Interview by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
On February 15th, 1980, the Cleveland Cavaliers traded their 1982 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Cavaliers did a lot of this, eventually leading to the Stepien Rule (named for then-Cavs owner Ted Stepien), which would prevent a team from trading consecutive future first-rounders. For the time being, however, it was legal. And when the 1982 draft finally rolled around, the defending champion Lakers found themselves holding the No. 1 overall pick. They used it on another champion, UNC junior forward James Worthy.
Worthy signed in Los Angeles—and in Boston. For a while he would become a Laker, but he would also become Beantown-based New Balance's first major athlete endorsee of any sort, becoming the NBA's highest-paid sneaker endorsee—a million-dollar contract—in the process. A few years in, he'd be the recipient of New Balance's first signature shoe, the P740 Worthy. Nearly 30 years later, it's being retroed for the first time, and Worthy himself is back in the New Balance fold. We spoke to him about beginnings both new and old, as well as the first shoe that featured his name:
I wanted to start by going all the way to the beginning of this—as a Laker, how did it feel signing with a Boston-based company. Was that even a thought?
It really wasn’t. You know, it’s almost like, well not quite but, like Nike being in Oregon where the Trailblazers are. I really didn’t understand the rivalry when I first signed with New Balance, I knew the Lakers and Celtics had some history, but it really didn’t come into play. [New Balance founder] Jim Davis was a great owner, I just loved the way he treated his employees, and when I visited the factory I liked the way he treated people and the way he catered to the community as opposed to catering to the high-profile athlete. It was all-inclusive. It didn’t really bother me that it was in Boston. I gained a few fans in Boston.
I bet, because previous to you it was what, like M.L. Carr and a couple other… I feel like there were a couple fringe NBA guys wearing New Balance.
M.L. was the guy that brought me in. M.L. being from Guilford, North Carolina, and I was from North Carolina, he thought it was a good idea with me on the West Coast so, that’s how I got started.
New Balance was all about family and that’s what I felt right away.
And what was that like, this is coming in at ’82, so prior to your North Carolina teammate being the sneaker guy, was it a bunch of companies recruiting you?
Well, at the time I was the number 1 pick coming out in ’82, I had a lot of choices, but New Balance was very attractive to me because they were willing to make me the highest-paid player to have a sneaker contract. And also, the product was new to basketball so once I saw the product was a really good product and a really good shoe,— like the Mercedes of sneakers, I was excited about being with a company that I knew could match what I needed as far as performance and durability. They asked me a variety of questions as to what I wanted in a shoe, how I wanted it to perform, and then they built a shoe around that. It was just a great relationship—New Balance was all about family and that’s what I felt right away. I just didn’t want to be a number. I wanted to be a part of something special, and they did special things. You know they would much rather have you Russ, run commercials with you, or a banker, a handicapped person, than to have a big major star, so that was very attractive to me.
When you started out, they didn't do the signature shoe right away, you started out in some of their regular basketball product.
I started out in the basic—the first year was kind of a mesh—I cant remember the number exactly—and then my second year I wore a mid-boot, three-quarter shoe, and then they came with the Worthy Express, the 740, and the other shoes came after. In the beginning it was kind of trial and error to see what we could get to.
So they would give you whatever the current basketball shoe was, you would give them feedback and that’s how it kind of built out?
You know about New Balance, their running shoes are the best ever, so they had the mold, and so the shoe itself was solid from the beginning. I think as time evolved they kind of got into the cosmetics of it, you know I had an Achilles injury in college, and they catered to that. They put a lot of polyurethane and a lot of the material that was going in to absorb the punishment that you take when you’re jumping and running. It was just a growing process each year, and it was just amazing to see the development of their basketball shoe come to fruition.
Was the plan from the start when you signed with them, "OK, we’re going to give you a signature shoe at some point," or is that something that came about as you went?
It kind of came about, we had a marketing conversation. I was willing to grow with the company and as I got successful, and as they continued to enhance their brand and their shoe, it was just a natural fit. And as the Lakers/Celtics rivalry emerged, it just evolved from that.
What was your reaction when you first saw the 740?
I was like, I couldn’t believe it. You know I grew up wearing a certain shoe costing 11 bucks, 12 bucks. In lieu of what was going on with Nike, and other brands who were already popular, I was like yeah, New Balance is here, and I’m the poster child for that shoe and we were winning. We didn’t have to do a ton of commercials or all that other stuff, we just believed in the product itself, and it worked.
I think the image most people remember was the "Worthy Express" with the train.
Yeah, the poster was hot because Showtime was really flourishing, and I was a runner, the Express just made it perfect.
We didn’t have to do a ton of commercials or all that other stuff, we just believed in the product itself, and it worked.
Was that something you guys came up with together?
You know, it was a mutual thing. I think New Balance came up with the concept, and I said yes that’s perfect because it's an express, I'm fast, and that’s kind of the mutual thing that we had.
Back then you were obviously wearing other New Balance gear, were you running in New Balance too? Did you have any favorites running wise?
I loved the running shoes once I got involved with New Balance, I loved the running shoes. I trained in them, they were part of my training in the off season. I wore their running shoes—I have on a pair now—so yeah, all their products became a part of my regimen.
So how did this all come about now? I know later in your career you ended up in adidas for a while. How did this reunion with New Balance happen?
Well at the end of my career—as an athlete, you always are taking on new offers. Probably the biggest mistake I ever made was leaving New Balance for a couple years toward the end but even when I was a couple years with another shoe company, people always associated me with New Balance. That never went away. People would show me, when I went to autograph signings, people would have that poster, old shoes and stuff like that. I was very fortunate that New Balance contacted me again because retro is really big now. Retro shoes are coming back. So they contacted me, and I couldn’t wait for them to contact me, because I’d been wanting a relationship with NB again and that’s kind of how it happened.
So we can expect more to come, this isn't just a one-shot deal.
Yea, I’m looking forward with them with this new concept that they have, and always having a message for the young people to get an education. Don’t make sports primary, make it secondary. We have a quality shoe that prevents injuries and really, that’s the message I want to continue to convey for New Balance.
The 740 is the signature shoe that most people remember. So hopefully as time passes, and we get back in the design room, and hopefully we can come up with other retro Worthy shoes, or even something new. That’s my hope and my goal. Something affordable, that kids can afford. Our message is always the same: Good product and education.
The last thing I wanted to talk about, is… I know you haven’t only been busy with New Balance lately, I know the Lakers have been pretty busy of late too. What have the last couple weeks been like for you? It’s been crazy for everyone it seems like.
I mean we had the lottery, and now we had the draft, the young kids… And I was fortunate enough to sit in on the Carmelo Anthony meeting last week when he was in town. They’re really trying to get some old-school guys to convey what it’s like to play in Los Angeles, so the Lakers have been utilizing me to try and help them get some of these younger generations to understand the history. I’m hoping I can grow into a front-office job, player personnel or something like that. That’s my goal.
What do you tell someone like Carmelo when he’s sitting in front of you?
I told Carmelo that he’s an elite player, and he has worked hard to get to the point where he deserves this decision, to play for whoever he wants to. I also told him that the timing is everything. He’s at the point where he’s got five, six, seven good years left, and he wants…the timing is right. I conveyed to him that Wilt Chamberlain was a 76er, a great player, could have played anywhere, but he came to Los Angeles for a reason, because Los Angeles has that—it’s a city of champions. The Lakers have a formula of winning. Kareem was in Milwaukee, he came to Los Angeles. It’s a great city to win, and the Lakers have that formula. They’re struggling a little bit [right now] because they lost their owner and the family is rebooting the brand.
I also told him his wife is more popular in L.A. than he is. I was joking with him and said "listen man I’m here to recruit your wife, because if we can get her, you don’t have any say." So Lala…I just told him the timing is right. This is a franchise that will take, that will alleviate some of the pressure. I’ve hated to see Carmelo in Denver taking all the blame when it’s really not his fault, in New York taking all the blame when it’s really not his fault. So I told him in L.A. he’ll have that extra dimension of support that he’s never had. So just a hard sell.
I guess the very last thing, looking at some of the money that’s flying around—Gordon Hayward is signing for $60 million, Chandler Parsons is three years, $45 or whatever—you've got your signature shoe back now. You’re only 53, is it time for a comeback?
I don’t mean to be offensive, but if it’s wheelchair basketball then you got a shot to get me to play.
I’m sure you could give someone five or 10 minutes a night.
Yeah man, I don’t know. I’m 53, but my body’s saying 93. I’m just trying to get up and down the steps.
Look for the New Balance P740 Worthy to release on Packer Shoes today. Retail is $120.