Like most rookies, Cleveland's Ron Harper knows his place, even though the Cavalier guard rivals Indiana's Chuck Person as the most exceptional newcomer to arrive in the National Basketball Assn. this season.
But as well-mannered as Harper is, Saturday night he couldn't abide by the time-honored rule that says speak to your elders only when spoken to. Harper was compelled to accost James Worthy after the Laker forward had repelled what should have been an easy Harper layup in the last 2 1/2 minutes of the Lakers' 122-118 win over Cleveland before a Forum sellout crowd of 17,505.
"I never saw him," said Harper, who was wide open under the basket and poised to cut the Laker lead to two when Phil Hubbard threaded him a pass.
"I told him on the court, 'How can y'all do that to me, blindsiding me like that?' "
Harper had broken free and gotten inside position on the man guarding him, Michael Cooper. But Worthy--who also scored 31 points to match his season high--streaked across the lane to block Harper's shot. Magic Johnson then made two free throws at the other end of the court, giving the Lakers a 116-110 lead with 2:16 left.
The Cavaliers eventually drew within two, 118-116, on a sneakaway jam by Harper, who led Cleveland with 26 points, with 38 seconds left. But Johnson followed a miss by Worthy with two offensive rebounds, cashing in the second with 16 seconds to go.
Harper was fouled and made two free throws with 11 seconds to go, then immediately fouled Cooper. But the Laker guard made both to end the team's odd losing streak on Saturday nights. They had been 0 for 6 on Saturdays, with all of the losses coming on the road.
"You have to give (Worthy) credit," Harper said. "He made a heck of a defensive play."
Laker Coach Pat Riley saw enough in Worthy's play to call it his best overall game of the season. In addition to making 14 of 22 shots, the Laker forward had 8 rebounds, 3 blocked shots, 2 assists and 2 steals.
Worthy wasn't quick to agree.
"I appreciate it (Riley's comment), but there are a lot of games," Worthy said. "I've had good games and mediocre games. In the last month, I haven't been slacking off, but I haven't been in my rhythm of previous years.
"Maybe it's a lack of concentration. But before we get into serious playing, I've got to get back into my style."
On paper, this game didn't loom as a serious test. The Cavaliers, who started three of their five rookies--Harper, center Brad Daugherty and forward John (Hot Rod) Williams--had lost 18 of their last 19 games on the road.
They trailed by seven points after one quarter, 36-29;, by eight at halftime, 63-55, and by as many as 14 in the third quarter, the last time at 93-79.
But then they took off on a 16-4 run, fueled by the outside shooting of rookie guard Mark Price, who sank 9 of 12 shots coming off the bench. And at last, they overtook the Lakers, Harper tying the score at 108-108 with a little jump hook with 4:09 to go.
But Johnson, who had 26 points and 17 assists, fed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (18 points) for a sky hook to break the tie, and Harper was double-teamed and threw a bad pass that Worthy converted into a layup on a 4-on-1 break.
Harper and Worthy then traded baskets, action that preceded Worthy's block.
"Cooper was on his back and he had to concentrate on the pass," Worthy said of Harper. "He went straight up for the cup, and I don't think he saw me."
There have been stretches this season when Worthy seems to drop from sight. Some have been brought on by the chronic tendinitis in his knees, others by what he terms lapses in concentration.
In the half-dozen games before Saturday, Worthy had been averaging just 14.5 points a game.
"I've been playing very hard," he said, "and on this team you don't have to depend on just one or two guys to score. I've concentrated on other things and have played pretty good defense.
"But I haven't been in the rhythm offensively. I'm not running as well, partly because we've been posting up so much.
"But I don't want to get in a position of having to turn it on all of a sudden."
Worthy narrowly avoided serious injury when Harper, reaching in from behind, sent Worthy's goggles flying with an ill-aimed swipe at the ball. Worthy had a tiny cut that began in the corner of his left eye.
"I've been hit there a few times," he said.
He wasn't the only casualty. Kurt Rambis, who had 10 points and 8 rebounds in 22 minutes, took a couple of stitches for a cut on the chin, and referee Mike Mathis was knocked silly by an errant elbow from Hubbard with 1:03 left in the third quarter. Mathis left the game, which meant his partner, Jess Thompson, had to go solo. But Mathis returned at the start of the fourth quarter.
"Oh, yeah, I did a game by myself back in college," Thompson said. "It was strange, but nothing that couldn't be handled. . . . So much for basketball being a non-contact sport."