Boston, Mass. He walks out of the shower, bare feet slapping the floor of the Boston Celtics' locker room. The fastest path to his locker is blocked by people toting TV cameras, microphones and notepads so instead of an "excuse me" or "outta my way" he takes the long way around.
A dozen or more sets of eyes notice him - with wheat-colored hair topping off a 6-foot-11 body he's hard to miss - and shove their way through the roadblock to meet him at his locker. He arrives. Nobody speaks. He reaches into his locker and sticks his long arms into a Grateful Dead T-shirt. In his best of times, and his worst, Walton always seemed to be wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt. Without saying a syllable, he has told us some things have not changed. We know better.
He used to have a pony tail and a scruffy beard growing out of a head that housed some radical views. He once claimed teammates smelled because they ate meat. He once was a political activist and had the feds wondering if he knew Patty Hearst's whereabouts after she was kidnapped. He used to march in demonstrations.
Now, he is older, more mature. He often takes his children to team practices. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., where Harvard and liberals are located. He is not as radical as he used to be. He once was a center of attention. Now he is the Celtics' backup center and draws more attention for his past than present. "You seem to have mellowed," he was told a day after the Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets 112-100 in Game 1 of the NBA finals.
Walton, his body slumped on a stool in front of his locker, looked at the floor as he spoke. Was he looking for an answer? Was he looking back to a time when he offered answers to questions nobody asked? "It's the process of maturing, growing up and getting more experience with everything," he said. "Learning what it's all about. "I live in the present. My perspective is different. My life is different. The world is different. I'm different. The NBA is different. I'm just happy to be here and have this opportunity."
Walton repeated that final sentence, or one like it, often. When someone tried prying into his past he recited it. "I don't look back," he said. "I don't forget anything. I remember it all." He just does not share it with us anymore. Recap: Walton led UCLA to NCAA titles in 1972 and 1973. He carried the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA title in 1977. He was on top of the world. It changed in 1978. All of it.
In 1978, he had surgery on his right foot and broke his left foot in the playoffs. Also fractured was his belief in the Trail Blazers. He sued the team doctor over his injuries. Walton was sidelined. A long time. He was traded to the San Diego Clippers. He played in 14 games from 1978 to 1982. When he could play, it was once a week. "I went to law school," he said. "Doctors told me to stop playing and move to another career."
"What brought you back?" he was asked. "My foot got better," he said. He played in 33 games during the 1982-83 season, 55 in 1983-84 and 67 last season. In June, Walton called Red Auerbach and asked to have the Celtics trade for him. "I wanted to win the championship," Walton said. "I just wanted to be part of a great team and be part of a champion." Walton's role would be that of a backup to Robert Parish. This he knew and accepted. He played in 80 regular-season games, a career high. He won the NBA's Sixth Man Award, endearing himself to Boston Garden fans with his tenacity. He had 10 or more points 23 times, 10 or more rebounds 17 times.
"Bill comes in and gives us another starter out there," said Celtics coach K.C. Jones. "The big thing he has brought here is enthusiasm and intensity. He rebounds and passes. When Parish goes out, he knows he can get a long rest." In the Celtics' victory over the Rockets in Game 1 of the best-of-seven championships, Walton had 10 points (on 5-for-5 shooting) and eight rebounds in 18 minutes of play. He and Parish combined for 33 points and 12 rebounds, matching Akeem Olajuwon's totals for Houston. In Game 2, Walton logged 15 minutes and had two points and six rebounds before leaving the fourth quarter after being kneed in the thigh.
"It was a special feeling, very special," Walton said of his first appearance in the NBA finals in almost a decade. "It's where I wanted to be." Indeed it is. "The guy's obsessed," Bill Ruiz, a friend of Walton's, told the Boston Herald. "The other night the two of us are sitting in his living room watching a late movie. His wife and kids are asleep. The movie's going on and all of a sudden Bill jumps up and starts yelling, `We gotta win the championship, we gotta win the championship.' Then he just sat down and went back to watching the movie. I just sort of sat there. I knew he wasn't talking to me - and I certainly didn't want to say anything to him, not in his state of mind. I figured that after that little outburst, this was a very good time to leave Bill alone with his thoughts."
Parish: "Bill is such a competitor. I've never seen anyone who wants to win all 82 games as much as he does." He knows it`s impossible, but he still wants to do it." "That's the goal," said Walton. Because Walton backs him up, Parish claims he's "not tired, not beat up, not under a lot of pressure, not tense. All things that made me moody and standoffish." Walton is 33. How long can he keep it up? How many more NBA finals will he help the Celtics reach?
"I take it day by day," he said.