said it was James Worthy who was the glue that kept them together. That’s always been a moment for me and knowing with our first championship against the Celtics, we were representing Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and all those guys. It is a big moment. But obviously my one and only triple double to secure the back to back was huge.”