June 5, 1986
HOUSTON Boston had just polished off Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals, blistering the Hawks with a 36-6 third quarter, when the media horde formed a mini-cam chorus around Bill Walton's locker. "Do you ever feel sorry for the other guys?" someone asked, apparently expecting pity for the Hawks. "No," Walton said. "For the last seven years, I was the other guy."
Injuries cost Walton three entire seasons and most of a fourth. His knees still creak like a door in a haunted house. His nose has been broken 14 times. A jigsaw puzzle's worth of bone fragments and chips has been removed from his feet and ankles. His age, 33, represents the approximate number of times his body has failed him. Forced him to limp and ache and watch in exasperation as his career foundered. Forced him to be the other guy.
But Bill Walton is on the verge of deliverance. His career has been revived by the Boston Celtics, and he is one victory from his first NBA title since Portland defeated the 76ers back in 1977. Tuesday, in Game 4 of the championship series, Walton plucked a critical offensive rebound and scored the clinching basket in Boston's 106-103 victory over Houston. Game 5 will be played tonight at 9 (Channel 10).
"I'm pretty darned excited," Walton said. "We're getting really close to something we've worked really hard for all year. Something that has eluded me for nine really long years." At one time, long ago, championships came as easily for Walton as prizes in a box of Cracker Jack. Two national titles at UCLA. One in the NBA with Portland. Perhaps Walton was the greatest player ever to grace the college game. His 21-for-22 night against Memphis State in March 1973 remains the standard by which all Final Four performances are measured.
Then, in Portland, he was the mysterious Mountain Man. Shaggy beard. Vegetarian. Wild mane of red hair. Politically, he leaned to the far left. Far enough that the FBI monitored his house when Patty Hearst, as Tania, went underground with radical sympathizers of the Symbionese Liberation Army. But if Walton's politics were unorthodox, his basketball was buttoned-down conservative. Always pure and played right down the middle. His rebounding and defensive footwork and outlet passes came right out of a coaching manual. When Portland won the NBA title in 1977, Walton seemed indestructible and so did the Trail Blazers. They weren't.
Walton played 58 games in the 1977-78 season, then his feet went bad and he played only 14 games in the next four years. Walton became an itinerant. His career wandered up and down the West Coast like his favorite band, the Grateful Dead. Walton left Portland in 1979 and signed with the Clippers. First the San Diego Clippers. Then the Los Angeles Clippers. Never the winning Clippers. "This is the thrill of my lifetime," Walton said. "All the hard work to just get back. I've dreamed about this. It's what kept me going. That's what allows you to say, 'I'll have that operation. I'll spend the next six months in therapy.' You've got to have something to look forward to. This is it. If you don't believe your dreams will come true, it's time to get some new dreams."
His dream came true last summer, after Boston lost the championship series to the Lakers. Mitch Kupchak and Kurt Rambis had pushed the Celtics around, and coach K.C. Jones was looking for some muscle underneath. Walton was available, having failed a physical with the Lakers. The Celtics checked him out and his legs and feet appeared sound. It was a risk worth taking. On Sept. 6, Boston acquired Walton from the Clippers for Cedric Maxwell and a first-round draft pick.
"I initiated the trade talks with the Celtics," Walton said. "I was determined to get here. To play on a world championship team. It's great to be at a place where winning the championship is the only thing acceptable for a good season." At first, the Celtics weren't sure what to expect. "I was totally surprised by Bill's enthusiasm and intensity," Jones said. Walton paid starting center Robert Parish a visit and said he wasn't interested in taking Parish's job. During the regular season, Walton averaged 19.3 minutes and gave Parish some much-needed rest. Walton's legs remained fresh and springy as well, and Boston won 67 games - second most in the Celtics' history.
"That was the difference this year," Kevin McHale said. "Bill came in and made some big plays." "I had gotten my health back over the years and there were two keys to keeping it - playing under 20 minutes a game and my role on the team," Walton said. "They weren't counting on me to do everything. I was just part of the team." Walton's effervescence was infectious. He cheered and clapped on the bench like a high school freshman. He was fired up, and his enthusiasm fired his teammates up. After Walton's follow shot won Game 4 on Tuesday, the Celtics celebrated wildly with him in the locker room.
"I was happy for Bill," Larry Bird said. "He's worked awfully hard. People said he wasn't going to be healthy because he flunked the Lakers physical. He's like a time bomb. You don't know when it's going to go off. But until it does, he's been an awfully valuable player for us." He has also been the butt of countless jokes and pranks. Walton has taken so many jabs from McHale and Bird that he has become a human pincushion. They tease him about his industrial-strength intensity. "You don't want a championship," McHale tells him repeatedly. "You don't want it."
They tease him about his politics. "Where else could I play with a guy who knows people that died at Jonestown?" McHale asked. They tease him about his age. "Big deal," Bird told Walton earlier in the playoffs. "You say winning a championship means so much to you. Who did you play against? Tom Boerwinkle? Dennis Awtrey? I used to have to ask my momma if I could stay up and watch Bill Walton play basketball - on the black and white set." And mostly they tease him about his mile-long list of injuries. When Walton missed practice because of a strained knee during the Atlanta series, the Celtics held a mock ceremony to retire his jersey and wore "MIA" wristbands.
"Take a look at him," McHale said. "He wears knee pads that are two sizes too big. He tapes his whole body. He's sweating profusely long before the game starts. Is that a pretty sight? No wonder he's the pincushion of this team. Besides, he's a liberal Democrat." Yesterday, when Walton jokingly defended a reporter who had written about McHale's alleged carousing, McHale snapped, "You're just encouraging poor journalism. That's what got you linked with Patty Hearst."
Walton loves it. "It's just part of being on the team," he said. Just being part of the team in these finals has meant shooting 16 for 21 in four games and averaging 7.3 rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench. The larger question remains - what would Walton be averaging if he had avoided all those injuries, all those missed seasons? "Without a doubt, he'd be on the same level with the very few centers who are the best ever," Jones said. "He's a Hall of Famer already. He's on Russell's level, Wilt's level, Kareem's level."
The years and injuries have taken a severe toll on Walton. His mobility is restricted. He cannot pound up and down the floor for 30 minutes a night, much less 40 or 45. But every once in a while there is a glimmer of the past. A lefthanded hook pass in Game 3. A turnaround jumper, hands cocked over his head. A crisp outlet pass. The game-winning offensive rebound on Tuesday. And the enthusiasm. Always the enthusiasm.
"His rebounding and passing are still way up there," Celtics assistant coach Chris Ford said. "He still gets every rebound above the rim. His passing for a big man is outstanding. Those skills have not diminished whatsoever." Neither has his nine-year quest for another championship. His father, Ted, wears the championship ring from 1977. He wants the one from Boston, too. So does Walton's son.
"After all that's happened in my career, I've got a special appreciation for what's happening," Walton said. "But we've still got to win another game." After Game 4, someone asked Walton whether he could smell the championship. No, he said. "All I can smell is Kevin McHale."