100 in 100: Gaston County’s James Worthy, Big Game James

The Hall of Famer won an NCAA title at UNC and three NBA championships with the Lakers

Gastonia’s James Worthy won an NCAA title at UNC in 1982 and played 12 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning three NBA championships. (AP Photo)

North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.

Gaston County

James Worthy

Michael Jordan will always be remembered for making the shot against Georgetown in 1982 that delivered North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith his long-awaited first national championship. What most people don’t remember is that Jordan, a freshman at the time, would never have had the opportunity to hit his historic jumper had it not been for the play of the team’s star, James Worthy.

The 6-foot-9 forward went 13 of 17 from the floor against the Hoyas, scored 28 points and had the steal of a Fred Brown pass that clinched the Tar Heels’ 63-62 victory on his way to being named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. He was also a first-team All-American that season, sharing national Player of the Year honors with Virginia’s Ralph Sampson.


Worthy went from one championship team to another when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, who received the top pick in a trade with the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. There, he became an integral part of one of the great teams in NBA history. He also lived up to his nickname of “Big Game James” by saving his best performances for games in which the stakes were the highest.

James Worthy wears the net after it was cut down following UNC’s win over Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA title game. (AP Photo)

That includes a 36-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons, a performance that helped Worthy earn the award as Finals MVP.

The Gastonia native won three championship rings with the Lakers and was a seven-time All-Star. He averaged 17.7 points and 5.1 rebounds in 926 regular season games. He increased his scoring production to 21.1 points in 143 career playoff games while shooting 54.4% from the floor. His number was retired by both the Lakers and UNC.

And yet, as was the case with Jordan and the Tar Heels, Worthy’s accomplishments were often overshadowed by flashier teammates Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Overshadowed, but not overlooked. In 1996, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history during the league’s 50th-anniversary celebration, and seven years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.