Bill Walton - The Early Years
I first saw Bill Walton play when he was a 17 year old senior at Helix High School in San Diego in 1970. It was unforgettable. He was nearly 7-feet tall with soft hands, quick feet and incredible basketball instincts. Bill was simply the best high school player I have ever seen.
Walton moved North to the Westwood campus of UCLA where he would begin his college career in the fall of 1970. It was a momentous decision both for the young player and the school’s legendary coach, John Wooden. These two were such an unlikely match: Walton the most free of all young free spirits and Wooden, the aging, prim and proper teacher from small town Indiana. Wooden had already won six NCAA Basketball championships at UCLA, including the 1970 title. Walton would help him win two more.
Bill was arguably the greatest college basketball player ever. He led the Bruins to a sparkling record of 86 wins and only four losses in his three varsity seasons. The Bruins would win two NCAA Championships and finish third in his senior season. Bill Walton was a three-time College Player of the Year as he amassed gaudy career averages of 20.3 points, 15.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. The link between Walton and Wooden was firm and would endure to the coach’s passing in 2010 at the age of 99.
The Big Redhead was the toast of the college basketball world by the time he graduated from UCLA in 1974. The struggling American Basketball Association offered him anything and everything in a desperate battle to survive mounting financial losses. But Bill Walton’s eyes were on the established National Basketball Association.
The Portland Trailblazers had the first pick in the 1974 NBA Draft and they wasted no time tabbing Walton with that prized first selection. They had won a league low 27 games the year before, and suddenly there was new life and hope in Portland.
Back in those days, the NBA would trot the number one overall pick in the draft out for pregame meet and greet sessions with the media on game day in each city visited. I was working in Philadelphia at the time and eagerly looked forward to seeing the Bill Walton introduction. The scene was a jam-packed meeting room at a downtown Philadelphia hotel. As I recall, the meeting was scheduled for 3 pm.
The TV cameras, photographers, tape recorders and note pads were at the ready to meet the most acclaimed player to ever enter the league. 3:15 – 3:30 – 3:45 and the wait continued. Finally, just before 4:00 p.m., Walton arrived. He wore blue jeans, boots, lumberjack shirt, red bandana and a pony tail. The formally dressed media throng was a bit taken back by the Bunyanesque appearance of pro basketball’s latest “savior.” This group was used to Doug Collins and Billy Cunningham. This Bill Walton guy was going to take a little getting used to.
When Walton spoke – or tried to speak – things went from bad to worse. He clearly did not want to be there. He was injured and was not going to play in the game and he hated public speaking because of his debilitating stutter and stammering affliction. He had been protected by Coach Wooden at UCLA. In the NBA, he was on his own. He spoke in a halting, mono-syllabic fashion. He made no friends in the City of Brotherly Love on this day.
His entire rookie season was a study in frustration. It was almost a preview of things to come as he played in only 35 of the Blazer’s 82 games that first season. Still, they won 11 more games than the prior season and hope was alive in the Rose City.
Bill Walton was among the best players in the league by the time the historic 1976-77 season came around. It was historic because it was the year the elder league brought the four surviving members of the up-start ABA into the fold. San Antonio, Denver, New Jersey and Indiana were now in the NBA. That added top talent such as Julius Erving, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore and George Gervin into what was clearly the best basketball league in the world.
Walton was healthy and up to this challenge as he led the Trailblazers to a 49-33 regular season record and a playoff march into the NBA Finals where they met the star-laden Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers won Games 1 and 2 in Philly and it looked as if the rout was on. The Dr. Jack Ramsay coached Trailblazers would win the next four to give Portland its first, and only, NBA Championship. Rip City was born. I vividly recall the near naked Walton lying flat on his back on a training table in the victorious Blazer locker-room – grinning ear to ear while taking on the horde of reporters. He was 24 years old and an NBA Champion.
The league named Walton its Most Valuable Player a year later and maybe a year late. By then, he was clearly the best player in basketball. Injuries would cost him a chance at a second championship in Portland, however. He sat out the entire 1978-79 season with the foot problems that plagued him throughout much of his career.
Walton was healthy again in 1979 and an NBA free agent. That story will be coming up in Part 2: Bill Walton – the Clipper Years.