Rookie Tales: Luke Walton

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Luke Walton was well-known before he ever entered the league almost a decade ago. The son of an NBA great, and after a fantastic career under Lute Olsen at Arizona, he was drafted by the Lakers in the second round of the 2003 Draft – one of the greatest classes of all-time.

Brian Cook was taken in the first round by L.A. that year; Luke, eight picks later. And both spent their freshman season alongside some giants of the game, including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.

In today’s Rookie Tales, the Cavaliers crafty veteran forward talks about some of his weird, wild experiences in Tinseltown in his first year in the NBA …

Was it at all difficult for a lifelong Celtics fan to accept being drafted by their arch-enemies?

Luke Walton: The second they called my name, the loyalty went right out the window. There was no bitterness, nothing. I was thrilled, at first, just to get drafted.

I didn’t know when I was going to get drafted. And to go to the Lakers – you know, they had Kobe and Shaq and had just signed G.P. (Gary Payton) and Karl Malone. I was on cloud nine to be able to come in and play for Phil Jackson and Dr. Buss.

Being a basketball fan, like I am, it was pretty surreal when it happened.

When the Draft went into the second round, did you think you might come to Cleveland, who grabbed Jason Kapono one pick before the Lakers?

Walton: To be honest, I had no idea. I knew they had me (going) anywhere from late first round to middle of the second round. And I worked out for 18 different teams – including Cleveland.

When you’re sitting there in the living room with your family and your brothers and they’re all chirping, those five minutes go by like they’re the slowest five minutes of all-time. You keep hearing someone else’s name getting called. By the time my name got called, it didn’t matter where I went.

They barely got through my last name before my brothers were dog-piling me. It was an awesome moment.

Because they’re the Lakers, did they have any “traditional” rookie initiation for you and Brian Cook?

Walton: Nothing “traditional.” We had to unload all the planes. And we had to take laundry to everyone’s rooms at the hotels. We didn’t have coffee or donuts or anything like that. But our veterans made us do everything.

And those were VETS, too. Those were old school NBA guys.

Back then, the young kids showed up at Training Camp first. (We had Camp in Hawaii that year.) Then the veterans would show up a couple days later. We had a big team meeting that night, and the vets told me that they spent the whole flight over arguing whose rookie I was going to be. Like, my dad had pissed off so many of them that they were actually bidding money on which one of them got to boss me around in Camp and have priority in doing it.

So I think Karl Malone bid the most money. I think it was like $10,000.

They were tough on me at first, but they were great. They were unbelievable. It was an unbelievable experience.

What were some of the rookie chores the vets made you do on the road?

Walton: D-Fish (Derek Fisher) made us chase down a Sidney Moncrief jersey, and told us don’t come to the arena until you find it. So Brian Cook and I spent all day in Milwaukee trying to find that jersey.

Karl Malone, if he forgot anything, we’d help him. Like one time, he forgot his headphones. And we were in a small town so there weren’t any Best Buys or anything around. So, I was like, ‘Karl, all I could find were these $10 headphones.’ And he told me: ‘Luke, if you think I’m a $10-headphone-type of player, you go get me those headphones. If not, you show up with what you think the kind of player I am.’

So I had to take, like, a 40-minute cab ride to Best Buy, get him these nice big headphones. And rookies didn’t leave the plane until everyone else left the plane. So as I’m leaving the plane, I see the headphones just sitting on his seat. He just left them on the plane.

But they were awesome. They took care of us. But they busted our chops.

Was there any one veteran who was extra-tough on you or one that took it easy?

Walton: No. They all took turns. They all took turns being hard on us. And they all took turns of really helping us.

I remember one game: Kevin Willis was trying to rough me up. I think he was with San Antonio at the time. And he kept dirty-fouling me – the way vets do rookies sometimes when they get in the league. So I’m trying to fight back with him, but I don’t know if I’m stepping over the line or what.

So Shaq tells me: ‘Run him off me, young fella.’ So I say alright and run him off a pick. And I don’t see what happened; I just hear the whistle blow. And I turn around and look at Willis and he’s just lying on the floor. They called an offensive foul on Shaq and he just looked at me like: ‘I got your back.’ And I thought when Shaq tells you that, that’s a good feeling.

Luke Harangody once told me Shaq made him carry around a big trunk of his on the road when he was a rookie with Boston. Did Shaq make you do that?

Walton: No. But he used to carry around this big-*ss keyboard and he’d be making beats all the time in the back of the plane. We’d be playing cards up front and he’d come up, stop our card game and be like, ‘Listen to this!!’

Can the way veterans treat and educate rookies shape the next few years of their career?

Walton: I can’t answer that for everybody. For me, it definitely did. I saw and learned what it was really like to be a professional.

I mean these were some of the best players of all-time on my team. And they were in the gym working. Most of them were 10, 12, 14 years in, already. And they were in the gym every day. They were in the weight room taking care of their bodies. And they were already the most accomplished players in the league.

So, I learned a ton just from being around them and seeing how they approached the game. But you can also see how rookies can pick up bad habits if there were older vets who weren’t doing things the right way. They could pick up on those traits and it could hurt their career for sure.

How do the current Cavalier rookies have it comparatively?

Walton: Oh my God! The whole team is 22 years old! They have it easier than I’ve ever seen. All they do is get donuts in the morning. They don’t pass out laundry. They have it easy here. Pushing the little babies around – that’s nothing!

We used to have to do everything. Like if Horace Grant wanted to go look at houses, we’d have to chauffer him around all day. And it’s L.A., so it takes four hours to get anywhere. We’d drive him around and he’d look at houses and we’d just sit in the car.

Yeah, these young guys have it pretty easy.