Several hundred thousand American parents will spend several million unnecessary dollars this coming summer. They will send sons and daughters to specialized camps in order to learn how to play basketball properly. According to some local college coaches, all they need to do is turn on the television and watch Bill Walton.
"I don't think there has been another big man as sound fundamentally as Bill Walton," contends Harvard coach Peter Roby. "If you wanted to show your big people, especially, how things should be done, you'd want them to imitate Bill Walton." Agrees Northeastern's Jim Calhoun, "Technically, he's the greatest center I ever saw. I'm still a Bill Russell man -- I think he could change things in a game more than anybody -- but I've never seen a more complete package than Bill Walton's."
Of course, the delightful reality is that Walton is very much alive and well in Boston Garden, as the Washington Bullets will learn tonight. And no matter what he may have lost physically since his salad days at UCLA and Portland, he retains his unsurpassed technique. Bill Walton doesn't even know how to do things the wrong way.
He is a product of John Wooden; that's why. During Walton's first trip to Boston, in November 1975, he fascinated those watching him work out with the Trail Blazers when, while resting on the sidelines during a scrimmage, he completely undid his sneakers and then put them back on again, meticulously relacing them from the bottom up, an involved process that must have taken 10 minutes. Current Northeastern assistant coach Karl Fogel, then a Boston State assistant, interpreted the action for laymen present.
"That's one of the first things you learn at a John Wooden camp," Fogel said. "How to tie your shoes."
When apprised of the incident a few months ago, Walton laughed. "Actually, the first thing you're taught is how to put on your socks."
Walton says he began playing basketball around 1960, and even then, two years before his first Final Four appearance and four years before the first UCLA championship, John Wooden was The Word in Southern California. "John Wooden was on the rise," says Walton, "and he did many clinics all over the Southland. Every coach I ever had utilized his techniques and his philosophies. I just had great coaching from the very beginning."
That Walton also was blessed with great natural ability has never been questioned. But there have been other wondrous natural talents -- George McGinnis and David Thompson to name the two most obvious examples -- who never really learned how to play, and who could not compensate for the erosion of physical gifts as they got older. "Bill Walton," says Boston College coach Gary Williams, "is what happens when you take superior physical ability and combine it with all the proper technique."
Fans mostly see results, which is why the Moses
Malones and Artis Gilmores of the world appeal far more to the uneducated than to the aficionados. Coaches look at Bill Walton the way young actors look at Laurence Olivier. They don't know whether to be more impressed by what he knows or what he intuits.
"When he catches the ball," says Williams, "he reads the rotation before the defense knows what it's supposed to do. Others catch the ball and then start figuring out what's going on, but he always knows where the pressure will come from. On defense, we preach, 'See the ball,' and Bill Walton always sees the ball. He helps better than anyone I've ever seen because he instinctively knows when his man is not going to be a factor in the play."
Bill Walton's hands fascinate the coaches. "They are always up, offensively and defensively," points out Boston University coach Mike Jarvis. "His arms are always extended," confirms Roby. "Even his fingers are extended. There is no one like him."
In addition to latent skill and technique, Walton brings a certain je ne sais quoi to the game which can chill a coach. "His feel for the game is the key thing," says Calhoun. "Sometimes my own team struggles so much because we have some great athletes who simply do not have a feel for the game. I've seen Walton come up behind a guard and flick the ball away. Big men don't do that."
Much of what the coaches like about Walton, they also like about Larry Bird, and thus do the local college coaches find themselves far more interested in the NBA than in years past. Williams says this is not all good. "I should be watching tapes," he says, "and instead I'll turn on the Celtics and watch for two hours." Adds Calhoun, "I'm the kind who used to love the NBA play-offs but find the regular season boring. Now, because of Bird and Walton, I go out of my way to see them play because it's so intriguing."
Jarvis, for one, is not surprised to learn that Walton's training predates his actual union with Wooden himself. "I can tell that whoever had him in high school (the name is Gordon Nash) had to be very, very good," Jarvis points out, "because something like Bill Walton could not have happened in just four years."
Walton says one other person deserves credit for his development. "The things I learned from John Wooden were all in the framework of team offense and team defense and all related to being out there with four other people," he explains. "When I got to Portland, Jack Ramsay took it a step further and worked with me in practice in an individual sense. It was a tremendous help. Call it additional education."
And education is what Walton provides to everyone who will take note of the whys and wherefores of what he does. "It's a clinic when he plays," concludes Jarvis. "He and Larry Bird. He is great for coaches because he has perfected things that appear to be very simple to learn but that are difficult to teach."