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Throw it to Larry, and Everybody Else Get the Hell Out of the Way
HAS THERE ever been a more interesting basketball life than Bill Walton's?
Consider his experience in the past quarter-century. The most highly recruited high school player in the nation in 1970. Star player for a UCLA team that won a record 88 straight games and two NCAA championships. Reached his pro potential playing for the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, winning an NBA championship. Slowed by constant injuries for years until he was traded to Boston; served as a key reserve for the 1985-86 championship team, one of the greatest squads of all time. Moved on to a network television career after retirement.
That's quite an interesting resume, but that's not Walton's entire story. Everyone who has dealt with him always considered him exceptionally intelligent. He's walking (or, more to the point, limping) proof of the dangers of pain-killing drugs in athletics. He refused to be considered something of a "Great White Hope" for the sport when there was a perception by some less-than-enlightened observers that there were too many blacks in basketball in the 1970s.
One other thing. When Bill Walton was in one piece -- which wasn't often -- he was arguably the best all-around center in basketball history. Walton could shoot, rebound, pass, block shots and work within a team framework.
That's a good start to an excellent autobiography. Unfortunately, Walton's attempt at literary stardom leads to a book that's merely something of a pretty first quarter layup instead of a game-winning slam dunk -- a nice enough experience, but nothing you'll chatter about for hours on the way home.
Let's start with the positives. Walton has been involved with some of the game's top names over the years, and he has good stories to tell about them.
For example, Walton's college coach was John Wooden, who won a record 10 NCAA championships. Wooden already was a legend when Walton arrived at UCLA, and the coach is considered the classic country gentleman.
But every so often, that competitive spark would shine through. One time Wooden was finishing up a typical pre-game speech before a game with an outclassed opponent. But this time he had a different ending for Walton and the rest of his students.
"Men, the coach of the other team is bad for the game of basketball," Wooden said. "Your job is to beat them by so many points that they fire him. Tonight."
Then there's Larry Bird, probably the best forward ever to play basketball. He also led the NBA in self-confidence. One time Celtics coach K.C. Jones was trying to diagram a play in a key situation when Bird said, "Give me the ball and tell all the rest of the guys to get out of the way."
Jones reminded everyone who was in charge, plotted a couple of passes, and then concluded with, " . . . and you throw it to Larry, and everybody get the hell out of the way."
There are other stories about such people as Lenny Wilkins, Jack Ramsay, Red Auerbach and Kevin McHale. In addition, Walton has plenty of opinions about the state of the game today, his injuries, the Grateful Dead, etc. No, it wouldn't be a Bill Walton book without references to his favorite band. He has seen them perform more than 500 times, and met his future wife at a Dead concert.
So what's the problem with "Nothing But Net"? It accentuates the positive a bit too much. Most of the basketball recollections deal either with his time at UCLA or with the Celtics.
There isn't much material on his days with the Trail Blazers, which is surprising considering that the 1977 team that won the NBA championship may have been as perfectly balanced as any basketball squad in history. Perhaps that's due to the circumstances of his worst injury, when he took an injection of Xylocaine before a 1978 game with Portland and his foot essentially broke in half. He might not want to think much about those days. As for his years with the Clippers, well, they don't exist.
Some of the other personalities in Walton's life are overlooked as well. His teammates at UCLA are barely mentioned; you'd think he would have more to say about players such as Keith Wilkes, Marques Johnson, Henry Bibby and Richard Washington. It's surprising that Maurice Lucas, the power forward on the Portland title team who worked so well with Walton, doesn't receive more praise.
And there's virtually nothing about Walton's personal life. He writes a charming story about taking some of the dirt from Larry Bird's boyhood court in Indiana and sprinkling on his parents' court in California, so some of the magic will rub off on his four sons. That's about the only reference to his family, though, as apparently his first wife doesn't exist. Walton certainly has a right to privacy, but the omissions give the book an incomplete feeling.
What's left, then, is something of a long televised interview with Walton. The high points of his career are well-covered, and you can see he's a bright, interesting man. But you are left wanting more.
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