"Is Billy Thompson a star?"
An amused Pat Riley was the one asking the question, his attention caught by the cluster of reporters gathered around the Laker rookie after Los Angeles' 125-116 win over the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday night at the Forum.
Fact is, Thompson has been a star everywhere he's played--at Camden, N.J., where a national magazine called him the best high school player in America; at Louisville, where he won a national championship with the Cardinals, and on any number of highlight films that feature the fine art of jammery.
But here, where there are so many stars that you can't even walk on certain sidewalks without stepping on one, Thompson has gone weeks with barely a nod from Riley.
The No. 1 draft choice has played spectator more than star while the Lakers were rolling toward their eighth straight 50-win season, a level they reached with their win over the Trail Blazers.
But in the last 10 games, Riley has been steadily increasing Thompson's exposure, and Thursday, the Laker coach gave him his chance to shine.
While starters Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Byron Scott and A.C Green remained on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, Thompson did his part in breaking open a close game--scoring 10 points, grabbing 6 rebounds and making a steal in 10 minutes.
That's not to say the Laker starting five wasn't heard from. Magic Johnson checked in with 25 points and 16 assists, 14 of those points coming in the third quarter, when the Lakers doubled their four-point halftime lead from 62-58 to 98-90.
James Worthy scored 22 points, Scott tallied 18 with 6 assists, and Abdul-Jabbar threw in 14.
But when the Lakers blew it open in the fourth quarter, going from 8 points ahead to 18, Riley went with Johnson, Michael Cooper, Mychal Thompson, Kurt Rambis, and Billy Thompson, who replaced Worthy with 9:15 left in the game.
And that's the way it stayed the rest of the way. Abdul-Jabbar watched the last 15:06. Green sat the last 13:07, Scott the last 12.
"I was really caught between a rock and a hard spot," Riley said. "That group broke it open to 16--they really got it going defensively for about four minutes--and I decided, why re-oil it up?"
The undermanned Trail Blazers, missing their top rebounder, Kenny Carr, and a past All-Star, Jim Paxson, not to mention the oft-injured Sam Bowie, could not call on similar reinforcements. Clyde Drexler was superb--a triple-double of 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists--and Kiki Vandeweghe was deadly--26 points on 11 of 18 shots--but eventually Portland wore down.
"Our defensive quickness was the difference," said Mychal Thompson, a Trail Blazer his entire pro career until this season, when he was traded first to San Antonio, then to the Lakers.
On the Lakers, no one expects too much from rookies, but Billy Thompson is winning acceptance--as well as a spot in Riley's rotation of substitutes.
"Riles did the right thing leaving him in," Scott said. "He's starting to grow with every game. We have so much respect for Billy's talent--he has a world of talent--we just have been telling him to play as hard as he could, don't think too much, and don't try to do too much.
"I'm not the coach, but I think he's earned a spot in the rotation, coming in for James."
The coach concurs, at least for now.
"As long as he continues to be productive in the areas that he's effective--rebounding, especially on the offensive boards, and blocking shots," Riley said. "And (as long as) he's not a defensive liability when we put him in the right matchups.
The Trail Blazers noticed. Maybe it was the left-handed jam off an offensive rebound, or the jam off the alley-oop pass from Cooper, who now specializes in reverse Coop-a-Loops.
"In the past month or so he's really shown what he's capable of doing," Drexler said. "I'm a firm believer that he'll help that team, possibly this year in the playoffs. He's a great talent."
The rookie said he was so caught up in the game, he didn't even think about coming out.
"I didn't find myself looking to the bench while I was playing," he said. "When the whistle blows and it's time for me to come out, fine. But I can't worry about whether he (Riley) is going to take me out.