Followed by cheers and smiling faces wherever he went on campus, Los Angeles Lakers legend and NBA Hall of Famer James Worthy visited Leona Cox Community School on Thursday to speak with students about the importance of working hard in school and respecting their elders.
Melanie Elder, a Leona Cox teacher who knows Worthy from working weekends at a golf course he frequents, said she organized the special visit from the three-time NBA Champion specifically for her school — a designated Title I campus, meaning that low-income families make up more than 40% of enrollment.
Site staff said they hoped it would show students how someone like “Big Game James” could grow up in a lower-income neighborhood with bad influences all around him, but still rise on and become the success that he is today.
“We have a program at our school called ‘Capturing Kids Hearts,’ and it really focuses on being kind, polite, respectful and things like that,” said Elder. “And so, I just asked him one day: ‘Do you do anything where you come in and talk to kids about getting their act together, making sure they’re preparing for the future?’”
“And he’s like, ‘Oh yeah,’” Elder recounted, adding that Worthy said he is regularly involved with the Boys and Girls Club of America. “And I asked, ‘Could you go to my school?’ and he said: ‘Sure.’”
After touring the classrooms so that students in the lower grades would get a chance to meet him, Worthy spoke to a fourth through sixth grade assembly, telling the upper grades that he grew up in a small town in North Carolina as a latch-key kid. And one of the most important things he learned while growing up is that some people, including friends, want you to do things that may come back to bite you down the road.
But, the 1988 NBA Finals MVP said, learning to say the word “no” can make you powerful.
“Saying ‘no’ gives you power, you’re in charge … you don’t have to follow people who are not on the right track,” Worthy said. “You want to be around people who are doing the right thing and have the right goals.”
Worthy, a 6-feet-9-inch small forward who played with the Lakers 1982-1994 and now hosts the team’s postgame Spectrum Sportsnet show, stood head and shoulders over all who came to hear him speak during the special assembly. However, the students were all ears, taking in every word said by the seven-time All Star, who instructed them on the importance of listening to their parents and prioritizing their education.
“I know it’s hard to hear parents always telling you what to do,” said Worthy. “But it’s only because parents already made the mistakes; we’ve already been down the bad road and so we’re just hoping and praying that you don’t do the same thing.”
Even though it was St. Patrick’s Day, purple and gold Lakers apparel appeared to be equally dominant, if not more so, to the traditional green clothing. One student, sixth grader Tristan Cardona, even pointed Worthy to his socks, which bore an image of him from his playing days, flying through the air for a finger roll layup.
“He was very personable with them,” said Elder while speaking with The Signal a day after Worthy’s visit. “It was great, and as far as living up to my expectations, it was above and beyond.”
During the assembly, Worthy took questions from students surrounding everything from what it was like to play with Michael Jordan, to his relationship with Kobe Bryant, and even if he still hated his old team’s arch rival, the Boston Celtics.
“I hated them,” Worthy joked. “I still hate them.”
Highlighting an interaction the school’s guest had with one of the students, Elder said a first grader she taught had been asking her all day when Worthy would arrive. The student, according to Elder, had lost both his parents in the last few years, but the former basketball player’s impending visit was something he could not help but continually smile about.
“And I go, ‘Jason, James Worthy is finally here,” said Elder. “And he got up and ran across the room and threw his arms around (Worthy’s) waist, standing on his tippy toes, hugging him.”
“It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen…it changed that kid’s life,” Elder added.
“He had humble beginnings, as well, and look where he is now,” said Leona Cox Principal Heather Drew minutes before Worthy walked into the assembly. “All that hard work comes to pay off and now he’s giving back to the community; I think we’re excited for the (students) to hear that and hopefully take some of that with them and move forward with it.”
After concluding his speech and taking photos or signing autographs with anyone who asked, Worthy — who came to the event noticeably without any publicist, agent, or handler of any sort — gave one last goodbye to the students hopping on the bus to leave school for the day.
“Just wanted to keep it real,” said Worthy, when asked if he normally comes to events like the one at Leona Cox without any entourage or assistant usually associated with celebrities’ public appearances. “I didn’t really want to do it for the publicity, I just wanted to come and talk and hopefully reach a couple of them.”