Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Parallel Lives

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It’s hard to imagine two basketball careers more closely entwined than those of James Worthy and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd.

Their connection started in Gastonia, N.C., about 25 miles outside of Charlotte. Floyd and Worthy grew up playing against each other and went to rival high schools. Although he was a year older, it seemed that Floyd was always playing in Worthy’s shadow. In 1976, Worthy became the first sophomore to be named to North Carolina’s all-state team.

In 1977, Floyd and his teammates at Hunter Huss High School lost four regular-season matchups with the Worthy-led squad at Ashbrook High School. With the help of a serendipitous bracket in the state tournament, the teams met in the 4A championship game played at Grimsley High School in Greensboro, N.C.

This time, Floyd would gain a measure of revenge with a 60-59 victory. But ACC schools still ignored him and focused their recruiting attention on Worthy. John Thompson and Georgetown eventually snatched up Floyd and, a year later, Worthy became one of Dean Smith’s biggest recruits at North Carolina.

The players would meet again on the biggest stage of the next level. The kids from Gastonia earned two slots on the All-American first team in 1982 and, as luck would have it, their teams would meet in that year’s NCAA championship game.

The game was nip-and-tuck. Floyd had 10 points and Worthy 18 as Georgetown took a 32-31 lead at the break.

The Hoyas looked like they might pull away early in the second half, taking a 49-45 lead before UNC freshman Buzz Peterson gathered a loose ball and found a streaking Worthy.

Floyd chased down his old friend and then, inexplicably, tried to block the dunk attempt from one of the game’s greatest fast-break finishers. Worthy got the slam and the foul, converting the three-point play and grabbing momentum for the Tar Heels.

Floyd would give Georgetown a 62-61 lead with just under a minute left after getting Worthy to bite on a pump fake in the lane. Of course, a freshman named Michael Jordan would answer with a jumper that gave UNC its first national title under Smith.

Here’s how UNC’s Matt Doherty recalled Floyd’s fateful decision to try to block Worthy in the documentary “Blue Heaven”:

“After the game I said: ‘James, what was Sleepy thinking?’ Sleepy is 6-2, 6-3, trying to get up and block James’ breakaway. And with James, nobody is gonna block that. And James, he’s really low-key, he said, ‘I don’t know. He tried the same thing in high school, too.’ I asked James, ‘What were the results?’ and he said, ‘The same.’ ”

Worthy finished the title game with a collegiate-high 28 points and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. He was the first UNC player since Bob McAdoo to leave early for the NBA, becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. Floyd was drafted No. 13 by the New Jersey Nets.

Floyd eventually played for four NBA teams but, without question, his greatest game came with the Golden State Warriors against, inevitably, Worthy and the Lakers in the 1987 Western Conference semifinals.

There was no way the juggernaut Lakers were going to lose a series to a Warriors team that relied heavily on journeymen like Jerome Whitehead, Joe Barry Carroll and Terry Teagle.

But in Game 4, Floyd served notice to the eventual NBA champions. He scored a playoff-record 29 points in the fourth quarter on 12-for-13 shooting. He finished with 51 points as Golden State earned its only victory in the series.

After that historical performance, even Floyd’s old foe was awestruck.

“I’ve seen him go unconscious before but not like that,” Worthy said. “Not at this level. I’ve seen him do this in summertime pickup games. When we are home this summer, it will be brought up.”

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