James Worthy played in a different NBA. The fouls were harder, the game was inside the paint. It was physical and mean. And then, suddenly, the game evolved.
“They've been forced into a softer game,” Worthy tells me on a recent Zoom call. He’s laidback and reminiscing on his playing days, the sneakers he rocked and the times he came to blows with the Celtics.
He’s in the middle of explaining the modern NBA aesthetic. It’s quick. It’s high-scoring. It’s long-range. It’s a frantic ballet, beautiful but missing the bludgeoning of the 80s and 90s.
Worthy isn’t about to call current players soft. But the sport they play in has certainly cozied up the joint.
Let’s Twilight Zone the place for a second. Imagine, if you will, Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers are looking to impose their will and change the momentum of the series after slipping to a 2-0 deficit.
Klay Thompson slides to the baseline with a few minutes to go in the third quarter. Rather than give up a layup, Kevin Love comes over and clotheslines the star guard, sending him flying to the floor in a move more common in the WWE. Love looked like he ripped Thompson’s head from his neck but a mere two-shot foul is called. No suspension. No brouhaha or extracurriculars.
The Cavs change the complexion of the series and go on to backdoor sweep the Warriors.
Only, that never happened. In reality, the Warriors shot the ball 136 times from behind the arc in that series, successful 37.5% of the time.
The Cavaliers couldn’t keep the pace, shooting just 29.5% from the arc. And it’s hard to impose your will and get physical when the other team only flirts with driving the lane.
There used to be a time when those kinds of numbers would have been unthinkable.
In a sense, the 2018 series was antithetical to the one that took place over 30 years ago. That’s when one player did almost rip a rivals head off, and the series was completely changed because of it.
“One of my biggest regrets in my career was during the finals in 1984,” James Worthy said.
The 59-year-old is reminiscing about a lot that took place through the 80s and 90s. Like the rest of us, we have nothing but time to ponder on times that were and moments that could have been.
The moment in question came with just seven minutes to go in Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals. The Celtics were not only trailing in the game 76-70 but the series as well, 2-1.
The Lakers take the first game, nabbing home court and immediate momentum. Game 2 was an overtime loss for the Lakers who headed back to L.A. with swagger.
Now when someone is skating you can either try to catch up or just knock them to the ground.
In this pivotal moment, Kevin McHale changed the complexion of the series with brute force, taking a straight arm to Kurt Rambis’ neck as he was driving to the basket.
You can relive the moment here.
“And I'm kind of looking at Kevin McHale like I can't believe you just did that,” Worthy states.
The former forward was a 22-year-old second-year player at the time, coming off a rookie season that ended in injury.
Two years in and he was mixing it up with one of the most physical teams in the history of the game. One thing you may have noticed about the video of Rambis hitting the ground is that he bounced back up only to be grounded again by his own teammate.
“And then about that time my peripheral vision sees a body coming and I don't know who it is,” Worthy explained. “I'm in a crowd. I’m trying to protect myself, so, I give a quick push and it's Kurt Rambis that I push.”
Not realizing it was his own teammate saved a Celtic from immediate retalitation. “And I think I saved Kevin McHale from a good ass-kicking.”
Decades later it would be easy to hold a grudge, especially considering the WWE-level lariat McHale pulled out of nowhere.
“It wasn’t our game; it just wasn't our game and it kind of threw us off,” Worthy says of the series that eventually went the way of Boston.
“That’s just the way it was,” Worthy recalled. “Nowadays, if you took someone out of the air like that, you would be out for two games and fined about $200,000.”
One of the more recent examples of a levied fine involved Knicks guard Elfrid Payton being ejected and receiving a one-game suspension for shoving the Grizzlies Jae Crowder.
While the hypothetical duration of a suspension and amount of a fine for a present-day McHale clothesline is up to conjecture, there is little doubt that a similar act would swing the momentum the opposite direction in 2020.
“Well, the only thing that happened on that play back then was a foul and that's it,” Worthy says.
But the tactic was a viable weapon in the 80s and it worked on the Showtime Lakers: “That was the way they got us off of our game. We tried to retaliate by playing physical and doing things we weren't accustomed to. We ended up losing that series in seven games. That was a major introduction into mind games and playing physical and trying to play outside of your box.”
The game has evolved. So has one of its historic superstars. Worthy’s now the wizened sage, doling out knowledge before games and smoking cigars in their aftermath.
What Bad Boys?
There’s a recency bias that occurs naturally among fans. The current slate of stars is always better than the previous iteration.
The game seems quicker, more frenetic and thus more entertaining. ESPN’s “The Last Dance” reintroduced us to unique character among the pantheon of greats, some impervious to the passage of time. The years tick off and there isn’t the least bit of weathering on Michael Jordan’s legacy.
His saga played out in full over 10 engaging episodes. But the story isn’t complete. The era had its abundance of subplots and co-stars.
There is perhaps none more sinister than the Bad Boy Pistons. Their mere mention has visions of 6’9” basketball players being thrown to the ground dance in your head.
“By the time we had played the Celtics in three finals—we beat them two out of three—when I heard the term ‘Bad Boys’ I just laughed,” Worthy said. “Well they weren't any tougher than the Celtics, so it just never registered with me. I was like, okay, if that's what you want to call yourselves. I don't think you're that tough. I don't think you're that physical.”
Through 23 games against the Pistons, Worthy averaged 19.7 points on 51.2% shooting. He’s known as a consistent and steady hand from all over the floor. And his shot was remained unaffected in games against Detroit.
“How arrogant to call yourself Bad Boys,” Worthy said. “It didn't really phase me. I had some of my best games against the Bad Boys. I just kind of laughed it off. Their thing was to try and intimidate you and I was like really? You're not really doing a good job.”
Worthy’s not being dismissive. He concedes that John Salley’s arachnid reach and Rick Mahorn’s huge presence mandated that he change his game to meet the task.
It’s just that the extracurriculars were more silly to him than they were threatening. Unless your name was Dennis Rodman.
The man who would one day rock every color of the spectrum on his head lived rent-free in everyone’s dome, including Worthy’s.
“Rodman was my biggest competitor,” Worthy recalled. Through 17 games, the rebounding machine held his Lakers counterpart to 17.8 points on 47.2% shooting.
What doesn’t show up on the scoreboard, however, is his uncanny ability to throw the most even-keeled professional completely off their game.
“Dennis, physically, was the best defender I ever played against,” he said. “He could match my foot speed. He was strong. A great offensive rebounder, but Dennis was crazy. Dennis had a psychological edge. He’d come into the game and grab your ass and hold it for a little bit too long, and I'd be like that's not a pat, man. That's a grab.”
And it was this kind of hilariously unorthodox tactic that would get someone like Worthy off his game.
“So, you spend the first seven minutes of the game trying to figure out did he just pinch my ass or did he just give me a sportsmanlike pat on the butt? And the next thing you know he's got fifteen rebounds,” Worthy said.
“You had to be really mentally tough to overcome of that because physically he was just hard to deal with and you really had to block out all the crazy stuff too,” Worthy states before chiming in one more thought on those NBA ne’er-do-wells. “But the bad boys…not a threat.”
Pore over video from the era and you’ll notice one hard foul after another, penalties straddling flagrant territory nowadays was considered a play-on scenario.
It was an inside-out game back then. You fed the big man and worked the offense out. Now it’s a sniper league, playing keep away until the sharpshooter has an open shot.
Literal strong-arm tactics have been rendered obsolete. Today’s players might not be softer but the league certainly coddles them compared to the liberty defenses had back in the 80s and 90s.
“If someone came in that paint you could check them,” Worthy said. “I mean you could check them like you were blocking them in football.”
And forget any notion about getting a free layup. That idea was met with brutality before your adorable finger roll made it to the rim.
“I'm not taking anything away from a guy like (James) Harden, who waltzes down the lane. But if you breathe on him they call a foul,” Worthy said. “He would have been a decent player back in my time, but he would have felt the pain.”
The NBA isn’t bereft of current and former players that would obviously slide in perfectly to the more hard-nosed league: “I'm not saying that they are soft. I think Kobe could have played; LeBron could have played. I think if they are forced to be, there are guys that are physically inclined. But I think that the league has taken that away.”
It doesn’t end with having more freedom in the lane. Today’s complement of players are the equivalent of toddlers getting whatever they want from the toy aisle. They’re spoiled by comparison.
Even the Showtime Lakers, Hollywood hobnobbers, had to fly the way the rest of us do and often wait until the next morning after a game to get home. Chartered flights, much like centers that could shoot the three, were still some years off.
But the differences don’t stop there.
The current basketball star is used to changing sneakers when the mood hits them and giving away their jerseys the second the game ends.
Worthy would like you to know that players like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, absolute legends. They didn’t get much in the way of jerseys.
“You'll be able to find some footage where it's (jerseys) two-tone. It'll be a lavender jersey with a purple pant,” Worthy explains that if you look closely, some of the jerseys back then were discolored because they were washed so often.
Back then players got what he recalls as at most two home and two away uniforms for the entire season, “so you never gave your jersey away.”
There’s a moment in the “The Last Dance” when Jordan is playing his final game at Madison Square Garden. To commemorate the moment, he wore throwback sneakers, his Jordan 1s.
After the game, he talks about his feet being essentially bloody stumps. That’s because sneakers back then were far from the luxurious fashion statements they are today.
“When they came out of the box back then they were rubber and polyurethane,” Worthy said. “So you had to wear them a couple of practices just to get them broken in and then once you broke them in you didn't want to change them right away.”
Scuffed up or dirty, you rocked those old school kicks for a month. Then you had to start the process over again, breaking in shoes that would be trusty companions for a long stretch of games.
Compare that with today’s players who change their footwear with obscene regularity. P.J. Tucker, for example, is renowned for going through sneakers. Halfway through the 2018-2019 season, he had already donned about 70 shoes, a value of $100,000.
Through half a season, Tucker amassed what is essentially half of the $200,000 Worthy says he was paid by New Balance to rock their P740s.
Even the parties were better in the 80s, owing the festivities to access and the absence of the all-seeing eye of social media.
The Staples Center has the Chairman’s Lounge, sure. It doesn’t have the cachet and gravitas of the legendary Forum Club.
“The Chairman's Lounge is kind of, you have to have a pass to get in, you know what I mean? The Forum Club, you walk in,” Worthy said. “That's it, anybody could get in. You walk in and you might see a couple of pimps, a couple drug dealers; you might see anybody. There was no segregation. It was like you got in, you got in. That's what I loved about the Forum. It was the place to be for about 45 minutes or an hour after the game.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and only people with passes can get into a place like the Chairman’s Lounge.
And, of course, anyone who even semi-recognizes you is taking video on the sly to post to their Instagram.
“There was no social media, it was awesome,” he recalled. “Nobody taking photos or nothing. You didn’t have to worry about seeing yourself on Twitter the next morning.”
Although, if you’re a young NBA star today, you’re probably uploading the entire night anyway.
“Nobody wants privacy,” Worthy said. “everybody puts their shit out there. They don't want privacy they want exposure.”
The differences between the players of today and those in Worthy's era are stark. The game is the same. It's still played with a couple of rims and a basketball. But some things couldn't be more different.