Every few months or so, my buddy Ron and I have the infamous NBA injury conversation. The “what if” theories always surround names like Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Yao Ming, Brandon Roy and even Derrick Rose in the present. But Bill Walton’s a figure we faithfully find ourselves lamenting on. Neither one of us saw Big Red play live. Yours truly was just learning how to walk by the time Luke’s dad retired for good following the 1986-87 season. Still, there are enough stories revolving around Walton to piece together his legacy.
Despite UCLA’s second most storied big man eventually earning his way into the Hall of Fame, perhaps no career suffered more from injuries than Walton. Sure, there was the 1976-77 season where he put together a masterful array of skills showcasing averages of 19-15-4-4 culminating with a NBA Finals MVP over a still-highflying Julius Erving and a 76ers squad who unraveled and should’ve given him the ball at the end of Game 6 (Doc only had 40 points). However, the luxury of never being truly healthy in his prime hindered the mythological aspect of career. He only played 80 games in a season once, and that was his second-to-last year as a bench member of that iconic ’85-’86 Celtics squad led by Larry Bird and one of the greatest individual seasons ever. Every other season amounted to 67 games or fewer. Even his two best seasons (’76-’77 and ’77-’78 where he won MVP) were limited to 65 and 58, respectively.
Trace back to Walton’s rookie season in 1974 and witness rough parallels to the heat (no pun intended) Derrick Rose drew this season. Walton was coming off a collegiate resume only few people in history before or since could find themselves in the conversation of replicating. Walton was the #1 overall pick and a franchise altering defensive, team-first seven-footer with ridiculous court vision capable of leading Portland to the upper echelon of the NBA’s elite (sound familiar?). Yet, for a great chunk of his rookie season, saddled with a bone spur in his foot, the mammoth hippie/semi-human rights activist sported street clothes more than his jersey, headband and sneakers. Peep this in-depth passage from a January 1975 Sports Illustrated feature entitled, “Bill Walton, Won’t You Please Play Ball?”:
The stated reason for Walton’s not playing was a bone spur in his left ankle. But before that it had been flu and then a jammed finger. Among Portland fans—in the beginning ready to grant Walton almost any eccentricity—disbelief in those injuries had been growing. “Hell, he’s been pampered all his life,” snorted a sportswriter covering the team. “If a guy wants to sniff wildflowers instead of playing, O.K., but he shouldn’t take $2.5 million to do it.” At Love’s restaurant across from the Coliseum a middle-aged woman had another view: “He just sits there with that rope around his head and his mouth open and looks…well…so stupid.”
Season ticket sales for the Blazers increased by nearly 3,300 this year—putting roughly $750,000 extra in the till—a blessing attributed entirely to Walton. (“What do you think? They’re coming to see me?” says Herman Sarkowsky, a part owner.) But with Walton not playing, the situation had elements of a rip off.
Or this one:
Blazer Coach Lenny Wilkens preferred to explain it as simply a first-year phenomenon: “A lot of rookies run out of stamina.” Then Walton missed two games because of flu and on his first night back jammed the little finger on his left hand, which is not his shooting hand. The finger kept him out a week although pros also regularly play with that particular injury. In the second game after his return he complained about the bone spur and that was the competitive end of him until last week. “Three times a day I’d ask him how he felt,” says Culp, “and three times a day he’d say it hurts.”
But in practices, which he was required by contract to attend to stay on the payroll, Walton seemed as sprightly and unhobbled as ever. Early arrivals at a Bulls-Blazers game in Chicago were surprised to see Walton, in uniform, engaged in an all-out one-on-one contest with Bulls rookie Mickey Johnson 45 minutes before game time. But by the opening tip Walton was back on the bench, wearing street clothes.
Rose and Walton aren’t exactly identical twins in this scenario. Walton had a collection of what may or may not been “minor” injuries in his rookie year while Rose was four seasons into career, already a MVP and coming off the heels of a career-threatening knee injury. Whether deserved or not, the mental toughness of both came under fire in almost a Shakespearean-like turn of events. Here, two #1 overall picks – 34 years apart – drew venom from the media and fans about their truancy while teammates gutted it out. To Rose’s credit, his teammates publicly stuck by him; Walton’s tossed nicknames his direction like “Dollar Bill” and “Captain Flake.”
Also, like Derrick, Walton was far from the poster child for extroverts. A lovable, jolly green giant to those closest to him (that color choice will make more sense very soon), Walton struggled with speech impediments with the media and in public; an ironic nuance seeing as how he would go on to become a successful analyst decades later. Knowing this, Big Red’s interview with CBS’ Ted Dawson in 1975 was a colossal deal. Letting people inside the workings of his personal life was rare. And during a year when the world seemingly turned their back on him, his season already over and the media auctioning their first borns to be the first to speak with Bill, the stakes were exponentially higher.
Red appeared philosophical about life and basketball from his home south of Portland on the Willamette River. He also appeared to have downed six or seven weed brownies while listening to Jim Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, too, helping cement him as a legendary stoner-athlete alongside the likes of Ricky Williams and Michael Phelps.
Walton’s career culminated with a sense of “yeah, but…” He was a three-time player of the year at UCLA. He won Finals MVP and league MVP in consecutive years, finished his career with another ring and career averages of 13 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks a night. And yes, a 1993 inductee into the Hall. But – based off a large chunk of accounts written, recorded and passed down over the years in regards to Walton – the sense of possibly being so much more had it not been for his body turning on him and to a lesser extent his lifestyle remains an irreplaceable aspect of Walton’s legacy.
Meanwhile, the book is still being written on Derrick Rose. Here’s to hoping the comparisons end with this clip and this season’s backlash.