INGLEWOOD, CALIF. -- When Pat Riley, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, first met him, he didn't know what to call him.

"The first time, I think I called him Jim," Riley remembered. "Then I asked him what he wanted to be called.

" 'Call me James,' " he said.

To most everyone who knows him, he remains James Worthy. In the Lakers dressing room, his teammates call him "Clever."

That name fits Worthy, a 6-foot-9 forward, but he didn't earn it playing basketball.

"Mike McGee and I would go to the same barber," Worthy said. "And one time when we went in there, the barber said to me, 'I'm going to have you looking real clever.' The team picked up on it."

That barber doesn't cut McGee's hair anymore. McGee was traded to the Atlanta Hawks last June.

And for a while last summer, it seemed the barber might lose Worthy, too. The Lakers had lost to the Houston Rockets in the playoffs last spring, and the wise guys were saying that the Lakers must match the Rockets' 7-footers, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon.

The Dallas Mavericks, apparently, had a big man they were willing to part with: Roy Tarpley, a rookie from Michigan. To make the deal even more tempting, the Mavericks were offering Mark Aguirre. They wanted Worthy in exchange.

But Lakers General Manager Jerry West resisted the pressure to make the deal, which supposedly came from owner Jerry Buss, among others.

So Worthy stayed on in Los Angeles, highlighting his fifth season with the Lakers by leading a four-game sweep of the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA's Western Conference finals. In each of those games, he led his team in scoring. He averaged 30.5 points, topping out at 39 in Game 3, more points than he has scored in any game since high school in Gastonia, N.C.

Through the first dozen games of the playoffs, spanning series against the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors and SuperSonics, he was the Lakers' leading scorer with a 25.1 average, almost six points better than his regular-season average.

He shot 63 percent from the floor after coming into the playoffs as the league's all-time playoff leader in field-goal accuracy at 59.5 percent.

He averaged 25.5 points a game while shooting 60 percent in the Lakers' two regular-season victories over the Boston Celtics, and set a record for a seven-game championship series in 1984 when he shot 63.8 percent against them.

Dick Versace, the Detroit Pistons' assistant coach, scouted Worthy in the series against the SuperSonics.

"He had a great series, one, because he's a great player, and two, I thought Seattle had match-up problems with him," Versace said.

"They tried to guard him with Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel, and then they finally put Dale Ellis {a guard} on him."

One-on-one, Riley said, there isn't a player in the league who can stop Worthy.

"They can't handle him unless they abuse him, or take privileges defensively and run at him," Riley said.

And the Lakers have such a diverse offense, as well as exceptional ball movement, that teams pay a high price for double-teaming Worthy.

"His gifts are these," Riley said. "Three things: To post up, you have to have a strong move to the base line, which he does. You should see how he comes across the lane to post up, bumped and banged all the way, but has the guts to get on through there. It's incredible to watch him on the tape, in slow motion.

"The second part is his catch. He catches the ball, on the move, either one-handed or two-handed. And once he's made the catch, he's got the quickest feet of any forward in this league."

Maurice Lucas said that Worthy beats defenders with his first step. "His first step is awesome," Lucas said. "And his second step is in the hoop."

"He'll give a guy two or three fakes," Riley said, "step through, then throw up the turn-around. It's not planned. It's all just happening."

His teammates say they know little of Worthy's life away from the court. Riley has said that there are times he has no idea what Worthy is thinking.

"He doesn't ever complain about anything," Riley said. "If I criticize him, he never makes an excuse. He just nods his head and takes it.

"If I compliment him, he just nods his head and takes it."

There are those who suggest this country boy is just the man to fill the vacuum left by the retirement of Julius Erving. To be sure, Erving's swoops are part of Worthy's repertoire.

"I've always been the type of person who just wanted to play my own game," Worthy said. "I remember going to Carolina Cougars games as a kid to see Dr. J and the ABA teams. I always idolized him when he was with the Virginia Spurs.

"I never hung around to ask for his autograph or anything. But I pictured myself being there one day. Those are big shoes to fill. I think I'll stay away from that. I've heard them say that about me, then Michael Jordan, taking over. It's nice to hear sometimes, but I can't dwell on that."

For now, he is content to be known simply as James Worthy.