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Worthy Hangs It Up, and so Will the Lakers : Pro basketball: Team will put retired forward's No. 42 next to other greats on Forum wall.

November 11, 1994|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was Thursday as he had been for his previous 12 years as a Laker, eloquent and graceful, soft-spoken about his accomplishments, an athlete relating the frustration of a once-great body wearing out and making it all seem so reasonable.

James Worthy said his knees had given out more than his will had. The end, he insisted, came not after serious contemplation following the sudden death of his mother, or after struggling with a reduced role on a team whose other players talked of having watched him in the NBA finals as junior high students, but after being struck with the achy joints of April and May in October. Two-a-days had hurt too much, he said, and he could imagine how he would be feeling by Game 63.

So he retired, making it official at a crowded Forum news conference and bringing the curtain down on an era in the process. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper, among others, were there to say goodby to a friend--and the last link to Showtime.

"I'm happy that we can see James go out and we can all smile," said Abdul-Jabbar, the former captain. "We'll shed some tears later, but we can smile because he's walking out happy, the way he wants to leave."

He won't be entirely gone, either. Worthy said he might go into broadcasting and will probably stay close to the game, but, in any capacity, he will be part of the Forum. Owner Jerry Buss has decided to retire Worthy's No. 42 and hang it alongside those of the Laker immortals: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson. No date has been set, but the ceremony may be held in December.

That isn't Buss' only tribute to the seven-time all-star. Retirement could have meant that Worthy was walking away from a contract that would pay $7.2 million this season and $5.15 million in 1995-96, or at least that he would have to settle for a percentage as a buyout. But he will be paid in full.

"You make a commitment to do something, so you do it," said Bob Steiner, Buss' spokesman. "The same things were always true with (Johnson's) contracts and everyone else's contract. You sign an agreement to pay him. If you're not obligated to it legally, you certainly are morally from what James has meant to Jerry's happiness. Look at what the guy's done."

Buss is also paying $14.6 million worth of happiness to Johnson this season on a contract that was signed even as all parties realized that Magic would not be playing. In business, they call it a golden parachute. Around the Laker front office, where $26.95 million is now earmarked for two former players, it's known as thank you.

What it means to the future of the Lakers is quite different. Because of a salary-cap technicality, they will have $1.85 million to pay another player, good until Nov. 10, 1995. That would seem lucrative enough to lure a good free agent, although probably not a top-level talent.

Worthy, 33, alluded to the front office--primarily Buss, Executive Vice President West and General Manager Mitch Kupchak--during his remarks, noting that he played with legends and worked for legends. But the most insightful comments were saved for his decision to retire after 12 seasons and three championships.

"The thing that really wore on me was that I could only play one way," he said. "Some players, when they get older, they have a tendency to be able to adjust and find a way to continue. I just couldn't do it. I think I may have tried it this past year, to modify, because I knew the minutes were going to decrease, but it was a forced situation. I can remember when my alarm clock would go off and I would be right up, right to practice, ready to go. It was fun. It got to the point where you hit the snooze five or six times.

"I didn't feel good physically, and I knew I couldn't make the contribution that I needed and wanted to. So for the sake of the younger players that are really working hard, it was a mutual agreement with Dr. Buss and the Laker front office. I was able to make some room and really avoid any further frustration or embarrassment that I might cause myself trying to compete when I knew it just wasn't there.

"I definitely think it's time for me. Parts of last year and a little bit of this year in training camp was like a test for me because I think you get to the point where you really aren't sure if you've got enough left. So I'm almost sure that it's the right time for me.

"I really feel relieved. I'm not looking back. I'm really just feeling very light, very happy that I was able to come to a decision and have it be the right one."

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