4.21.2016

Bill Walton Comes of Age



1977
Time


When Portland Trail Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay arrived to take over his duties last spring, he announced: "I'm a Bill Walton man." The declaration made him a minority of one in the Pacific Northwest.


For two Job-like seasons, Portland fans had waited in vain for Walton to become again the fierce-eyed force that once drove John Wooden's finest U.C.L.A. teams. They had waited for the 6-ft. 11-in. redhead to sweep the backboards of rebounds and to show them the best big-man's passing game in the history of the sport. But he burdened them with ramblings about FBI bugs in the woodwork. The Trail Blazers had counted on his size and strength to muscle them out of expansion-team doldrums and into the joyful world of N.B.A. contenders. Instead, they had to suffer with an injury-bedeviled vegetarian who contributed mightily to their abysmal won-lost record—the worst in the West last year—and apparently was too frail, physically and mentally, to play with the pros.

Profound Change. Now, at last, the patience of the long-suffering Portland fans has been rewarded. Led by a reborn Bill Walton, the Blazers this season finished second in the N.B.A.'s Pacific division and made a four-game sweep of the first-place Los Angeles Lakers in the play-off semifinals, earning the right to meet the favored Philadelphia 76ers for the championship in a best-of-seven series beginning this week. Portland's sound team play should match up well against the freewheeling superstar style of the Julius Erving­and George McGinnis-led 76ers.

Any doubts that Walton was back in form were dispelled during the Laker series, when he entered into and ultimately won a classic duel with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—a struggle of titans unparalleled in the N.B.A. since Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell met head on a decade ago. Abdul-Jabbar dominated most of the statistics, but Walton's inspired play at key moments left the Lakers and Abdul-Jabbar helpless.

Much of the credit for Walton's emergence as a basketball great goes to Ramsay, the lonely believer. He sold or traded away the malcontents who were wallowing in the disappointment and frustration of the past two seasons with the Blazers. In their place came players tailored to Big Bill's skills: quick, sure handed guards to snag his crisp outlet passes and start the fast break rolling, big, power forwards to take some of the pressure—and punishment—off Walton in the middle. The combination, tightly harnessed to set plays and team offense, has produced a balanced basketball machine that finished the regular season with an imposing 49-33 record.

But the most profound change has been in Walton himself. The counterculture ponytail is gone, sacrificed to the heat of arena lights and the sizzling sweat of the fast-break pace. Press conferences denouncing the FBI have given way to post-game interviews in the warm glow of a victorious team's dressing room. The strict vegetarian diet has been modified to include a Pacific salmon now and then. Walton has hardly become a conservative paragon of the Establishment; he still chomps bean sprouts and supports radical causes. But this year, for the first time in his N.B.A. career, he has been physically healthy.


Walton played in almost as many games this season (65) as he had played in the previous two combined. That his presence made the difference was dramatically demonstrated by Portland's performance when he did not play. Of those 17 Walton-less games, Portland won only five—a percentage barely above that of the hapless New York Nets. As the season wore on and Walton did not wear out, Portland was struck by an unfamiliar notion: the championship was within reach.
So unaccustomed was the town to the heady, rarified atmosphere created by a winning team that the city council had to pass an anti-scalping law last month, tacitly admitting that such legislation had never before been needed. Blazermania descended on the town. After Portland took the Lakers on their home court in Los Angeles, where they had been virtually unbeatable, radio dispatchers for the Portland police department cut through the static: "Information to all cars. The Trail Blazers just won, 99-97."

Rocker & Rock. Walton remains the calm at the center of the storm, living his life as he always has in his rented, five-bedroom communal home with Sports Radicals Jack and Micki Scott, his wife Susan, his l½year-old son Adam, his brother Andy and various drop-in friends. Says Walton: "I don't think I've changed. I still have the same values and interests." Rising by 10 a.m., he typically breakfasts on a quart of juice, a vegetable omelet and rice. On game days, he arrives at the Memorial Coliseum ahead of his teammates for treatment of his bum ankles, tender knees and other ailments, practices with the team, and then returns home to walk or play soccer in a neighborhood park. A nap follows, and then he sits in a rocker sandwiched between speakers blaring the hard rock music of the Grateful Dead, absorbing the music and psyching himself up. By game time, the burning look that intimidated opponents for four years at U.C.L.A. is back in his eyes. The towering center they called Mountain Man is ready for the climb to the top.

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