James Worthy had a chance to witness the rise of two of the greatest NBA dynasties in the league’s history: his Showtime Los Angeles Lakers and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Worthy and the Lakers claimed three championships before the dawn of the Bulls’ dominance in the 1990s. It began when Jordan’s Chicago beat Worthy’s L.A. in the 1991 NBA Finals, which would turn into the first of the franchise’s two three-peats that decade.
But the two NBA greats share history dating way before that Finals series. Worthy had the front row seat to watch Jordan’s star being born, as they shared the court for two years in college at North Carolina. In Jordan’s freshman year, they won the NCAA with UNC, before the Lakers picked Worthy with the No. 1 pick in the 1982 NBA Draft later in the summer.
Worthy said that back then, he didn’t know Jordan would become one of the best players to have ever played in the NBA. But he told Adam Mendler on his “Thirty Minute Mentors” podcast hardly anyone could match the soon-to-be Bulls superstar’s competitiveness — which led to the pair facing each other in a one-on-one clash:
James: My favorite memory is him as a recruit. And coming in extremely confident. I mean this guy – he wasn’t arrogant – but he would let you know immediately that he was not afraid of anything. And so when he came to Carolina – I made this comment on his documentary The Last Dance, where I said – I was better than Michael Jordan when he came to Carolina but only for about three weeks or two weeks. And after that, he just took off man. He was extremely confident. And he always sought out the best. And he was the best. And we would practice sometimes for two and a half hours, just really, really tired. And all I want to do is get a shower and get back to the dorm. And he would find me walking off the court. And he would push me back onto the court physically. He would call me young fella. He said, “Come on, young fella. Where are you going? Let’s play a little game.” And so I was like, “Man, I’m tired.” But he was like, “Nah, you’re scared. That’s what you are.” He said, “You’re not tired. You’re scared.” He said stuff like, “Yeah, I’ll bust your ass.” You know, he was just always like that with a big smile on his face. And I think I beat him three out of five times and I stopped playing. And that’s the one thing that I have on him – to this day – are those three games in a one on one that I beat him. But he was amazing mental capacity because it could be Game 6 or Game 7 of the Finals or it could be a backgammon game in the dorm room. If he lost, they were the same to him. He was extremely upset. And that’s who he is – it doesn’t matter, it could be a game of marbles in the backyard or it could be a big shot in the NBA Finals. He hated to lose and he hated to be taunted. You couldn’t challenge him. And so he was just an amazing guy. And you know, when he left Carolina, Coach Smith was the right coach for him because he needed a little bit of discipline in his game, he needed to understand how to take his talent and apply it to the team, and Coach Smith gave him that, and from that, he just took off. And I knew he would be an All-Star, but I had no idea that he would be arguably one of the top three players in the game.
Adam: James, you’ve never seen me play basketball, but needless to say, I’m not going to be challenging Michael Jordan in a game of one on one, but MJ if you’re listening, I would love to play you in backgammon anytime, anyplace.
James: Just don’t beat him because you might lose a table and a lamp and everything. He goes bananas man.
Worthy perhaps kept up with Jordan for longer than two to three weeks, as he collected the NCAA Tournament’s MVP award in 1982. Also, the Lakers’ legend competitiveness has been well-documented, too, most recently flaring up when he scolded L.A. for an embarrassing loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in early February.
Worthy recalls workouts with Kobe Bryant
Worthy said only Kobe Bryant’s pursuit of excellence could be compared to Jordan’s drive, recalling practice sessions he did with the late Lakers legend back in the day.
Worthy said Bryant asked him to work on his footwork in his early NBA days — and did so again 20 years later, during his last season in the league, emphasizing his hunger for basketball wisdom that led to the emergence of the “Mamba Mentality” mantra.