During 710 ESPN's recent Lunch with a Legend, I had some face time with one of the all-time Laker greats, "Big Game" James Worthy. Our conversation hit on topics like the Showtime era, the pride of playing with one franchise and the Lakers' current quest to repeat. Many interesting points raised, but one in particular stood out to me.
Worthy's professional career was without question an unqualified success. Three rings. Seven All-Star bids. Hall of Fame. "50 Greatest Players" membership. But he never led a good team as "the guy." Granted, he played with Magic and Kareem, two dudes not just arguably the best ever at their respective positions, but to ever play the game, period. Too many alpha dogs can spoil the stew, so even someone as talented as Worthy sometimes has to take a relative backseat. Still, great players often have great egos, along with great awareness of whatever criticism could taint their legacy, so I asked Worthy if he ever pined to be an elite team's unquestioned alpha dog:
"No, I never really allowed that to enter into my mind, because I knew I wasn't that type of player. I knew that I wasn't the leader that Magic was. I know how to lead by example and hard work, but at the professional level, it takes a little extra and I would have never have been the voice of a team. I didn't have the dominant game like Kareem with the sky hook. I never looked at myself as a player that could carry a franchise.
"That was fortunate for me, being the #1 pick, that I didn't go to the Clippers or I didn't go to a team that would expect their #1 pick to turn their whole team around. I was pretty fortunate to go to the Lakers, because coming from Coach (Dean) Smith, who's so team-oriented and so collective, I could have never taken that position. I was the captain for a couple of years, but I could never take the role of Magic. Having the role I had was perfect."
Not the answer I expected. I figured Worthy would say he appreciated the luxury and fortune that comes with joining a talented, stacked roster. Or maybe, he initially worried about how his career might be perceived in light of being a third option before coming to appreciate the luxury and fortune that comes with joining such a talented, stacked roster.
Option C: I wasn't that kind of player or leader. Didn't see that coming. In particular, the stuff about leadership was striking.
Leadership in sports can be a peculiar thing. Some guys are blessed with dispositions naturally lending themselves to inspiration. Some learn what leadership is about as they mature. Some never learn. There are players with elite physical gifts and zero ability to lead. There are role players --Derek Fisher, Aaron McKie, Brian Shaw and Ron Harper come to mind-- with an innate ability to elicit respect. Plus, not everyone leads the same way. But assuming the situation is right, any differences will compliment each other to provide a leadership umbrella keeping a roster on the same page.
When I first began covering the Lakers in 2005, it became immediately clear Kobe Bryant sets the on-court standard for performance and (especially) work ethic, but the team's emotional leader was actually Lamar Odom. Upon coming back, Derek Fisher created a three-pronged system as the team's conscious. This season, Laker leadership has increasingly resembled Mount Rushmore. Ron Artest recently noted how he seeks out Pau Gasol with triangular questions more than any other teammate, and El Spaniard has grown less reticent to request more touches while becoming more outwardly fiery.
Does this setup work? I think so, because everyone seems to understand the specific leadership needed. There are also no mixed messages or hidden agendas. No supporting cast member pulled in opposite directions as part of a power play. Everyone knows the ultimate alpha dog is Kobe, and in turn, Bryant appears fine with guys responding to someone other than himself. The benefits of more than one inspirational voice can't be overstated, assuming those speaking remain in unison. Not everyone will respond best to Kobe. Not everyone will respond best to Fisher. Not everyone will respond best to Odom. Not everyone will respond best to Gasol.
But I'm pretty certain everyone will respond to at least one of them.
I didn't live in L.A. during Showtime, an era well before the Internet and NBA packages made it possible to truly follow a team from a distance. Thus, I have no idea if Worthy was ever knocked for lacking leadership. I've never heard such a claim and it strikes me as unlikely a guy with the nickname "Big Game" had too many detractors, but again, I wasn't there. Would Worthy's candidness strike some as an admission of weakness as a player? I suppose, but that would be pretty shortsighted. As long as he maintained accountability, which appears to be the case, better to use leadership as a means of helping the team, as opposed to validating his existence.
Elite (and sometimes less than elite) players typically pine for a unanimous recognition as a "franchise player." Few players truly are, however, which means energy expended in an effort to disprove what everyone else can plainly see. Maybe it's just a matter of recognizing his own DNA. Maybe it was a matter of the 80's NBA money not being enough to chase "franchise" status at all costs. Maybe it was incidents like the story Worthy shared about a disagreement with Magic, then Riles telling him if anyone was getting traded, it ain't Earvin. Whatever the case, Worthy was ultimately secure enough in who he was as a player and a leader to recognize the perfect fit of his situation, then work his hardest to thrive in these circumstances, as opposed to letting his ego get in the way.
You should always try to improve the person you are, but in the end, you also can't be who you're truly not.