Legends profile: Bill Walton
Though remembered by many for a career plagued by injuries and a personal life spiced by controversy, Bill Walton won high praise from players and coaches alike during his checkered career. During his prime as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers in the mid-1970s — a prime that lasted a mere three years — Walton drew comparisons to such players as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.
“Bill Russell was a great shotblocker. Wilt Chamberlain was a great offensive player,” Dr. Jack Ramsay, Walton’s coach in Portland, told Sport magazine. “But Walton can do it all.”
After achieving superstardom playing for John Wooden’s powerhouse UCLA Bruins in the early ’70s and winning three straight College Player of the Year Awards, Walton was destined to become an NBA legend. When he was healthy, Walton had few peers.
He won the NBA Most Valuable Player award while playing for the defending NBA champion Trail Blazers in 1977-78. At the top of his form, Walton scored, passed, intimidated, hustled, and played the role of leader with the best centers of his day. He was a perfectionist whose range of skills and dedication never ceased to impress those who saw him play.
But dozens of injuries, most infamously a chronically broken bone in his left foot, robbed Walton of the storybook career that seemed sure to be his. During his 13 years in the league, he played in only 44 percent of regular-season contests and left the game with a modest 13.3 scoring average.
Walton first appeared on the national stage as a lanky college kid who exhibited a winning attitude on the court and an anti-establishment attitude off it. While at UCLA in the early ’70s, he was arrested during an anti-Vietnam War rally, publicly criticized Richard Nixon and the FBI, and reportedly flirted with leaving basketball to pursue spiritual enlightenment. A fan of the Grateful Dead, the young Walton was a vegetarian, wore flannel shirts and multicolored headbands and toted his gym clothes in an onion bag.
After his arrest as a junior, Walton issued a statement that read: “Your generation has screwed up the world. My generation is trying to straighten it out.. Money doesn’t mean anything to me. It can’t buy happiness, and I just want to be happy.”
Many who knew Walton, including Wooden himself, felt the young center was too susceptible to fringe ideas. “I had no problem with him during the season,” Wooden told the Los Angeles Times. “Off the floor I worried. I worried when he was thrown in jail with the group that took over the administration building, I worried when he stopped traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, and when he interrupted classes giving his views on the Vietnam War.”
Those who knew Walton the basketball player recognized him as a devastating force. In the 1973 NCAA championship game against Memphis State, Walton made 21 of 22 shots and scored 44 points — a performance considered by many to be the greatest ever in a Final Four game. Wooden’s Bruins, which also included future NBA star Keith Wilkes (later Jamaal Wilkes), posted an 86-4 record and won two national titles during Walton’s years on the team.
Walton’s career-long struggle with injury and pain began even before he achieved fame at UCLA. While at Helix High School in La Mesa, Calif., Walton broke an ankle, a leg, and several bones in his feet and underwent knee surgery. As a collegian, he suffered tendinitis in his knees and injured his back. Before playing a single minute in the NBA, Walton knew the pains on injuries.
But Walton’s history of injury didn’t keep the Portland Trail Blazers from making the gangly ex-Bruin the No. 1 overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. The cellar-dwelling Blazers had finished with the second-worst record in the league in 1973-74, and Portland fans were thrilled at the arrival of a potential franchise player.
Walton enjoyed a blazing start as a rookie, averaging 16.0 ppg, 19.0 rpg, 4.4 apg and 4 bpg in his first seven contests. Praise came quickly. “I was with the Boston Celtics when Russell came into the league,” Lakers Coach Bill Sharman told the Los Angeles Times. “Walton is the same type of player. Extremely intelligent — but besides that, he has tremendous basketball instinct.”
Then came the injuries. Foot problems limited Walton to only 35 games as a rookie and a meager 12.8 ppg. Portland won 11 more games in 1974-75 than in the previous year but failed to live up to its potential, largely because of Walton’s health troubles.
Portland fell to the bottom of the Pacific Division in 1975-76, though Walton started to come into his own, scoring 16.1 ppg, pulling down 13.4 rpg and demonstrating excellent passing skills from the low- or high-post in 51 contests. Still, foot problems continued to hamper the young center, and fans started wondering what the Blazers had gotten themselves into. During his first two years in Portland, Walton had sprained an ankle, broken his left wrist twice and dislocated two toes and two fingers. He even broke a toe on a water sprinkler and hurt his leg in a jeep accident.
Walton’s combative relationship with the press further sullied his image. He spoke only to reporters he knew would present him favorably, while shunning the others, who were mostly Portland locals. Later, he admitted much of his aloofness or unwillingness to talk was due to a speech impediment, which he would later receive successful therapy for.
And he was cocky, even to the Trail Blazers’ coaching staff. According to The Sporting News, during one game Coach Ramsay said to Walton as he was coming off the court, “Great job.” Walton shot back, “Great job yourself.”
According to Ramsay, “I was speechless. I’d never had a player say anything like that to me before.” But he had never coached Bill Walton.
Fortunately for Portland, Walton’s skills spoke louder than his tongue. In 1976-77, with Walton peaking, “Blazermania” hit Portland like a flash flood. The still bearded and ponytailed Walton put up 18.6 ppg. He led the league in both rebounding and blocked shots, averaging 14.4 and 3.25, respectively. He was named to both the All-NBA Second Team and the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
With the arrival of Ramsay from the Buffalo Braves, the Blazers built a precision offense around playmaker Lionel Hollins and the awesome frontcourt of Walton and intimidating Maurice Lucas. Portland rose from fifth to second place in the Pacific Division and stunned the league by gliding past the talent-rich Denver Nuggets in six games, and sweeping the Abdul-Jabbar-led Los Angeles Lakers to reach the Finals.
Playing the Philadelphia 76ers for the title, Portland dug out of a 0-2 hole and prevailed in six, a feat accomplished only once before — by the 1969 Celtics against the Lakers. The 76ers had a chance to pull out Game 6, but both Julius Erving and George McGinnis missed medium-range shots that would have sent the game into overtime. Walton emerged as the MVP of the Finals, overshadowing the electrifying “Dr. J,” who pumped in 40 points in Game 6.
Walton was even more spectacular in 1977-78 — that is, as long as he was healthy. The Walton-led Blazers rampaged through their first 60 games with a 50-10 record. In his first and only All-Star Game appearance (he was selected in 1977 but could not play because of injury), Walton recorded 15 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes of play. Then, in February, after a 113-92 trouncing of Philadelphia, Walton was forced to the sideline with an injured left foot. In his 58 regular-season appearances, Walton averaged 18.9 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg and 2.52 bpg. Despite the late-season injury, Walton earned the NBA MVP award.
His foot deadened by a painkilling injection, Walton attempted a comeback in the playoffs against the Seattle SuperSonics. Then came what many felt was the death knell of Walton’s career. After Game 2, X-rays showed that the navicular bone below Walton’s left ankle was broken. The Trail Blazers lost the series in six games and the services of Walton forever.
The controversies that had embroiled Walton up to this point were mild compared to what would follow. After the playoffs Walton demanded to be traded and accused Portland management with providing him poor medical treatment. Doing the talking for Walton was controversial sports educator and activist Jack Scott, whose presence only made an already strange situation more bizarre. (Walton later sued the team; the case was settled out of court.)
After sitting out the entire 1978-79 season, Walton headed to San Diego — and strife followed him there. Many Clippers were outraged at the price the team had to pay to acquire the injury-plagued, 26-year-old Walton: forward Kermit Washington, center Kevin Kunnert, a first-round draft pick and $350,000.
“It destroys the team,” the Clippers’ Lloyd B. Free (later World B. Free) fumed to the San Diego Union at the time. “It’s like someone died in the family.”
Walton signed a then-record seven-year, $7 million contract to play with the Clippers, who had played just over .500 ball the year before. He cut his hair, started eating meat again, stopped hanging out with Jack Scott, trimmed his Lincoln-esque beard, and tried to mend fences with the press. “I’m a different person now than I was when I came into the NBA,” he said in an interview with Sport magazine.
The injuries, however, didn’t stop. Walton refractured the navicular bone in the fourth exhibition game of the 1979-80 season and played only 14 regular-season contests, averaging 13.9 points. They were the last games he would play for more than two seasons, in which the Clippers won only 36 and 17 games, respectively. The outspoken Free, among other San Diego teammates, accused Walton of being a malingerer.
Determined to get back into uniform, Walton ignored the skepticism of doctors who said he would never play again. In 1981 he underwent radical surgery to restructure his battle-scarred left foot. The high arch believed to have made his foot bones susceptible to breaking was lowered. The idea was to expose the bones to less stress when Walton’s feet hit the ground, particularly after skying high for a dunk or rebound.
Walton also used the time off to attend Stanford law school. He stayed in shape by playing beach volleyball and tennis and by cycling — sometimes with Grateful Dead drummer and close friend Mickey Hart. (Walton had played drums with the Dead at a show in Egypt, and he sometimes took teammates to shows and brought band members to team practices.)
The operation worked. Walton, 29 years old, returned to the court for the 1982-83 season, playing about one game a week — as many as his doctor would permit. (The arrangement was not unprecedented; Elgin Baylor squeezed in a game a week for the Lakers in 1962 while serving in the Army Reserve.) In 33 games for the Clippers, Walton averaged 14.1 points, the fourth-highest total of his career, while shooting .528 from the field, a career high at the time. He played without pain for the first time in years, and he seemed happier than ever.
Both Walton and the Clippers improved over the next two years. Walton played in 55 games in 1983-84 and 67 in 1984-85, while the Clippers won 30 and 31 games, respectively. At age 32 and with his comeback drawing to an inevitable end, Walton wanted more than just to be playing. He wanted to be winning.
After the 1984-85 campaign Walton went shopping. He called on two of the league’s premier teams, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. After several Celtics said they liked the idea of having Walton as a teammate and as a backup for workhorses Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, Red Auerbach made the deal happen. He acquired Walton by sending popular forward Cedric Maxwell to the Clippers along with a first-round draft pick. Walton once again had the chance to play for a world champion, and his childhood hopes of playing for the Celtics were realized.
The former West Coast radical in lumberjack clothing found a home in the land of turtlenecks and penny loafers. Walton received a minute-long standing ovation from the Boston Garden crowd after walking onto the parquet floor at his first exhibition game. Celtics faithful would have plenty more to cheer about during what would become a dream season for the Celtics and the aging Walton.
Walton appeared in 80 games in 1985-86, 13 more than his previous career high. While playing only 19.3 minutes per contest, he averaged 7.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.1 apg and 1.33 bpg. He also set a career high with a .562 field-goal percentage. In one game he scored 20 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in just 26 minutes. During the season he was hampered only by a broken nose, the 13th of his 13-year career. Assuming an unfamiliar supporting role, the 33-year-old Walton was playing with the excitement of a college kid. And the league rewarded him with the NBA Sixth Man Award, won by McHale the previous two seasons.
With one of the strongest lineups in NBA history, Boston steamrolled through the regular season, compiling a 67-15 record. In the playoffs the Celtics lost only three of 18 games, defeating the Houston Rockets and their “Twin Towers,” Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon, in the Finals in six games.
Walton’s satisfaction with capturing his second championship and winning the Sixth Man Award was immeasurable. In an article in the Boston Herald, McHale said of Walton: “You watch an old, old guy like that, with the most hammered body in sports, acting like a high school kid — it’s both funny and inspiring at the same time. Every game was a challenge, and he didn’t let any of us forget that.”
At age 34, Walton retired after playing 10 games of the 1986-87 season. He left the game with 6,215 points (13.3 ppg), 4,923 rebounds (10.5 rpg), and a .521 shooting percentage in 468 regular-season contests. In 49 playoff games he averaged 10.8 points and 9.1 rebounds.
Like many other NBA greats, Walton went on to call games on television in 1991. Beginning with college games, with his outspoken nature fully blossomed, he became one of the best in the NBA. The irony was not lost on many in the media, who 15 years earlier had grown to dislike the ornery version of the man who was now their compatriot. Of the career move, John Wooden observed to the Los Angeles Times, “This just proves, you never know.”
Walton was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.