9.07.2016

As Usual, Grampa Celtic was Dialed In


October 1985

Bob Ryan

The Iceman cometh to New York, but the Pivotman cometh to Boston. And the folks paying the big money for Celtics' games this year never would trade Bill Walton for Jason Robards, not even if New York threw in Barnard Hughes.


Bill Walton has become a connotation. To some, the name connotes inactivity. In 11 injury-filled years since graduating from UCLA, Walton has performed in a mere 378 games, a total representing fewer than five full seasons.

To others, Walton connotes the questioning of basic American beliefs. In his time, Walton has taken part in campus demonstrations, befriended known political radicals (remember when the FBI believed that Walton was in touch with Patty Hearst?), worn his hair in a ponytail while on the playing floor -- horrors! -- and espoused vegetarianism.

But to many devoted basketball junkies, such as inhabit the no-longer-quite-so-cheap seats at Boston Garden, Bill Walton connotes nothing less than the very essence of basketball. Give many of these people first pick in the mythical winner-take-all game for the championship of the universe, and their selection at center would not be Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing or Manute Bol. It would be Bill Walton.

But how good a healthy Bill Walton would have been and how many championships he would have won remain matters for conjecture. What does matter is that he is now a Celtic. He has come to the parquet for one simple reason: to recapture The Feeling.

"I want to be in a position," he says, "where basketball means as much to everyone else as it does to me. It is a very pleasurable thing from an athlete's point of view to experience a following such as the Celtics have. From what I have seen so far, the atmosphere beats anything I've ever known at UCLA or Portland in terms of the dedication of the fans. It permeates the community. Everywhere you go, people are talking about the Celtics, and I love it."

Though Walton enjoyed a productive personal 1984-85 season while playing for the Los Angeles (nee San Diego) Clippers, he didn't have any fun. "We won 30 games," he reminds you. "That's great if you're in college. Terrible if you're in the NBA."

Walton will be 33 Nov. 5. He wants excitement. He has had enough of doing nothing (three years' worth). And he has had enough of insignificant games. The man hasn't participated in a regular-season game of any consequence -- let alone a playoff game -- since before Bucky Dent hit that home run (1978).

"I want big games," he asserts. "The bigger the better. I want that feeling in the locker room, when it's just those 12 guys getting ready to go out and play. There is a tremendous feeling of togetherness to go out and do the job. You make some of your best friends in those situations."

In one day, he knew he was in the right place. "I love the running philosophy," he explains. "The Celtics start right in emphasizing the fast break. Other teams begin thinking about conditioning only. Then they worry about set offenses. It takes them a while to get to the fast break. But the Celtics play the game the way I like to play."

Form is very important to Walton. He experienced legitimate basketball perfection in Portland, and he knows the satisfaction playing basketball the right way can bring. But there was no chicken-egg controversy with that Portland team of nearly a decade ago. The smart people knew the source of Portland's magic.

"I would pay to see Bill Walton," said Trail Blazer General Manager Stu Inman in David Halberstam's The Breaks Of The Game. Inman continued, "A great shot blocker, a great concept of the game, there was a rhythm to his game and it was always the right rhythm. Most of all, his effect on his teammates. As long as he was there they all knew they would be in every game and they controlled their own egos. With him they always knew they could do it as a team."

Inman was referring to a Walton who never played more than 65 games in a season for the Blazers, a Walton who in the eyes of many remains as famous for sitting as he is for playing. This magnificent player has been cursed by nature, having been plagued with unsound feet. Indeed, this summer the Lakers declared him unfit to play for them.

"I want to play 82 games," he insists, "and I think I have a much better chance this year than ever before. One, because I am just a heckuva lot smarter now. I know what I am physically able to do. Two, because Robert Parish and Kevin McHale are ahead of me and they will play a lot of minutes. K.C. (Jones) can hold my minutes to a reasonable number. I think I could even play 30 minutes in a game if I had to, but not every day. It's the day-in, day-out accumulation of minutes that leads to my injuries."

Given his precarious medical history, importing Bill Walton to any situation is a major risk. But if Jan Volk had passed up a chance to pair Walton and Larry Bird, the fans would have traded him for Jason Robards. A week of Walton is capable of producing a year of memories.

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