The Not So Green Mile: The 1988 Comeback


But wait . . . somewhere off in the distance a voice is calling. Cupping their collective ear, the Boston Celtics and all of New England strain to make out the sound. Could it be? Is it possible? Is it the one word the Celtics long to hear? Is it . . .


Yes, there's a game to play tonight (9:30, Channel 56) against the Denver Nuggets, but more and more the right-now is being intertwined with the what-might-be as evidence mounts that Bill Walton is at least going to attempt a comeback for the 1987-88 season.

There are 30 games and 57 days left. All that's necessary for Walton to be eligible for the playoffs is for his name to be submitted on a 12-man roster April 24. A Walton who could perform well would enhance the Celtics' cause tremendously, and forget about what a Walton equivalent to the '85-86 Walton could mean.

How practical a notion is all this? Could anybody just walk in this late in the season and play?

"Bill Walton could," says Larry Bird, who believes Bill is coming. "Nobody has more experience coming back from layoffs and injuries than Bill. It's almost what he does for a living."

Walton rumors have been swirling for some time. They are difficult to pin down, because Walton is so elusive. One day he's in Cambridge. The next day he's seen in LA. This guy says he hears Bill wants to play. That player says he looks great. His surgeon, Dr. Tony Daly, is now telling people he'll be surprised if Bill doesn't make it back. All this is somewhat surprising because Walton's stated aim when he underwent surgery last June was to get himself ready for the '88-89 season.

Getting Walton back would represent far more than the addition of one large body, because one of his great side benefits is his ability to improve the value of everyone around him. Bill Walton makes Jerry Sichting a far better player, for example, and it would be interesting to see what he could do for Brad Lohaus. No one need be reminded that the Bird-Walton Show was the greatest thing to hit the entertainment world since Hope & Crosby.


As for the Bill Walton Watch . . . The three-time All-American from UCLA worked out with weights yesterday at Hellenic, but did not participate in the scrimmage game.


Oft-injured center Bill Walton has been traveling with the Boston Celtics on their last two road trips. His presence has sparked speculation that he is practicing with the team.


Walton Waits: Center Bill Walton is now openly practicing with the Boston Celtics, but he still doesn't know if he'll be activated. Injured much of his career, Walton has missed the entire season following foot surgery. Walton said: "Somebody said I should be the poster child for Blue Cross-Blue Shield."


Walton's immediate future remains a mystery as the Celtics wind down the regular season. He practiced and scrimmaged hard two days in a row, but then required treatment and rest the third. The Celtics want him to be able to go hard three days in a row before they consider removing him from the injured list.


Bob Lobel told Channel 4 viewers Tuesday and Wednesday to "take it to the bank" that Bill Walton would be activated Friday night.


Peter May of the Hartford Courant, predicting Boston will activate Bill Walton for the playoffs, said of a workout: "Walton looked fit. He set picks, blocked shots, rebounded, shot about 90% from the field and, when he wasn't tired, looked ready to go. He even picked up a technical foul from assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers."


In fact, there was speculation that the big redhead -- who underwent foot and ankle surgery last summer -- would be activated tonight for the first time since last year's playoffs.

All Walton would say yesterday was that "I'm feeling a lot better." But he left the rest open to interpretation.

He came into the gym during the scrimmage, sat in a chair for about 10 minutes, then went back upstairs to work out.

"He's just getting some rest and recuperation time," said coach K.C. Jones. "He's gone pretty hard the last couple of days."

General manager Jan Volk said yesterday he couldn't predict when Walton would return to the lineup. "He pushed himself hard this week and now he's backed off a bit," said Volk.

Kevin McHale, who knows what it's like to come back from surgery, said people shouldn't get too excited about the prospect of Walton's return to peak form at this point.

"It's unfair to Bill and it's premature," said McHale. "We have yet to find out what Bill can do. You can't play until you're physically ready, and I don't think Bill is physically ready right now.

"Everybody remembers how fantastic he was in 1986, but nobody knows what Bill can do now. I don't think Bill knows. He's been a great player and he's made some remarkable recoveries," said McHale, "but practice and games are two different things."


On the subject of Mr. Walton, who played in two consecutive quarters of a three-quarter scrimmage game yesterday, Volk said the redheaded center's return is really up to one person -- Walton.

There were a couple of reports yesterday that Walton was about ready to suit up by the end of the week, but Volk said that had not been determined.

"I haven't talked to Bill about it," said Volk. "I'm not expecting him back Friday, but . . . "

The fact that the GM ended his sentence with "but" makes sense in that the final word on whether Walton will return will be from Walton, coach K.C. Jones and the medical staff.

It's not a question of "if" but of "when."

Walton had surgery on his right foot and ankle last July 7 and hasn't been in the lineup since last year's playoffs, in which he saw limited action.

According to Celtics public relations official Jeff Twiss, Walton was told by team physician Arnold Scheller that he must proceed through several medical stages to determine his progress.

Walton began practicing a month ago, and yesterday's hard run was his most strenuous.

"He was looking good today," said Jones. "I asked Jim (Paxson) what he thought of cutting out there on the floor when Bill has the ball, and he said to me he could make a career off Bill's passing.

"Coming back is up to him," added K.C. "When he tells me he's ready, that's when we'll deal with it. I haven't talked to him about it. Right now I'm gonna work on my Spanish."

Walton looked quite strong at times, and also quite winded by the end. He went right to the weights after practice.

Although he isn't talking publicly about a return date, Walton reportedly told teammates prior to practice that he might not be quite ready to play real games.

His intensity in practice was game-like, however, and his passing was superb.

"He's still a great passer. He sees everybody out there," said Jones.

Exactly when Celtics fans will have a chance to see 1986 playoff force back in action was a question that couldn't be answered.

So put yesterday's "Walton Returns" story in the scrapbook with "Dewey Defeats Truman" -- but just for the time being.


The only absentee was Bill Walton, who played 19 consecutive minutes in yesterday's scrimmage, but restricted himself to biking and weight work today. Don't get worried about the fact that the center missed yesterday's court session. Walton's absence may have indicated a recurrence of his nagging foot problems, but according to trainer Ed Lacerte, any flare-up was "nothing substantial."


BILL WALTON UPDATE: Bad news out of Boston. The Redhead told the Celtics that he felt soreness in his foot, one day after looking sharp -- and ready to be activated -- in a full-court workout. He has not played since.


If you're waiting for Bill Walton to return, don't, as they say, hold your breath.

According to team physician Arnold Scheller, time is running out on the Walton comeback bid. Big Bill last scrimmaged with the Celtics two weeks ago today. He experienced pain in his left foot and has restricted himself to therapy ever since.

"Bill challenged his foot two weeks ago," Scheller said. "He did well in those practices, but he had a flare-up of pain in the foot. We started him on some anti-inflammatories, and he showed improvement. But the major thing has been the joint mobilization he's undergone with (trainer) Ed (Lacerte) and (orthopedic physical therapist) Dan Dyrek. Now he's on a plateau, and it's not a situation where you want to push it. It's hard for Bill because he's dealing with peer pressure, management pressure and the competitive pressure he's put on himself."

Scheller emphasized that the holding pattern in no way implies that the surgery performed on Walton's left foot wasn't successful, in medical terms. "The best way to describe what was done," said Scheller, "is to say that his foot was taken apart and put back together. We ran tests to verify that the bone is healing. The problem here is tenderness in the soft tissue surrounding it."

The doctor believes Walton's foot will enable him to perform successfully in the 1988-89 season. "But as far as this season is concerned," Scheller concluded, "we're cutting it as close as we can."

It is not inconceivable that Walton's name will be placed on the active player list for the playoffs. The Celtics have until midnight Sunday to make the final decision.


Bird on a playoff roster that does not include Bill Walton: "Bill has been gone so long it's almost like he's not part of it anymore. You see M.L. Carr at the games and he was around for so many years you feel like he's still part of the team, but Bill was just there that one year. It's not that we don't want him to be part of it. One of my greatest feelings as a player was to be alongside him in a game. But Bill has been gone too long now."


The Kid said...

It really was a mistake to depend so highly on Bill Walton.

Lex said...

Well, they did try to bring in others--Mark Acres, Artis Gilmore.

At least he gave them one shot at immortality...

Anonymous said...

We lost in '87 as much because of the injury to McHale as the one to Walton. Nobody was healthy in '87. By '88, I think, the best years were over, and the Bird quote reflects that mentality, I think. Detroit looked too young, too athletic, and too tough to stop. Only luck won the '87 series with them, and by '88 they were the better team in every way.

Lex said...

87 absolutely killed me.

It was like watching the death of a loved one in slow motion.

Oddly, writing about it and reposting old articles is helpful.

McHale was an MVP candidate until he got hurt.

At some point after the mark acres chronicles run out, I plan to redo the 87 season through the eyes of k.mchale.

That should be interesting.

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