CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was a night on which James Worthy was treated as an even bigger star than Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But while he graciously accepted the attention of the media here and the ovation of the 23,388 fans, some of whom had seen him play in high school at nearby Gastonia or in college at North Carolina, Worthy was his usual self on court against the Charlotte Hornets.
Like the rest of the Lakers, he gave the first-year Hornets no break, scoring 14 of his 20 points in the first quarter as the Lakers ran off with a 123-90 victory that increased their Pacific Division lead over the Phoenix Suns to 4 1/2 games.
The tributes to Worthy were certainly appreciated, but the Lakers came here with one goal in mind: To pull away from Western Conference competition and close in on Cleveland for the league's best record.
They have won three of four games on this trip, which ends Sunday in Oakland. Perhaps the Lakers, who pounded the expansion Miami Heat by 40 points Wednesday night, could have beaten the Hornets without being so dominating, but mercy is not part of their vocabulary this close to the start of the playoffs.
And besides, the 33-point victory made Worthy's homecoming an unqualified success.
"I've been coaching 30-some years, and that's the most overmatched I have ever felt," Charlotte Coach Dick Harter said. "They wanted a quick knockout, and they got it."
After sprinting to a 37-21 first-quarter lead, with Worthy and Johnson leading the attack, the Lakers pretty much had their way with the Hornets, losers of six straight games.
A second-straight early blowout afforded Worthy the opportunity to sit back the entire fourth quarter and enjoy the night. Still, it could not have been easy for Worthy to concentrate on the game after all the attention heaped upon him the last two days.
A local television station devoted a weeklong special report--"James at Home"--to Worthy's trip back to Gastonia, about 30 miles from downtown Charlotte. The lead story in the main news section of Friday's Charlotte Observer was the dinner of fried chicken, collard greens, stuffing and venison that Gladys Worthy, James' mother, cooked for her son and other Laker players the night before.
And even on another stop of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's farewell tour, Worthy received a more vocal and heartfelt ovation--just as Abdul-Jabbar expected.
"He's the local boy," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It was nice for him."
Outwardly, Worthy handled it all with typical aplomb, but teammates noted an increased resolve to play well in front of the home fans.
At the end of the first quarter, after Worthy had made 6 of 9 shots, Laker guard Byron Scott gave him a funny look in the team huddle.
"I said to him, 'James, what are you trying to do, get 40 tonight?' " Scott said. "All James said was, 'Hey, I got to come back here every summer.' "
Try as he might to imagine it as just another game, Worthy said he could not help thinking about playing back home for the first time in seven years.
"It was very touching, very emotional," Worthy said. "I looked up in the stands and saw a lot of faces I recognized, a lot of friends I hadn't seen in 10 years but who haven't forgotten me.
"I've been in enough games in my (professional) career to know how to approach it, but I admit I was excited. This afternoon, I was thinking about what pro basketball means to this state.
"But we have long-term objectives, and I had to think about that. We've got 20-something games left to get ready for the playoffs. We have to play like tonight every night."
Always wary of needless distractions, Laker Coach Pat Riley nonetheless said he, too, enjoyed the reception afforded Worthy.
"It was very nice, but I was a little concerned about all the collard greens A.C. (Green) ate," Riley said. "I heard he really put them away."
Apart from Worthy's contribution, the Lakers received 16 points and 14 assists from Johnson, 13 points and 15 rebounds from Green, 25 points from Scott and 10 points and nine rebounds from Abdul-Jabbar.
The Lakers made 58.1% of their shots, had a 52-34 rebounding advantage and, because of tough defense, forced Charlotte to shoot just 40%. Kelly Tripucka led the Hornets with 17 points, most coming in the fourth quarter when the Laker starters were on the bench.
The Lakers' recent surge is not surprising to Riley. A veteran team, the Lakers have almost instinctively increased their intensity as the season has wound down.
"We still think it's critical to try to put distance between us and the rest of the Western Conference, and to stay close to Cleveland and Detroit, and maybe catch (the Cavaliers) in a couple of weeks," Riley said. "Every time we lose a game against a team we should beat, that now counts double in the loss column."
The highlight of Friday night's farewell ceremony for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was some friendly verbal sparring between the Laker center and Kurt Rambis, the Hornet (and former Laker) forward. "I've learned a lot from you," Rambis told Abdul-Jabbar during the pregame ceremony. "Probably what I learned most was how to grow bald gracefully." Abdul-Jabbar's retort: "(Rambis) is going to be on the same par with me. I give you about a year and a half, Kurt." The Hornets presented Abdul-Jabbar, playing his first and last game at Charlotte, with a custom-made rocking chair. "This chair," Rambis said, "is a place for you to rest your old bones and someday watch the Hornets win an NBA championship." Said Abdul-Jabbar: "I definitely will use (the large chair). No one else could fit in it."