It’s tempting to get bogged down in the weeds of all that didn’t go right for Bill Walton in his truncated, interrupted, injury-riddled NBA career.
Do that, however, and you could easily miss one of the league’s legendary talents and personalities, an NBA 75 selection who would have given his frequently broken left foot for a chance to have played twice as often and twice as long. Maybe even the healthier right foot.
Strictly by the numbers, Walton appears to have an asterisked career. He played in 468 games, the equivalent of fewer than six seasons, spread across 13 years from 1974-87. He missed 598 games for the Trail Blazers, Clippers and Celtics, including three entire seasons in what should have been his prime.
Among the other Top 75 honorees, Walton appeared in fewer games than all but early giant George Mikan (439). At 13.3 points per game, he ranked 72nd of that elite group in scoring average. Heck, Walton – the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA Draft – ranks 13th in points scored (6,215) by the members of the Class of ’74. He’s sixth in rebounds (4,923) and 16th in minutes (13,250).
Obviously, Walton’s statistics and legacy took hits from his many injuries. So did NBA fans’ enjoyment of his game and his matchups against some of the league’s greatest centers.
Not the least of whom was Walton’s UCLA alumnus brother, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Lew Alcindor (Abdul-Jabbar’s name while still in college) left UCLA and went first in the 1969 Draft. One year later, Walton – a lanky and already physically fragile kid from San Diego – arrived at the gorgeous southern California campus.
The Bruins’ coach was the legendary John Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood” who shaped college basketball’s version of the Boston Celtics’ championship dynasty. Wooden’s teachings on and off the court stuck with Walton for life.
They never were kindred spirits – Wooden was the embodiment of the straight-laced sports establishment and a generation or two older than Walton. The big redhead was a jock/hippie and a product of southern California’s counter-culture then, combining the psychedelia of the late 1960s with some disillusionment of the early 1970s.
What the two men, one old, one young, did share was their love of basketball and their determination to excel at it.
Portland, winning what at the time was a simple coin flip to determine which team picked first, grabbed Walton. The franchise definitely needed a tentpole player around whom it could build, and Walton was an easy choice for that.
His first two seasons in Portland included cultural and medical challenges. His many talents were evident – his passing, his defense and his eagerness to involve teammates, in particular. His long hair, tie-dyed and denim apparel, chin whiskers, granola footwear and more chafed with NBA traditions, and physical maladies limited Walton to 86 games over 1974-75 and 1975-76.
Walton’s third season began with a new coach, Jack Ramsay, and a modest ambition: Reach the playoffs for the first time in the Blazers’ seven seasons. What played out was something considerably different. Ramsay’s egalitarian system meshed perfectly with Walton’s ability to find teammates with the ball, and Portland started to play an up-tempo style reminiscent of the all-for-one New York Knicks’ title teams in 1970 and ’73. Retrofitted for analytical assessment, the Blazers ranked second in offensive rating, fifth in defensive rating and first in net rating.
The backbone of the team was Walton doing his things, guard Lionel Hollins making plays, power forward Maurice Lucas bringing muscle and a selfless supporting cast. “Blazersmania” swept over the city and it wasn’t long before the team, its fans and the rest of the NBA knew these guys were on the brink of something beyond a mere playoff appearance.
Abdul-Jabbar dabbled in Hollywood opportunities after his move from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, and he made a cameo in a hilarious scene in the 1980 comedy “Airplane!” A youngster comes to the airliner’s cabin to meet the pilots, one of whom is a 7-foot-2 man claiming to be “Roger Murdock.” The kid eventually blows Murdock’s cover by sharing typical fan criticism from his father of Abdul-Jabbar’s effort.
“He says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court,” the kid said. “And that you don’t really try – except during the playoffs.”
Murdock/Abdul-Jabbar explodes. “Listen, kid! I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night! Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!”
Dealing with Walton and Bob Lanier taxed even the great Abdul-Jabbar in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But consider this gauntlet of opposing centers Walton had to run through in the 1977 NBA Playoffs.
First Artis Gilmore. Then Dan Issel. Then Abdul-Jabbar himself.
All were in their primes, not quite 30, all three bound for the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Certainly, each was more experienced than the 24-year-old Walton. But Portland beat their teams – the Bulls, the Nuggets and the Lakers – by winning 10 of the 13 games through the Western Conference finals. Walton got outscored and outshot, but the chemistry he had with his teammates made their whole greater than the parts.
By the time the Blazers reached the Finals in a somewhat surprising climb, Philadelphia’s journeymen big men – Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones – had to worry about dealing with Walton rather than the other way around. Portland fell behind 0-2 but took the next four, with Walton earning Finals MVP honors.
The next several years were rough ones. Walton’s foot partially sidelined him again in the 1977-78 season. He played well enough and long enough to win that season’s MVP award, but his efforts to perform in the playoffs led to what he and many felt was severe re-injury that he never quite overcame.
Walton and the Portland organization burned some bridges. He moved on to San Diego, signing a seven-year contract that paid an average of $1 million. His pay per game wound up much higher, though, because Walton was healthy enough to play only 14 games in his first three seasons with the Clippers.
When Walton did heal again, he was a part-timer who basically only played one game per week. That limited Walton’s contributions and rankled some of his teammates.
His foot was well enough for Walton to play 55 games in 1983-84 and 67 when the franchise was relocated to Los Angeles the next season. He never acclimated to the losing, though – the Clippers were 68-101 when Walton played (.402), 106-217 when he sat (.328).
The reconstructive surgery Walton got on his left foot was successful enough to leave him feeling frisky and ambitious. So, he picked up the telephone. By 1985, the two dominant teams in the NBA were the Lakers and the Celtics, and the big guy called them both. He was eager to tap into their excellence and share again in some winning.
Red Auerbach, Boston’s legendary coach and GM, took the pulse of his players. They gave him a Celtics greenlight on Walton, who soon slipped into a new role that was as exhilarating as it was selfless.
The Celtics had pioneered the NBA’s sixth-man role nearly three decades before the league attached an award to it. Swingman Frank Ramsey from Kentucky was used off the bench in the 1950s, winning seven rings during Boston’s dynastic run. John Havlicek, another Hall of Famer, took over the super-sub role from Ramsey and wound up with eight rings and 13 All-Star appearances.
Kevin McHale slid into that sixth-man spot for five seasons when he arrived in 1980, with Boston winning two titles during that span. The league had created the Sixth Man of the Year Award for 1982-83 and, after Philadelphia’s Bobby Jones won the first one, McHale snagged the next two with his arsenal of low-post moves and those coat-hanger shoulders clearing space inside.
Now it was Walton’s turn. With McHale moving into popular forward Cedric Maxwell’s starting spot – Maxwell was sent to the Clippers for Walton – the oft-injured center adapted and improvised off the bench. He brought everything he had – scoring, rebounding, passing, defense – and perhaps most remarkably, brought it nightly.
Walton stayed available, participating in 80 games. He averaged 19.3 minutes, 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists (which pro-rated to 36 minutes had the impact of 14.1 ppg, 12.7 rpg and 3.8 apg.
He bonded with and routinely got teased by teammates McHale, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and others. The Boston Garden crowds would chant his name and Walton – who had daydreamed as a youth about playing for the Celtics – capped his NBA career beyond all expectations.
Walton played only 10 more regular season games and 12 playoff games after Boston’s 1986 championship. Injuries had caught up to him at age 34, though they weren’t done with him. He dealt with a serious spinal issue after retiring and turned to broadcasting, only getting relief in recent years.
On the scene at both the professional and collegiate level, Walton remains a ball of optimism and hyperbole when he broadcasts. He plays to his “child of the ‘60s” image and is still considered the most famous fan of the Grateful Dead. One of his sons, Luke, won two NBA titles with Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in 2009 and 2010, then turned to coaching. No doubt he imparted to his players some of the John Woodenisms his father had imparted to him.
Walton’s upbeat side has mixed for decades with his endlessly fascinated side, as well as his pensive side. In a 2016 interview, he told a New York Times reporter: “I’ve spent half my adult life in the hospital. I’ve spent half my adult life in hotels. Waiting in line to check in. Waiting in line to rent a car. Waiting in line to go through security. Waiting in line at the terminal for the plane. Waiting for the waitress at the restaurant. I hate waste.”
Walton’s unique, frustrating and tantalizingly “what if?” NBA career was anything but a waste. For him or for those who got to watch him.