9.19.2008

The Not So Green Mile: Painful Season Ends for Walton

Bill Walton's Final Months as a Boston Celtic

5/8/87

The question was innocent enough. Kevin McHale was back, life was hunky dory and the Celtics were on the way to back-to-back championships.

That was two days ago.

How about today, K.C. Jones?

"Well," said the Celtics coach, "right now we have another problem."

The other problem was what every Boston fan feared, what all those lucky green shamrocks under pillows from Peabody to Provincetown were supposed to prevent.

Bill Walton is out again with an ankle injury.

5/10/87

If Greg Kite is to take up some of the slack with Walton sidelined, he'll have to shake off the rust. Since Walton's return April 15, Kite has played only five minutes in three appearances, while racking up five DNPs. Prior to Walton's reappearance, Kite had played in 44 of the previous 45 games. "Bill Walton has aggravated his foot (injury)," Jones said. "We aren't sure what the problem is. He'll have it looked at tomorrow and we'll determine it better."

Walton spent the better part of this season in street clothes because of an injury to his right foot that he aggravated while riding an exercise bicycle to keep in shape after he was sidelined with a broken pinky. When Walton finally returned, Jones said he would limit the veteran center's time to 15-20 minutes a game.

Walton had a big series against Chicago and was effective Tuesday night against Milwaukee, scoring 4 points, handing out 4 assists and pulling down 7 rebounds. He played 20 minutes. You had to look closely to realize that the Big Guy was troubled last night. He didn't crash to the floor, writhing in pain. He didn't grab his sneaker. He simply left the game and didn't come back. Walton, who brought such a psychological lift to the Celtics when he returned in time for the playoffs, has never been fond of talking about his injuries.

Last night, with both feet immersed in a bucket of ice, the big redhead tugged at his Grateful Dead t-shirt and fought back tears of frustration.

"I'm having trouble with it," he said softly in a voice barely audible.

He was asked how he injured it. The silence was painful.

"I don't know," he said, his head down toward the sea of ice that surrounded his feet. "It started bothering me in the first half . . ." He played 11 minutes last night, coming and going to the usual rousing applause, even though he yanked down just one rebound and missed his only field goal attempt. "He started limping in the first half," said Jones, "so I pulled him right out of there. Any more than that, I don't really know. Hopefully when the doctors examine him, that will explain something."

5/13/87

Well, that was nice while it lasted.

The Celtics had eight more games with Bill Walton and, not so coincidentally, there were eight consecutive victories. But everything is fuzzy once again, because yesterday morning at University Hospital Walton underwent a series of X-rays known as "tomograms," and the Celtics learned he has "an incomplete hairline fracture of the navicular bone of the right ankle."

5/21/87

"You get used to injuries and can accept them when you get smashed or someone falls on your leg and breaks it," Walton said in a telephone interview from Milwaukee. "But with stress fractures, you're just going along and everything is great and, all of a sudden, bang, it seems like nothing happened but you can't run any more.

5/30/87

Can Bill Walton play?

Will Bill Walton play?

If he's ever been needed as a Celtic, it's this next game. Robert Parish will be out there, but no one can predict how effective he will be with his sprained left ankle. "I'm all for giving it a try," says Dr. Thomas Silva. "But it's got to be a decision between player and coach, and we're talking about a very intelligent player who knows all about the nature of his injury. I don't think anyone can demand he go out and play."

For the record, Larry Bird respects Walton's right not to play. "Bill's got a broken foot, and it would be very difficult for him to play. He's played in pain for a long time, and he's given us everything he has," Bird contends. "He's looking down the road to his future. He wants to be able to walk. He's got kids, and if he wants to be able to go out and play with them, he can't jeopardize his future."

6/5/87

Lakers media guides were stacked, waiting, on the floor of the Forum. The Celtics arrived for practice yesterday and fanned to different corners of the arena to perform interviews. Bill Walton stopped where the media guides sat. He opened one to the biography of Kareem Abdul- Jabbar .

He shut the book when a reporter approached him. He did not want to talk. He told the reporter to talk with the "real players."

"You're a player," the reporter said.

"In roster only," Walton said.

"You played the other day when they needed you," the reporter said. "Aren't you selling yourself short?"

Walton did not respond. He was wearing a green Boston Celtics T-shirt and green shorts and socks with green trim and black Celtics shoes, but he was not planning to practice, not this time nor the next time.

He probably will not play more than a few short spurts in this championship series. He cannot run. He said he cannot even stand in the key spots underneath and take up space. "You have to be able to get there," he said. "Point A to Point B." It appears the job of stopping Abdul-Jabbar will fall upon injured Robert Parish and backup Greg Kite, if it comes to that.

6/10/87

"Do you wear the basketball clothes thinking that it might lead you along to playing again?" a reporter asked. "Like, if you wear street clothes, you definitely won't play -- but if you wear basketball clothes, you might?"

"I just feel comfortable in basketball gyms, in basketball clothes," Bill Walton said.

He was standing in the grandest gym planted into his most comfortable area in the world. Bill Walton grew up in La Mesa, outside of San Diego. He played perhaps the best college basketball ever, here, at UCLA. He had lived in southern California since becoming a free agent after five wonderful and traumatic NBA years in Portland, Ore., choosing to sign with the San Diego Clippers. But that was a long time ago.

Seven years later and he stood on friendly ground, in pain.

"I think I'll play again," Walton said. "I don't know when."

"Is it discomfort you feel when you're running?" he was asked.

"I feel discomfort standing here right now," he said.

Discomfort was a nice word. Here he was in southern California, lacking comfort. The term did not do the feeling justice.

Here on this floor hours earlier Abdul-Jabbar had practiced to beat the Celtics. What was Bill Walton practicing to do? He was dipping the toe into icy rushing waters. Bracing himself for more bad times.

He sat down.

"We're here with Bill Walton," a local TV announcer said, pointing with his microphone at the target. "Bill, you're home here. Any special feelings?"

"We're really excited to be here," Walton said, eyes squinting in the light. "We are where we belong, in the NBA Finals."

"What about you, personally? The injuries."

"No personal goals," Walton said. "Just win a championship, that's what we're here for."

But there were personal goals. Ignited, they exploded into team goals, championships. He was named Most Outstanding Player of two NCAA tournaments, and UCLA won both tournaments. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 1977 NBA playoffs, and Portland won the championship. He and his underdog Trail Blazers came into this building that year, them against the Lakers, he against Abdul- Jabbar. Portland won all four games.

Probably Bill Walton never played better than he did that week. He had followed Lew Alcindor to UCLA, then was drafted into a pro league dominated by him. Alcindor-then-Abdul-Jabbar was the test against which players were measured. Beat him and there was no one better. Collect the championship ring at the door as you exit.

Walton beat him once. The following year he suffered the first well- publicized stress fracture, 58 games into his season, and he has never been the same.

"I've had so many of them," Walton said. "I know what it is now. The first time I had a stress fracture, I didn't really know what was wrong. When I first started having them 12 or 13 years ago, they didn't know what they were."

Stress fractures have become commonplace injuries, at his expense. He has won two championships -- one in Portland, one when he somehow remained healthy to play in 96 games last year with the Celtics -- but he will be remembered for those he was unable to win. Stress fractures allowed him to play only 14 games in the four prime seasons of his career. The injuries have been his disease.

"What about next year?" he was asked.

"I think that's really premature to talk about right now," he said. "We have seven games to play right now. I've certainly done a lot of thinking about it. I'm going to concentrate on these seven games in this series and then go from there."

He remembered the pain going off again in his right foot, 13 games ago, against Milwaukee. "Starting the game, I felt fine," he said. "Then I couldn't run at all. I knew it was broken."

"You knew it was broken," a reporter said, "but you kept playing?"

"Yes," Walton said. "I played for a little bit longer. I played a little bit in the second half, but I couldn't really run."

The reporter was trying to ask why he had kept playing when he knew what was wrong -- when he saw the unchangeable replay of his career placed before him again -- but an elderly man approached Walton from across the floor.

They shook hands, a friendly face.

"I'm sorry," the man said sadly. "I remember sitting in a steam room with you, and you said you wanted more than anything else to play against Kareem in a championship game. I'm sorry."

The man walked away.

"Was that true, Bill?" the reporter asked.

Walton hunched, quiet, elbows on knees.

"Yeah," he said. "But that was a long time ago."

"But you did have your run against Kareem when you were with Portland," the reporter said.

"Yeah," Bill Walton said. "But that was a long time ago, too."

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