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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Walton all-too familiar with pain son could face one day

Posted Jan 6 2011 9:44AM

The soft blue eyes well up, the commanding voice chokes to a halt in mid-sentence, and the head turns down and away from the conversation.

Bill Walton is nearly in tears.

"I don't want you to write this story. This is ..."

Walton stops and takes nine seconds to gather himself in silence.

The Hall of Fame center was nearly ruined by back problems, tortured by searing pain to the point he said he contemplated ending his life. Now his son has back problems. He continues to play for the Lakers.

Bill Walton encouraged Luke Walton to retire in the summer rather than risk a similar future of agony. Luke Walton refused.

This is ... so hard.

"No parent wants to see their child suffer and how that changes your life. Basketball is a glorious celebration of life, of health, of everything that's good, and there is no better example of that than what Shaq is going through right now with the Boston Celtics and how much the Celtics will mean to Shaq now and for rest of his life, and how much fun it's going to be on that last long run.

"You want that," Bill said. "You want that for everybody, to have the end be so great, and you really want it for your children."

Even an encouraging start to the season does not ease the worry. Luke has played in only 21 of L.A.'s 36 games and is averaging just 7.1 minutes per game as free-agent acquisition Matt Barnes gobbles playing time behind Ron Artest. But the only injury that forced Walton to the sideline is the strained right hamstring that cost him five contests from Oct. 26-Nov. 3. No sign of back trouble.

Still, the problem was serious enough last season that he missed 50 games with a pinched nerve. Luke devoted a lot of the summer to intense workouts to strengthen the back. Doubt existed as training camp approached whether the younger Walton would play this season.

The Lakers responded by signing Barnes, in part because of the push from Kobe Bryant to add more combative players to the roster, especially because Bryant loved the acquisition of Artest the season before and hoped the Lakers would land one of his greatest foils, Raja Bell.

Walton's father responded with a message, words from a loved one: Retire. Basketball is a passion, but it's not life.

"Any parent would do everything to take pain, suffering, frustration, disappointment and loss out of their children's lives," Bill said. "I want what's best for Luke."

Luke: "His concern, obviously, as my father, he doesn't want me to have it go as far as he went, where he was miserable and all that stuff that went on with him. His advice was health is more important than basketball. But I wasn't willing to live with that advice. I had to do everything I could first. I think I found a solution that will let me continue to play."

Bill: "I don't want to see him in pain. I don't want to see the long-term ramifications."

Luke admits his father encouraged him to think about the future: "And I wasn't OK with that."

Their back-and-forth lasts through the months. The son is undeniably and unapologetically living for the moment. The father knows what that can mean.

The father, at 58, is in great spirits again. He's living in his hometown of San Diego and bubbling over with enthusiasm. He's an ambassador of the game, a regular at major NBA events, but he remembers the long road back as a player. The son is 30, in the eighth season of an excellent career for a second-round pick. He, admittedly, is concerned about the long road ahead and problems he could face in his 50s and 60s.

That's the one part they agree on.

"But," Luke said, "I don't focus on those things. If that happens, that happens. I'll have to deal it with it then, down the road. But to sit around and worry about that now, lose sleep over it now, is not going to do anything for me.

"So I just keep working hard and doing my exercises and my stretching. I've been doing yoga once or twice a week. Pilates. All that stuff, every week. The combination of everything has been great."

Bill: "Did you ever listen to your dad? Did I ever listen to coach Wooden? No. But I'm his dad and I want what's best for Luke. Luke is so very fortunate to be on the best franchise in the NBA right now. What the Lakers have done for him, what Phil Jackson has done for him, and [owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss and [general manager] Mitch Kupchak has just been unbelievable. He's very, very lucky."

Back and forth.

The words come from a family member, not a former player. Still, that former player was enormously talented, smart and unselfish. He was one of the greatest college players ever, an NBA MVP and Sixth Man of the Year winner and an integral part of two championship teams.

''I told him, I said, 'What would you have done if you were playing?'" Luke said, recalling a conversation with his father. "He said ...," and here Luke drops into a deep-voiced Bill Walton impression, "... 'Different story. I'm your father.'

"But I'm me. So ..."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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