Where No Trekkie Has Gone Before: A Conversation With NBA Great James Worthy

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In the NBA Finals, the Spurs and the Heat are each vying for their own version of dynasty status. Miami is trying to win its third straight title, and San Antonio is looking for its fifth title since 1999.

Not many players get to be part of a dynasty, but James Worthy did. He played a critical role in one of the greatest runs in NBA history. During his 12-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Worthy appeared in six NBA Finals and won three championships, earning a berth in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Worthy joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: At the University of North Carolina — under coach Dean Smith — you won an NCAA championship in 1982. Then the Lakers made you the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. So, you went from a legendary college program to one of the most storied NBA franchises. Were there similarities in how the Tar Heels and Lakers pursued excellence — and achieved it — on the court?

And then...I got drafted to the Lakers, a team that really didn't need me. They had just won an NBA championship — I was drafted by the Lakers because of a trade that happened back in 1978 — so when I arrived with Pat Riley as the coach, Jerry West as the general manager, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the great Magic Johnson, it was a blessing. Because usually the No. 1 pick goes to the worst team, so both teams had the brand of winning. So I was used to that, I was used to team basketball and that just propelled right into the NBA.

BL: Which of the two teams in the Finals reminds you most of the most accomplished Lakers teams for which you played?

JW: I would have to say San Antonio. They're extremely consistent, they have a complete team, they can hit you in so many different ways. It could be [Tim] Duncan one night, [Tony] Parker, [Manu] Ginobli, and then all of a sudden it can be [Kawhi] Leonard or [Danny] Green or [Boris] Diaw. They have a system that, year in and year out, it works. And Miami's proven that they have somewhat of a system, but I think they depend a lot on LeBron. They have a nucleus, but they haven't developed it like San Antonio has.

BL: You were the NBA Finals MVP when the Lakers won the title in 1988. And your knack for clutch performances earned you the nickname “Big Game” James. In your view, what’s different about players — like you — who perform especially well in the playoffs?

I always had the philosophy that you should play better during the playoffs.

James Worthy

JW: I always had the philosophy that you should play better during the playoffs. It's very difficult when you've got Larry Bird on a Tuesday night, Dr. J on a Wednesday night, take Thursday night off and then have Bernard King on Friday night. It's a little tough. But when you have one team for seven games and you're focused on tape, video and tendencies and you don't have to travel as much, you're rested a little more.

And then it just seems like the biggest games just [bring] that innate ability to overcome the fear and anxiety and just work through it and do your job. You go back to the days you were competing in seventh, eighth grade, when you just didn't want to lose a game at the YMCA. Those things kind of come back to you, if you can tap into that.

BL: You played your entire NBA career in Los Angeles and you’ve been a television analyst in LA for Lakers’ broadcasts for several years. What’s your view of the Donald Sterling situation and how things are unfolding for the LA Clippers?

JW: I go back to an op-ed that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote that says, you know, this has been going on for some time. But until you hear it yourself, until you hear it on the tape [then] you get a pretty good idea of how a guy speaks, and then it becomes despicable and sad. And it would be extremely hard to play for anybody in that position that thinks like that. So I was glad he finally got exposed in a way that we can get rid of him. I know it might be a little more difficult than some people think, [but] there's no room for an owner like that and really no place for any mentality like that in the NBA — nowhere in our society.

BL: You played a small role for another franchise besides the Lakers — the television dynasty known as Star Trek. Tell us how you ended up playing a Klingon in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1993.

[sidebar title="Jeff Pearlman's 'Showtime'" align="right"] Bill Littlefield speaks with author Jeff Pearlman, whose recent book, Showtime, chronicles the Lakers' golden years in the 1980s.[/sidebar]JW: One of my favorite things before I went to bed in college was to watch an episode of the Twilight Zone and then Star Trek. I was a big Captain Kirk, Spock [fan]. I was just a big Trekkie back in high school and up. Just looking into the future, you know, that little cool phone they had on their chest. Now we got flip phones, you know what I mean? As soon as we get warp, we're gonna be good.

But in Los Angeles, one of the producers of the show just happened to be a Carolina grad. It's a very difficult show to get on. Klingons are my favorite character on the show, and I got to be the tallest Klingon in Star Trek history. So I'm looking forward to going to a Star Trek convention here  in the near future.

BL: How high was the bar to get to be the tallest Klingon?

JW: In the world book of Guinness, man. It's 6-foot-9 and about 6-foot-10 with the big high-heeled boots that Klingons wear.

BL: Last week, I spoke with your fellow Hall of Famer and No. 1 NBA pick David Robinson. I asked him a question that I’d also like to ask you: Looking back at your Finals appearances, do you have a favorite memory – other than just winning – that you can share?

[sidebar title="David Robinson on OAG" width="330" align="right"]Last week San Antonio Spurs legend and Hall of Famer David Robinson shared his favorite memory from the NBA Finals.[/sidebar]JW: Beating the Celtics for the first time. We had a really tough loss the year before in 1984 where we had secured Game 1 in Boston, on their floor, and then in Game 2 I made an errant pass that Gerald Henderson stole and in overtime we end up losing that game and, later on, the series.

So 1985, the first time the Lakers had ever beaten the Celtics. And not only was it for us, but it was for all the guys in the past that had never beaten the Celtics. Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and all the fans that just had suffered through all that. That was a big moment, the only time that's ever happened on the Garden floor. That would be my lasting memory.

BL: You do realize this program is produced in Boston.

JW: I had no idea. I'll see you later.

This segment aired on June 14, 2014.


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