NBA 75 Series: #74 James Worthy By DJ Hamilton


    Ranked #74 in my 75 greatest NBA Players of all time article, James Ager Worthy was born on February 27, 1961, in Gastonia, NC to his mother Gladys and father Ervin Worthy. His father was a baptist minister and his mom also played basketball growing up. Worthy would start playing basketball at the young age of four, but he hated it at first, as he recalled in his Hall of Fame speech. 

His parents would help change his mind as the Worthy family believed in hard work and were strict when it came to their kids getting a good education and going to college. But it was hard since the family was very poor and he saw how his parents were struggling to pay college tuition for his brothers. That’s how he decided that was the only reason he took basketball seriously, so he could get a scholarship to make it easier on himself and his parents.

Worthy would attend Ashbrook High School where he was starting to make local headlines as a freshman. As sophomore colleges were starting to look at him as he started to reach what would be his NBA height listed at 6-foot-9 and being very agile, big, and fast, helped lead Ashbrook to many victories. By his senior year he had played on five All-American teams, earned Conference Player of the Year, and amassed an incredible average of 21.5 points per game (ppg), 12.5 rebounds per game (rpg), and 5.5 assists per game (apg) for a team that would lose in the state championship game. 

Despite losing in the title game, Worthy would play in the 1979 McDonald's All-American game that also featured future Naismith Hall of Famers Isiaih Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and Ralph Sampson. He would also have a host of scholarship offers from top-flight programs where he would eventually choose the University of North Carolina, also known as the UNC Tar Heels.

In college he would quickly become a force but would have his freshman year cut short due to breaking his ankle in 1980 where doctors had to implant two screws and a six-inch metal rod to repair the damage to his ankle. He would miss 14 games that year and would begin questioning his future in basketball, stating, "I wasn't sure I would be able to come back with the same type of intensity I'd always had.” 

However, despite those fears he would come back his sophomore year averaging 14.2 ppg and 8.4 rpg, helping to lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA championships. Though they lost to Indiana, Worthy's reputation as a top college player was cemented. He would enter his junior year as the man of the team that had a young Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and others where he would lead the team in scoring (15.6 points per game) and help lead them to the 1982 National Championship. He would score 28 points on 13-of-17 from the field to go along with four rebounds in the big game that was known as the game Jordan hit that iconic buzzer beater over the Georgetown Hoyas led by future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing in a 63-62 victory.

He would then forgo his senior year and enter the 1982 NBA Draft after capturing that elusive NCAA title and would have his jersey retired by UNC years later.

But, overall, he was known as “Big Game James” because when the pressure was on in a big game he delivered. James Worthy brought athletic skills and clutch performances to the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers during their heyday of the 1980s as a versatile small forward. He was the No.1 pick in the 1982 draft and was an instant fit for the Lakers, being a main target for Magic on the fast break, filling in the lanes perfectly, making for a dangerous offensive attack.

He did not become a full-time starter for the Lakers until his third season (1984-85) where the Lakers would vanquish their longtime rival, the Boston Celtics for the first time in the Finals in Franchise history. Worthy’s smooth athleticism and efficient scoring earned him seven consecutive All-Star appearances (tied for sixth most with Shaq). With the Lakers first back-to-back titles at stake in 1988, Big Game James stepped up in heroic fashion, amassing 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists, a performance that cemented his nickname of "Big Game James." 

Dubbed "Big Game James" by longtime Tar Heel play-by-play radio broadcaster Woody Durham, Worthy played in 926 NBA regular season games, averaging 17.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and three assists per game. He played in 143 play-off games and averaged 21.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and had a 54.4 field goal percentage. In 34 NBA Finals games, he averaged 22.2 pts per game on 53% shooting. He ranks fifth all-time in Lakers team scoring (16,320), second all-time in team steals (1,041) and sixth all-time in team field goal percentage (.521).


    Worthy is a three-time champion (1985,1987,1988), Finals MVP (1988), a two-time All-NBA selection, and a member of the 50th and 75th anniversary team. He also has his No.42 retired by the Lakers and is among the most clutch players in league history.