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Worthy reminisces on Lakers-Celtics rivalry

Posted: Thursday September 4, 2003 1:41AM; Updated: Thursday September 4, 2003 1:56AM
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JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) -- James Worthy liked the NBA a lot more when opponents were beating the hell out of each other.

One of seven members of the Class of 2003 to be inducted Friday in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, Worthy said that what existed in the 1980s between his Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics was respect and fear, not hatred.

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"Hatred would be a strong word," Worthy said in a teleconference Tuesday. "We really respected each other. A lot of people didn't realize that the Lakers and the Celtics had the utmost respect for one another and probably feared each other the most. We knew we were equally talented and we knew that we balanced each other out on the floor, and there had to be an edge."

When Worthy and the Lakers took the floor to do battle with fellow inductee Robert Parish and the Celtics, there were times where the teams would not shake hands. In most social circles, that would be perceived as a lack of respect.

However, Worthy believes exactly the opposite was true. In fact, he contrasts that with today's NBA, in which the players go through an extended pregame ritual of handshakes and hugs, then spend a portion of the game trying to embarrass their foe with individual moves.

"I like the game the way it was, because there seemed to be a little more respect for your opponents and for your own teammates," Worthy said. "The game was played, in my opinion, way differently - more as a team."

The prime of Worthy's career was spent helping reprise one of the best rivalries in sports history. The duel between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1979 NCAA title game had continued in the NBA, with Johnson joining the Lakers and Bird joining the Celtics, fanning the powdery charcoal embers still smoldering from the 1960s.

Often drawing the defensive duties on Bird, Worthy became a primary player in that rivalry, which in the 1960s was as one-sided as hammer-nail or windshield-bug. The teams met six times, with Boston winning them all, often in excruciatingly painful fashion for the Lakers and their fans.

That changed in the 1980s, when the Lakers won five championships and beat the Celtics in two of their three showdowns. But it did not change right away, as Worthy too clearly remembered his worst moment of those meetings.

In 1984, the league's most storied teams met in the Finals for the first time in 15 years, since the days of Russell and Chamberlain, Havlicek and West. Despite spending their lone off day flying across the country, the Lakers got Game One in Boston and were on the verge of getting Game Two as well.

"We had a chance to win Game Two with about six or seven seconds to go and we were under the Celtics' basket," Worthy recalled. "Magic threw the ball back to me after being double-teamed and I panicked and tried to make a cross-court pass. Gerald Henderson intercepted the ball and laid it up and the score was tied.

"They went into overtime and beat us to tie it up 1-1, and they went on to win that series [in seven games]. Obviously, if we had gone up 2-0, we probably would have gone back to LA and maybe capped off the series."

Worthy did not have to wait long for redemption. The next year, the Lakers beat the Celtics in the Finals for the first time, winning the Game Six clincher on the famed parquet floor of Boston Garden.

"Knocking out the cobwebs that had been over L.A. and over the Great Western Forum and way back in the Sports Arena days when Jerry West and Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain never could overcome the Celtics - that probably was my fondest memory," Worthy said.

As a youngster growing up in Gastonia, North Carolina, Worthy had seen the Celtics and Lakers occasionally play out their rivalry on TV. Now a part of it, he realized that it was much more than a game between two great teams.

"The young guys, with the exception of Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], really didn't understand that rivalry that the Celtics and the Lakers had back when the Celtics were dominating the league in the '60s and early '70s," Worthy said. "It wasn't until Larry and Magic faced off again that the whole history was conjured up and put on our shoulders, and it was an overwhelming experience for me. I grew up watching Jo-Jo White and Paul Silas, and respected those guys."

Now 42, Worthy's vivid memories make him sound more like a fan than a player, which is understandable. For many 40-somethings, the 1980s were the golden age of basketball.

The 3-pointer was introduced, adding an exciting new element to the game. TV coverage exploded, magnifying the personalities of exciting players old - such as Julius Erving -- and new -- such as Michael Jordan. And every spring, you could count on the Lakers or the Celtics -- or both -- to be playing for the title.

In the 1980s, either the Lakers or Celtics were in the Finals every year. The rivalry trilogy was completed in 1987, when the Lakers also beat the Celtics in six games.

All three series had high drama and served as a stepping stone for the global popularity the NBA enjoys today. The intensity of the matchups also produced more than their fair share of rough stuff, as the Celtics tried to slow down the Lakers' "Showtime" fast break with physical play and the Lakers using bruisers such as Kurt Rambis to push back.

"I think the media had a lot to do with hyping up individual matchups, and things of that nature -- East Coast vs. West Coast, Blue Collar vs. the Showtime that Magic Johnson brought to the Lakers," Worthy said.

But for the players themselves, hype was not necessary. Some believed the teams hated each other, although distaste is a better word.

"It wasn't hatred," Worthy said. "It was playoffs, time to focus on the Celtics, and I'm not going to be friendly until maybe I see you in the Bahamas in July and August and maybe we can catch up. That's just the way it was."

The game has changed considerably since Worthy retired in 1994. With a 30th team entering the NBA next year, expansion has thinned the talent pool. Very few teams play the pace of breakneck basketball the Lakers played. And the TV explosion has been both a boon and bane, with the increase in salaries decreasing the desire to compete.

"It seemed like the players were a little bit more loyal," Worthy said. "I know there's a lot more financial enhancement going on in the game right now, but it seems like players were eager to build around their team [when he played], as opposed to two or three years here, then move on. I like the game the way it was back then. There was more parity in the league."

© 2003 SportsTicker Enterprises, LP

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