7.28.2008

The Long, Strange End to Bill Walton's Career


Just about every Celtics fan knows the story of how Bill Walton came to Boston. Frustrated with losing in San Diego, the player once nicknamed Mountain Man contacted Jerry West to express interest in playing for the Lakers in the upcoming 1985-1986 NBA season. “Bill, I’ve seen your X-rays. No thanks,” was West’s response.

The second phone call Walton placed was to Red Auerbach, who put the Three-Time NCAA Player of the Year on hold to consult with Larry Bird. “I’ve got Bill Walton on the phone,” Auerbach told number 33, “he wants to play for the Celtics.” “Get him here,” Bird replied. Less than 12 months later, the Celtics hung their 16th banner, with Walton winning the Sixth Man of the Year Award after playing a crucial and sometimes dominant role in 95 games, 80 in the regular season and 15 in the playoffs. It was a magical season that included some of the best ball movement ever witnessed in the sport.

Everyone also knows Walton’s history of injuries. The X-rays Jerry West referred to revealed feet broken so many times that Walton missed close to seven full seasons of professional basketball. Other than his title year with the Cs, Walton never played more than 67 games in one season. Shortly after the Celtics won their last banner, Walton broke his foot on an exercise bike. He played a few games during the 1986-1987 season, but was totally ineffective. The following year he devoted the entire regular season to getting healthy, but when it came time for General Manager Jan Volk to submit a playoff roster in the April of 1988, Walton told Volk that his feet hurt too much to play.

Then the fun started.

First, Walton traveled to Italy and began negotiating a contract with a Napoli club. Later he talked to the New York Knicks. Both conversations were reported to the world by USA Today. Volk and Auerbach were steamed. So was Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, who wrote:

If Walton is physically able to play basketball this season, then he owes it to the Celtics to play for them. The Celtics were not obligated to pay him for not playing a single second last year, but they did. General manager Jan Volk's reward was to pick up a copy of USA Today while relaxing aboard ship on the annual Celtics cruise and learn that Walton was displaying his gratitude by negotiating to play in Italy.

Volk was stunned. "I talked with him two days before we left on the cruise," Volk said. "He was supposed to be coming in here to discuss a new contract next week. He never said a word about going to Italy. I think I've dramatically misjudged and misread this guy."

Join the club, Jan, although I can't say I wasn't warned by those who knew him in other contexts. I was told he was selfish, that he was ruled by money and that he could not be trusted. I found it all difficult to believe. All he talked about was how much he loved playing for the Celtics, how much he liked living in Cambridge (weather aside), how much he liked the fan atmosphere at Boston Garden, how much he liked Red Auerbach, and, most of all, how much he liked playing with Larry Bird. Stupid me. I believed him.

That's not important. What matters is that everyone connected with the Celtics believed him, too. This should have been the easiest set of negotiations ever. Given the circumstances, Walton should have come to Volk and said, "Where do I sign?"

Even if Walton fails to sign a contract in Italy, he has revealed himself to be a disreputable person. If he simply wants to quit, that's fine. If he feels he can't play NBA-quality ball anymore and thinks Italy would be more his speed, that's fine. But if he can play, and he displays his talents for anyone other than the Celtics this coming season, he is a fraud.


In September Walton had more surgery on his feet, a procedure that was a precursor to having his ankle fused to his heel. Thereafter, Walton was in a body-cast, and to this day the Big Fella struggles to walk or sit without discomfort. No Boston newspaper ever followed up on the Walton’s Long, Strange Summer of 1988, though Ryan later wrote that Walton confessed he had made a mistake.

What kind of mistake?

I can find no incontrovertible proof of what I am about to write. Nor does Bill Walton, in his autobiography, offer any kind of dispositive explanation. But we do know for a fact Walton hadn’t been healthy in more than two years. We also know that he had career-ending surgery two months after having discussions with Italy and New York. My educated guess is that Walton knew his career was kaput, and was seeking guaranteed money from anyone to help pay the bills in retirement.

Walton did say that he and Red were never fully able to put the summer of 1988 behind them, which is too bad, because those two should have viewed the 1986 championship team as the joint culmination of their careers.

The 1986 Celtics might have won the title without Walton, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as dominant, and certainly wouldn’t have earned a place at the table with the all-time great teams. The Celtics were the only championship-caliber team interested in Walton, and thus were the only team that gave him a chance to renew his dream of closing out his career with another championship. Meanwhile, acquiring Walton ultimately enabled Red to brag that the Celtics not only had the most championships, but the single best championship team of all time.

So Walton needed Red, and Red needed Walton.

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